Essay

Open the gates wide

How immigrants strengthen the Canadian identity

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS April 29 2002
Essay

Open the gates wide

How immigrants strengthen the Canadian identity

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS April 29 2002

Open the gates wide

Essay

How immigrants strengthen the Canadian identity

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS

Immigration: its effect on our collective identity is one of the most compelling and often contentious issues facing Canada today. But so much of our thinking about the subject is framed by debate about its impact on the economy. As someone who spends his working life dealing with Canadian history—but who likes to look to the future as well—I'd like to make another point about the subject of new people coming to our shores: far from diluting Canadas identity, as some critics like to suggest, immigrants offer our best hope in for future of strengthening it.

The problem, before we even get to my thesis, is the degree to which all discussion about immigration seems to revolve around economic considerations. Consider the preliminary findings of the 2001 census, which showed that new immigrants were mostly responsible for the four-per-cent growth in the population of Canada since 1996. From Jean Chrétien on down, government officials recited the mantra that increased immigration is key to future economic development. This argument encourages us to see immigration primarily as an economic good. But when you start to talk about cultural consequences of immigration, politicians invari-

ably discuss official multiculturalism, a 30year-old policy that is increasingly unpopular with Canadians for its promotion of a hyphenated national identity.

Canadian attitudes towards immigration mirror and then diverge from the government line. A recent Léger Marketing survey indicates that three-quarters of Canadians think immigrants make an economic contribution to the country. But the same poll finds that half of Canadians feel we accept too many immigrants. Forty per cent think Canada is too open to political refugees. Alongside polite support for immigration, many of us wouldn’t mind a less competitive job market, or living in communities where people look like “us,” eat the same foods and speak the same language. The Léger poll suggests that our commitment to immigration is skin-deep—self-interest and economic preservation still trump social tolerance.

Those figures imply that anti-immigrant sentiment still runs high. One way to change that is to make the point that the closer you look, the more you realize that immigrants, despite their disparate cultural interests, strengthen our common values in very deliberate and specific ways. In fact, we should double immigration rates not for economic reasons, but

to ensure the preservation of a common set of Canadian values and way of life.

In five years of exhaustive polling by my organization—the Dominion Institute, a history advocacy organization—the data has consistently shown that immigrants know more about Canada and Canadian history than natural-born citizens. That applies not only to knowledge of Canada’s civic institutions and the way government functions, but also to such issues as Confederation and the patriation of the constitution. Some argue that this is mere trivia—the product of newcomers having to write a basic citizenship exam. But this kind of knowledge represents cultural capital that makes our society work: it allows us as citizens to talk intelligently together about the public good.

Immigrants bring unique experience of what it means to be Canadian. For most immigrants, coming to Canada is the result of a rational choice. It may sometimes be an ambiguous one, where memories of a lost homeland mix with the problems of integrating into a new society, but it’s still a conscious decision. Because they’re the emotional product of both their homeland and adopted country, they constantly question what it means to be Canadian.

By contrast, those of us born here often take Canada for granted. We assume that the country as we have known it in our lifetimes will continue: our contribution to that process is to vote and, perhaps, renew our passport every five years.

A healthy dose of self-examination is good for everyone. In the next decade, many of the traditional hallmarks of the Canadian identity—things like universal health care, an independent military, and border controls between our country and the United States—could be either abolished or radically reworked by the forces of continental integration. As these institutions diminish or disappear, we’ll have to rebuild our collective identity around a set of commonly held values that define what it means to be Canadian. While it’s hard to predict the composition of those new values, the self-examination that immigrants bring will be essential to figuring out who we are as a nation—and what we hope to accomplish together. EH

Rudyard Griffiths is executive director of the Dominion Institute, which marks its fifth anniversary this week.