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Immigration and Identity

Fears about immigration have shaken Europe to its core. Has anywhere got it right?

This piece was originally titled “Immigration and Citizenship: Comparing policies in Canada, Germany and Europe”, and first appeared in Der Spiegel as “Lasst sie in die Zukunft schauen.” The English translation was first posted on iai news here.

John Ralston Saul

It is mesmerizing to watch as the cancer of fear worms its way back into the human soul or imagination or wherever it lodges itself. For most of us the first reaction to such widespread fear is disbelief. The second? As it spreads and morphes into populism, racism and exclusion, we are often paralyzed, unable to imagine how to fight back. Mr. Trump has, in a tortured way, done Americans – perhaps all of us – a favour with the extremism of his first week in office. His racist, certainly illegal and probably unconstitutional orders are an abrupt wake-up call.

More than that, they are a warning to Washington’s traditional allies to take care. Is this man a stable, trustworthy partner? It took him only a few hours to damage Theresa May’s reputation. Canada is the United States’ closest ally – a 6000 kilometre border – and biggest trading partner. But Justin Trudeau is keeping his head down, using officials to negotiate arrangements behind the scenes. His reaction to Trump’s anti-Muslim orders has been to purposely reiterate Canada’s pro-immigration policy, without mentioning the United States or its president.

No one should be surprised that the growth in immigrants, refugees and migrants has been central to the releasing of such fear in Western society. This is an old tradition. Fear of the other. Promotion of fear of the other for political purposes. We are all affected when racist discourse is normalized. The attack on the Quebec City mosque is a tragic example of this. But the virtually unanimous reaction has been to reassert as strongly as possible the Canadian reality of and commitment to diversity and inclusive citizenship.

In such an atmosphere some people in Europe look at Canada and wonder why it is not suffering from the same agonies. At this point it is the only Western democracy not deeply divided on the issue of refugees and immigration in fact, the only country where the political class is largely and openly pro-immigration. This puts the country out on a cutting edge or a precipice. An exposed position.

Any sort of comparison of countries is problematic. In this case it risks missing how much good is being done in Europe. The million refugees taken by Germany – now on the road to becoming immigrants and citizens, not migrants – will stay in history as a great ethical gesture. Many Germans are working at the grassroots level to help the Syrians settle in. The people of the Greek islands and the Italian navy will be remembered as great humanists.

As for comparisons between Canada and Europe, this usually produces counter arguments from countries caught up in today’s refugee crisis – Canada is such a big country (space for people) with a small population (space for more people) and a new country (no culture at risk) far away from the crisis (can choose who to take). All of this is nonsense. Almost all refugees/immigrants go to five dense, southern, urban centres, as in Europe. Few head for the tundra! Canada is not new. It is the oldest continuous democratic federation in the world and the second or the third oldest continuous democracy, born in the democratic spring of 1848. Almost miraculously and virtually alone among the new democracies of 1848, its parliamentary leadership managed to survive the attempted counter coups. And in the last 168 years it has managed to avoid the coups, civil wars and dictatorships so common throughout the West.

What about the theoretical luxury of choice? Over the last eight months Canada has taken 40,000 Syrians with 20,000 more on the way – very little in comparison to Germany, but a lot compared to France or Spain or the United States. The central point is that Canada also takes an average of some 300,000 immigrants/refugees every year – year after year, decade after decade. In other words, it takes about one million immigrant/refugees every three years. This means .7% to 1% of its population every year. The German one million represents 1.2% of its population. And while Canada’s immigration policy means the newcomers are chosen, choice does not necessarily mean what you think. It means that there is an immigration policy and with it comes a process.

In the case of the 60,000 Syrians, the choice is families, mainly from camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, less educated than those risking their lives in boats to Europe. Why? Jordan and Lebanon are being destabilized by the size of their refugee population. And then there are the children caught without education in the purgatory of those camps.

