You don’t have to be a fellow Canada lover to appreciate that nation’s tremendous success in creating a prosperous and democratic society that is nonetheless one of the most immigrant-friendly and multicultural in the world. As Toronto- based Al Jazeera columnist Murtaza Hussain notes in a recent piece, the country has excelled not only in integrating its foreign-born population, but also in promoting acceptance and even pride among all Canadians towards immigrants and their cultures:
In major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, roughly half the population consists of visible minorities, yet the type of social segregation and alienation prevalent in Europe is nonetheless conspicuously absent.
While immigrants tend to settle in the same neighbourhoods upon arrival, they also partake in Canadian society to a far greater degree than their European counterparts. Immigrants to Canada tend to achieve economic success, high levels of education, and social integration at a level unseen in European societies. Correspondingly, Canadians also tend to have a much more positive opinion of immigration than Europeans. In a 2006 poll asking what made them “proud to be Canadian”, multiculturalism ranked second place, behind only the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Furthermore, while immigration from Muslim-majority countries has become an increasingly contentious issue in many Western countries, the experience of Canadian Muslims defies many of the stereotypes promulgated about this community. In his book, Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism, the Canadian author Michael Adams conducted one of the broadest studies of the Canadian Muslim population ever, and found a community which strongly identified with the country and its institutions. To this end, a 2007 CBC News poll concluded that “Canadian Muslims appear to be the most contented, moderate and, well, Canadian, in the developed world.”
Thus, if multiculturalism has failed, one would be forgiven for being oblivious to this as a Canadian, where it is widely considered one of the nation’s most cherished attributes.
Indeed, Canada has long had the highest per-capita immigration rate in the world, a status that hasn’t changed despite the global recession and the coming to power of the Conservatives in 2006. Uniquely, multiculturalism pervades Canadians of almost every background and political persuasion, as demonstrated fairly recently:
This multicultural attitude recently appeared to come under siege when French-separatist politicians in Quebec – mimicking their ideology counterparts in Europe – caused a stir by introducing laws to ban hijabs and other religious attire in their province.
The feeling of dread amongst many immigrant Canadians – especially Muslims – that they were about to become the target of politically-charged xenophobia during an election season began to rise; but what was most telling was the reaction of the rest of Canada to these moves. Instead of winning support, the Parti Quebecois has come under fire while the rights of minorities have been overwhelmingly defended.
Politicians across the political spectrum spoke out to denounce the crude – and, significantly, un-Canadian – attitude taken in these proposed laws. Incredibly, newspaper ads were even taken out in other provinces welcoming Muslim women with the message: “We don’t care what’s on your head, we care what’s in it“. This is a sentiment which strikes to the core of what most people understand a multicultural Canada represents, and it is thus unsurprising to see why Muslim-Canadians identify so strongly with their country.
Indeed, both Canadian-born and foreign-born citizens shared similarly positive sentiments regarding immigration, integration, and cultural pluralism, as evidenced by a 2012 poll undertaken by five nation organizations. As CBC News reported:
When asked what makes a good citizen, the top five responses were: obeying laws, actively participating in the community, helping other people, being tolerant of others and sharing or adopting Canadian values.
But when asked to list what they did to be good citizens, respondents cited volunteer work, being kind/generous to others, paying taxes, obeying laws and voting.
The survey suggests Canadians have a broad, inclusive view of citizenship and see immigrants as their equals: nearly 9 out of every 10 respondents agreed that a person born outside Canada is just as likely to be a good citizen as someone born here.
“There’s no real evidence of people feeling threatened or a sense that, ‘Well, people can come live here from other countries, but they’re not quite the same,’” said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute.
When it comes to immigration and citizenship, the views of the majority of Canadians born in the country and the 20 per cent born outside it are largely aligned. Canadian-born and foreign-born respondents were equally likely to feel fully like citizens (78 percent versus 75 percent).”
So what accounts for this remarkably amiable relationship? Well, much of it seems to be the product of a positive feedback loop triggered by Canada’s own deliberate promotion of the benefits of immigration, which included the constitutional recognition of multiculturalism as an inherent Canadian values — an officiation that few other countries have done.
Usha George, dean of Ryerson University’s Faculty of Community Services, says the survey’s findings confirm a lot of what those working with new Canadians know already.
The willingness of Canadians to not view a person’s foreign background as an impediment to citizenship is a product of the country’s multicultural policies and the visible effect of immigrants on the economy, George said.
Integration of immigrants has worked in Canada because the government has funded programs that teach immigrants about Canadian values and society has adapted its institutions to accommodate diversity.
“The mutual recognition that we should be respectful to each other and celebrate diversity in a genuine way, those values permeate the whole society,” said George, whose faculty trains many of those who provide social and other services to new immigrants.
Whatever Canada is doing, it seems to be positively influencing immigrants’ views of the country, the survey suggests: 88 per cent of respondents who were born outside Canada said they were very proud to be Canadian, compared with 81 per cent of those born here.
Vikram Kewalramani immigrated to Canada from India in 2006 and is now a Canadian citizen living in Toronto. (Roma Andrusiak/CBC)
“Canadians who were not born in Canada are more proud than naturally born Canadians simply because we had the choice of being Canadian,” said Vikram Kewalramani, who immigrated to Canada in 2006 from India. “It wasn’t something that, literally, was a birthright. We consider it a privilege.”
For Amal Ibrahim, a Palestinian who became a citizen last year along with her two children, Canadian citizenship is primarily about respecting differences.
“It’s a great diverse culture where people learn how to live in harmony with each other while they have different ideas, different religions and different backgrounds,” she said.
As with most sociocultural developments, I imagine a big part of this sentiment also has to do with Canada’s historical and geographical character: the immense country — the second largest in the world — has always been sparsely populated, relying on a hodgepodge of different groups to settle its vulnerable and difficult frontier against the much larger neighbor to the south. This is most exemplified by the centuries of cohabitation and compromise between the distinct English and French communities, which precipitated a tradition of mutual acceptance, cultural tolerance, and cooperation (however begrudging).
As a “new” country composed of disparate settler groups, Canada also had less cultural and traditional baggage than the longer-established nations of Europe (and to a degree the United States), and thus was formed through the various waves of different immigrants that have come through during its brief history. Canadian readers can feel free to enlighten me, as my time is too short to explore the topic further.
In any case, the combination of practical and idealistic views towards immigration have created a surprising amount of consensus and cohesion among this diverse nation, one that is based largely on mutually-beneficial sociopolitical values:
Tolerance of others who are different was among the top five behaviours survey respondents considered a “very important” part of being a good citizen. Others were:
- Treating men and women equally (95 per cent ranked this ”very important”).
- Following Canada’s laws (89 per cent).
- Voting in elections (82 per cent – the same as tolerance of others).
- Protecting the environment (80 per cent).
Immigrants’ views of what makes a good citizen were strikingly similar to those of native-born Canadians, said Neuman. In the majority of cases, the responses of the two groups varied at most by only a few percentage points.
“People might think … that newcomers are coming [into] this country … with their own sense of what it means to be a citizen, and they don’t really buy into the same perspective that native-born Canadians have,” he said.
“And this research pretty clearly suggests that they’re largely the same perspective, and the more somebody is in this country, the more immigrants buy into the native-born view.”
Thus, as Canadians accept and accommodate their immigrants, so too do those immigrants “return the favor”, so to speak, by being productive, law abiding, and dedicated citizens. Hussain wraps up his article with a seemingly simple formula for how it all works:
Herein lies the great success of Canadian multiculturalism; a society which integrates newcomers not by force but through generosity, benevolence, and sincerity to its values and principles. Given such a national character it is unsurprising why Canadian immigrants of all backgrounds tend to become “Canadian” so enthusiastically -i and it is for this reason that Canada has become an exemplar of social cohesion in an increasingly globalised world.
I would love to see how this compares to Canada’s southern neighbor. The US tends to be very accommodating of a variety of immigrants as well, albeit with a much greater emphasis on assimilation and a much stronger undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment. I imagine we’re somewhere between Canada and Europe in this regard, but that’s a topic for another day perhaps.
Of course, I have no delusions about Canadian society being some multicultural paradise on Earth; obviously, racism and discrimination still exist, as do issues of integration. But by global standards, Canada has come much farther than most nations, and could probably serve as a vital example of how to create a diverse nation that is nonetheless fairly cohesive, stable, and prosperous.
As always, I welcome all readers — especially Canadians — to weigh in. I wrote all this quite quickly, so forgive me if I missed anything.