SPECIAL REPORT

The National Dream

The major parties are resisting any pressure to curb immigration

RAE CORELLI October 11 1993
SPECIAL REPORT

The National Dream

The major parties are resisting any pressure to curb immigration

RAE CORELLI October 11 1993

The National Dream

SPECIAL REPORT

The major parties are resisting any pressure to curb immigration

RAE CORELLI

The French came first, followed shortly by the English. Quite a bit later, in the mid-19th century, the Irish fled from a potato famine, Russian

and Polish Jews escaped from pogroms and Ukrainians also fled from famine. Then came Italians, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, Estonians, Hungarians, Latvians, more Russians and Poles, and Greeks, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese and on and on—whites, blacks and browns. All, or most, became Canadians. And last year, substantial numbers of immigrants, and the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants, began telling pollsters, as the recession dragged on, that Ottawa should cut back on immigration, keep out people who were different from Canadians.

If that was a message for the country’s major political parties, it appears to have been shredded or returned unopened. For in the fourth week of the campaign for the Oct. 25 federal election, Liberals, Tories and New Democrats have all, with varying enthusiasm, agreed that continuing to import people is a good idea. Only Preston Manning’s Reform party proposes to tie immigration to the needs of the labor force, which would likely reduce it to between 100,000 and 150,000 a year from the Tory objective of 250,000. And while some irate citizens demand, in letters to newspapers and magazines and calls to radio phone-in shows, that Ottawa raise the drawbridge, thousands of foreign-bom Canadians across the country are too busy to notice. They are either running for

office or trying to help candidates get elected. “It’s an uphill battle,” admitted Ted Sandhu, the Indianborn Tory candidate in the B.C. riding of Prince George/Peace River. “In my home town of Dawson Creek, it’s not a problem. But where I’m not known, they don’t tell me right to my face, but there are some people who feel I don’t have the right background.”

For the 6.7 million migrants who settled in Canada after the Second World War, uphill battles were a common experience. They shared a capacity for hard, often back-breaking work, and in addition to that—whether Filipino, Romanian or Nigerian—a passion for politics, suppressed for decades by colonialism, poverty, dictatorship or war. That passion has been evident in

successive federal elections. In 1970, there were four foreign-bom non-Anglo-Saxon members of Parliament. In the last Commons, there were 17.

How many there will be in the next Parliament is anyone’s guess—the three main parties will not say how many foreign-born candidates they have. “I have a theory about how immigrants get involved in politics,” says historian Desmond Morton, principal of the University of Toronto’s Erindale College. “For a start, their agenda is not that of the nativeborn and that was true when the native-born were brown people who lived in the woods and the white people had come from France and England. Immigrants don’t know very much about what is going on, but they have to survive in a new and alien environment and they will do so in any way they can.”

Survival was uppermost in the mind of Franz Oberle, a 19-year-old German, when he marched down the gangway of the Cunard liner Vulcania in Halifax on Oct. 15, 1951. He worked for a few months in a bakery, then headed for British Columbia, where he spent two years as a logger in the Queen Charlotte Islands and

five more as a gold miner in the B.C. Interior. Then, he moved north to Chetwynd where he opened two service stations, a car dealership and a lumber business. This year, Frank Oberle, as he is know known, retired after 21 years in the House of Commons and eight as a cabinet minister. His childhood in wartime Germany, he says, scarred his soul. “You can’t totally ignore what you’ve expe-

rienced and therefore you become terribly frustrated when you see us making the same mistakes that resulted in such hardship in the place you came from. So you obviously become interested in politics. Your economic prospects depend on politics. People from other parts of the world recognize this, which is why they are much more involved in politics than Canadians are.”

Sandhu was 24 years old when he left his village near Bhagwara in India’s Punjab province, in 1970. He flew to Vancouver and soon after went to work in a sawmill in northern British Columbia. Then he got a job in a hardware store and, because nobody seemed able to pronounce his first name, Tirath, he changed it to Ted. Finally, in 1976, he opened a furniture store in Dawson Creek and now has 14 of them, 12 in British Columbia, one in Yellowknife and another in northern Alberta. At the moment, Ted Sandhu is trying to keep Frank Oberle’s Prince George/Peace River riding for the Tories. “One thing you notice is that people complain a lot, but they will not participate and that’s what I have found among other Canadians,” he says. “Immigrants who have come from other parts of the world have seen the turmoil. Any country becomes what its leaders are and, if you don’t have the right leaders, you get into a mess. That may be why we get more excited about it. Mainstream Canadians don’t even know what they have. What I say is, you don’t think this is a great country, you can try India.”

Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, who was bom in Manila in 1935, began his studies at the University of the Philippines and continued them at St. Louis Children’s Hospital-Washington University Medical Centre in Missouri. Now, he is a University of Manitoba professor of pediatrics and a Liberal MP for Winnipeg North. “I went into politics to offer myself, in a very real sense, to repay

my adopted country,” he says simply. “I had always said that a new citizen should always participate in affairs of government. Once immigrants get involved in the political process, they become very, very involved. We must earn the blessings and trust of the people.”

Giuseppe Franco Fontana does not remember much about the village near Cosenza in southern Italy’s Calabria region, nor about his family’s arrival in Canada in 1954—he was only four years old. But in the Tory-British culture of London, Ont., he soon became Joseph Frank Fontana and grew up to become a successful businessman. When he first contemplated running for city council, he recalls: “I can remember somebody telling me, ‘Frank, you got three strikes against you: one, you’ve got an Italian name; two, you’ve got a moustache; and three, you’re short.’ ” Name, moustache and height intact, he is now the Liberal MP for London East. “I didn’t run because I was Italian or wanted to represent an Italian view— whatever that is. I got involved because I cared. But, sure, it was tough because you have to prove yourself and you have to work a little harder.”

The notion of bearing a political responsibility is common among immigrant politicians, backroom workers, lobbyists and campaign canvassers. “I know it sounds corny,” says Oberle, “but both my wife and I felt that we probably would not live long enough to repay the debt that we owe to this country, and we always felt we should put as much as possible back as we have received.” In that process,

says Morton, the country has benefited as well. “Our immigration policy has worked,” concludes the historian, “because we are more prosperous, diverse, interesting and culturally alive than we were.”

With SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER