Canada has an unprecedented track record around the world for its successful integration of immigrants, says expert

Globe and Mail
May 25, 2009

Marina Jiménez

With Tamil-Canadian protesters clogging the country’s streets, and recently published research showing that many children of immigrants don’t feel a sense of belonging, you could forgive critics of multiculturalism for questioning the model.

But according to a leading expert, Canada has an unprecedented track record around the world for its successful integration of immigrants.

Unlike in many European countries, almost all of Canada’s immigrants become citizens, says William Kymlicka, the Canada Research Chair in political philosophy at Queen’s University. And their children outperform offspring of non-immigrant families when it comes to education – something that doesn’t happen in any other Western democracy, he adds.

To be sure, there are problems. Highly skilled newcomers have trouble finding employment – a trend that experts predict the current recession will likely exacerbate. But that has nothing to do with multiculturalism, Prof. Kymlicka says.

He talked to The Globe and Mail about the issue.

What does the recent spate of protests by Tamil-Canadians in Toronto, and the attitude of other Canadians toward the disruptions, say about the success of Canada’s integration model?

I think the Tamil case was exceptional.

[It’s] not an indicator of any general breakdown in the way the concerns of ethnic groups are entering the political process. Canadians generally understand and accept that immigrants have strong concerns about events in their homeland, and will mobilize in times of crisis, and normally politicians would find a way to create channels of communication.

But in this case, politicians were terrified of being caught in a photo where someone was waving the Tamil Tiger flag, and hence being labelled soft on terrorism, so they stayed away from the initial peaceful demonstrations. It therefore took dramatic action by the Tamils to get any attention from the politicians.

Recent research on social cohesion by Toronto academics Jeffrey Reitz and Rupa Banerjee shows that children of visible-minority immigrants feel less of a sense of belonging than offspring of white immigrants. Does this concern you?

The findings about feelings of belonging in Canada are indeed worrisome. But it’s not necessarily evidence of deep alienation or ethnic polarization. If we look instead at questions about feelings of pride in Canada, we find a different story. Visible minorities, including the second generation, express very high levels of pride in Canada, on par with white Canadians.

What is working about multiculturalism?

We need to distinguish economic, political and social integration. We are doing very badly on economic integration.

It is taking much longer for immigrants to catch up to native-born Canadians in earnings and longer for them to get out of poverty. One reason is that all people entering the labour market today are doing much worse than they were 20 years ago. Entry-level wages dropped in the early 1980s and never recovered.

The second reason is immigrants get virtually no credit for any experience they’ve had working outside Canada. And that wasn’t true 30 to 40 years ago. These are disturbing trends, but have little to do with multiculturalism, which is focused on political and social integration.

Canada does well in terms of political integration of newcomers. Immigrants don’t just get passports: We have made it easy for them to participate politically. Political parties reach out to them. Socially, Canadians feel comfortable having immigrants as neighbours and co-workers, and with intermarriage. There are anxieties and misunderstandings, but not the kind that give rise to the far-right, anti-immigrants parties or to skinhead attacks. The anxieties co-exist with high levels of support for immigration and low levels of prejudice. Muslims feel more welcome in Canada than elsewhere, for example.

What problems do you foresee with Canada’s immigration model?

If the economic trends continue, it will put enormous stress on Canada’s model. If increasing numbers of highly skilled immigrants feel they made a mistake to come here because they cannot get work, we may see higher levels of resentment in first-generation and second-generation immigrants.

The other thing that concerns me is the impact of larger geopolitical issues that could derail our model. If Canadians see pictures on TV of groups in other parts of the world saying they want to blow up Canadians, or if we get dragged into a situation of the war of the West against the rest, it will have reverberations here. When people have deep existential concerns and feel life and liberty are under attack, it’s hard to know what would happen.

Are Canada’s ethnic enclaves cause for concern?

Patterns of residential concentration aren’t particularly different today than they were for earlier waves of immigrants. It’s only natural that immigrants want to live with other people like them, whether Italians 50 years ago or Pakistanis today. But these neighbourhoods aren’t ghettos: They don’t lock people into poverty or social isolation, unlike the banlieues in Paris. There is no reason to be worried about ethnic concentration per se.

What about the diversity within diversity? Some groups, such as Chinese and South Asian, do very well over time while other groups, including those from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, don’t experience social mobility.

In the 1980s and 1990s, we lumped together all non-European groups. The employment-equity program uses the category of visible minority as a target, based on the assumption that all people of non-European descent are subject to the same kind of discrimination. Yet that isn’t the case and never was.

There may be some groups much more in need of benefits of employment equity than others. It would be perverse if banks met employment-equity targets by hiring Hong Kong Chinese-Canadians, but didn’t hire any blacks. We need to make sure our policies help those most in need.

Final word?

We shouldn’t look at the Canadian experience through the lens of the European backlash against multiculturalism. We don’t have the same kind of underclass as Europe. We are not sleepwalking towards segregation, as some critics predict.

Prof. Kymlicka will deliver the keynote lecture this week at Ottawa’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a festival expected to attract 8,000 academics from more than 75 scholarly associations.

Reference: Globe and Mail