This gets to the heart of the comparison. There is a dangerous, sometimes poisonous atmosphere in Europe, the United States and Australia. Yet thousands of citizens and some governments in those countries are creating wonderful local programs; teachers and schools are creating student support systems; neighbourhoods are doing the same; business associations are looking for ways to hire refugees. Why doesn’t this reality dominate the public sphere?

For a start, there is no serious immigration policy in any European country. This is astonishing as most European states have been active immigration countries for the last 70 years. Germany began with the refugees of German origin. Then guest workers from Turkey and other places. Balkan refugees. Turkish refugees. Refugees from everywhere. Students from around the world who came and stayed. Family reunification. And on and on. Some of it happened for ethical reasons, some was crude exploitation. But it was all done without long term purpose or policy or even methodology. Without a policy or the mechanisms that come with policy. And that lies at the heart of today’s crisis. As does the absence from every European country of a proper ministry of immigration and citizenship.

You cannot stumble on, decade after decade, doing the right thing or the wrong thing as if by accident. Unconsciously! It causes people to forget that the problem is not the proximity of those who live around the Mediterranean, but the absence of a reasonable alternative. For a start there is the absence of a dignified, intentional, integrated system for dealing with immigration and for welcoming those in trouble or helping them in some other way. People don’t want to leave their homes for Germany or Canada. And they certainly don’t want to risk their lives and those of their children on the open seas. An intentional immigration and citizenship policy doesn’t solve all problems, but it solves many. And it changes the atmosphere on all sides.

The Canadian experience has been based for centuries on the development of precisely such a conscious and intentional immigration policy. This has always involved both government and citizen support for the newcomers. Periodically the mechanisms and the policies change, for better or for worse. Terrible mistakes have been made, including racist exclusion or simple exploitation. The key has been to recognize this and to change. But overall, a consciousness of how to be inclusive and how to blend immigration with citizenship has grown into a central part of the civilization.

This is not a reactive process. It has deep roots, from which European newcomers have benefited, but which are not inspired by European ideas or traditions. This began almost a half millennium ago, very close to the time of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the chapel door. It began with the formal welcome offered to Europeans by the different Indigenous peoples of the northern half of North America. Theirs was a policy of inclusion based neither on race nor religion; nor indeed on the rather simplistic or exclusive European idea of property ownership. Instead it was based on family, community and the responsibility of people within the geography. If newcomers were not seen as enemies, they were brought into the circle of the civilization.

This very different way of welcoming newcomers into the existing communities and offering to share went on for some 250 years. This is often called enlarging the circle. It was gradually absorbed and became an unconscious part of the Canadian method, even if mid-19th Century immigrants, particularly from Britain, betrayed these agreements, approaches and treaties as they attempted to enforce the triumphant ideas of the European empires. On the other hand, this last half century has seen a return of Indigenous influence and with it a conscious sense of the influence of their ideas on Canadian immigration policies. And in part these Indigenous roots explain current policies. Talking before a government commission in the 1970s, Grand Chief John Kelly put it this way – “As the years go by, the circle of the Ojibway gets bigger and bigger. Canadians of all colours and religions are entering the circle. You might feel that you have roots somewhere else, but in reality, you are right here with us.” The outcome has been a conscious sense of how people can and will be truly welcomed on a regular and ongoing basis. As for the European or Westphalian idea of the monolithic nation-state, it played little role in all of this.

In 1848 the first Canadian democratic parliament with full powers chose as its first law the elaboration of an immigration policy aimed at protecting the rights of the newcomers. In 1905, a particularly influential prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, laid out the intellectual idea of immigration, belonging and citizenship; He spoke on the prairies, in Edmonton, before an audience of thousands, ranging from the old elites to the newcomers.

“We must also have the cooperation of the new citizens who came from all parts of the world, to give Canada the benefits of their individuality, their energy and their enterprise. Canada is in one respect like the Kingdom of Heaven, those who come at the eleventh hour will receive the same treatment as those who have been in the field for a long time. We want to share with them our lands, our laws, our civilization. Let them take their share in the life of this country, whether it be municipal, provincial or national. Let them be electors as well as citizens. We do not want nor wish that any individual should forget the land of his origin. Let them look to the past, but let them still more look to the future. Let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children. Let them become Canadians and give their heart, their song, their energy and all their power to Canada.”

There is an element here of old fashioned rhetoric. But at a deeper level Laurier is reinventing the idea of belonging – it is neither racial nor monolithic; there is no simplistic metaphysical miracle in which newcomers are transformed from one thing to another; thrown into a melting pot, to use the American formula. Instead he is describing the complexity – the difficulty – of human change in a manner which echoes that of great Indigenous leaders. Newcomers bring qualities of their own, which risk being lost in a forced assimilation. People are capable of multiple personalities which gradually create new shapes of belonging, creativity and energy.

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“The overarching theory is one of control and fear, not citizenship and inclusion”
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This is the exact opposite of the European idea of how multiculturalism works. It isn’t about abandoning newcomers to a separate life, let alone a ghetto. Nor about different communities living separately, side by side, as opposed to being assimilated, as if these were the only two choices. It is about recognizing a process of complexity; a reality of positive and creative tensions.

At the heart of it lies the celebration of citizenship. An immigrant/refugee is expected to become a citizen as fast as possible in order to take up the responsibilities of helping to make the society work, and therefore the state. We don’t want people hanging around for financial or other reasons without sharing in the burdens of guiding society. They know this, so newcomers begin adjusting the moment they arrive, conscious that they will be sworn in as citizens within four to five years at a large public ceremony. Most of them immediately begin trying to act as citizens. Think of immigration as the first step in a very personal, long term relationship. It is like getting engaged. Think of the citizenship ceremony as a grand celebration of marriage. And marriages, as we know, are incredibly complicated. They are meant to go on forever. They include family and friends, people we like and don’t like; troublemakers, people who need help, adorable or troublesome children.

Germany has begun to introduce Citizenship ceremonies as a non-obligatory gesture. And it is very moving that many of these are held in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, where the 1848 Parliament met. But this idea of a voluntary party misses the point.

Immigrant/refugees have made a momentous decision to change from one country to another, a dramatic conscious choice, requiring serious levels of courage. That decision is dramatic in the best of circumstances. Imagine deciding to risk your life for that change. In that very act you find three characteristics of a good citizen: the need to be highly conscious, to be capable of difficult choices, to be courageous. These are characteristics which those of us born in our countries rarely have to demonstrate.

Not surprisingly, new citizens want a very public celebration of their new legal status, their commitment, their new responsibilities and power. And those who welcome them – the Germans or the Canadians – should want the same. In fact the families, friends and colleagues of the new citizens will be part of this public ceremony. Those born into German or Canadian citizenship also need somehow to be included. After all, few of us have ever had to consciously consider our own commitment. And becoming a citizen – citizenship itself – even if you come from a family established for centuries, is an individual and personal commitment.

Why do I focus on mere ceremonies? Because they are intimately tied to how established citizens view newcomers, to whether those in place can see immigrants as individuals, not as racial or cultural types or members of interest groups or religious cyphers. For example, the assertion that Muslims cannot fit into a Western society is an abstraction. This is the way Christians used to talk of Jews. But it is also the way Catholics and Protestants talked about each other right back to the wars of religion. This sort of language is almost identical across the centuries. And it is, as it has always been, nonsense.

Breaking up these old habits of reactive language and reactive thought patterns requires a rigorous focus on individuals as humans who have multiple identities, as each of us do.

And all of this is related to a great failure throughout Europe – a failure both conceptual and organizational. It is not simply that there is no real immigration policy in all of these countries of immigration. It is, on top of that, the absence of proper senior government departments of citizenship and immigration. Instead, the whole area falls under the ministries of the interior. This means that citizenship and immigration come under a mindset dominated by security and indeed by the police. Over the last fifteen years this has been particularly disastrous. Of course there are subsections devoted to immigration or refugees. And good people work on these files. But the overarching theory or principle is one of control and indeed of fear, not of citizenship and inclusion. This is a fundamental mistake. It colours everything that is happening today. It also interferes with a healthy, practical, fair and humanist approach towards how you might choose new immigrants and process refugees.

What does this mean in practical terms? If you go into a Canadian embassy in Cairo or Beirut or Delhi you will find that half the diplomats are in reality from the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. They are experienced specialists administering a complex process. There are hundreds of thousands of people on a permanent rolling list of applicants for immigration. Around 250,000 to 300,000 will be accepted each year. Their place on the list will be quickly replaced by new applicants.

This is a reasonably transparent and dignified process. Applicants feel they are being treated seriously and have a good chance of being accepted over a period of several years. And, if accepted, the primary implication is a profound change centred on citizenship, inclusion, participation and their personal responsibility in their new country.

This in turn de-dramatizes the inevitable refugee crises. Those who are not in immediate danger or desperate need will be more likely to engage in the slower but dignified immigration system rather than risk their lives – their children’s lives – with smugglers and dangerous boats. They will try to get to a German embassy where they can talk to specialists whose job it is to advise them.

Instead, today, in that embassy they would find a few visa officers, neither trained nor authorized to engage in such a conversation. The point is that Germany has probably taken in as many de facto immigrants over the decades as Canada, but does so without a policy or an overarching system.

When Canada decided in early December last year to take a first wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees, the government immediately flew a team of almost 600 immigration specialists to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This included settlement officers, medical specialists, security teams, education experts, etc. Within two weeks families were being processed and flown out on chartered airplanes. On arrival they stepped off the plane directly into a room where they were registered as official refugees. In other words, the first act of the Canadian state was to put them on the countdown to citizenship. They were then registered for the healthcare system in a second room and in a third received social security and work papers.

“We cannot stumble on, decade after decade, doing the right thing or the wrong thing as if by accident”

Within an hour about half were transferred into the hands of the families sponsoring them. And that is the third essential element in the Canadian system. First, you need an immigration policy – something clear and overarching which present and future citizens can understand, influence and buy into. That policy in turn requires a powerful government department made up of experts and settlement policies which will help newcomers organize themselves.

But the third step is just as important. The system cannot work without the personal engagement of existing citizens. And that includes the functioning elites of both the public and private sectors. The Canadian immigration policy would fall apart without the commitment of volunteers. Refugees and immigrants are joining a society, not a government. They will go to schools, hospitals and jobs with their future fellow citizens. Public policy and specialist administrators are essential, but they cannot take newcomers into a civilization. Only a citizen can do that.

Both Germany and Canada have large volunteer sectors. This is an old Canadian tradition – 45% of the population – and part of it has always been linked to immigration. In many provinces students cannot graduate from secondary school without serious hours of volunteer work. With students this is a popular obligation, unlike math. And newcomer students are immediately thrown into this volunteer culture.

The idea of citizens sponsoring immigrants and refugees has been around since the 18th Century. It was very important from the late 19th Century on and often based on extended families or ethnic communities. That, of course continues. But the current formalized sponsorship system was invented for the Vietnamese boat people. In all some 180,000 have come to Canada, but in the late 1970s citizen groups felt the government wasn’t going fast enough. So they proposed a financial and family support system which brought in 70,000.

Today this sponsorship usually involves a group of friends or families or religious groups, often interdenominational. They put together enough money to fund a refugee family’s first year, covering rent, furniture and so on. But the money is the easy part. More important, the sponsors become like godparents or an extended family. They explain, guide, lead the way for the refugees into the local education system, healthcare network, job market, sports systems, whatever is helpful to ease the way. Quite often they become friends for life. Every study shows that sponsored families adapt and get ahead much faster than those simply reliant on government programs.

And it cannot be said loud enough: this is not charity. This is engaged citizenship. Empathy. Those who volunteer get as much out of the experience as the newcomers. It is part of a new national and local conversation. Corporations are increasingly building volunteerism into the workday so that employees work together on issues like immigration. That workforce will include immigrants, and, of course, new citizens. Large corporations have increasingly complex diversity policies at all levels to ensure that newcomers are not structurally marginalized.

One of the most popular initiatives is Pathways to Education. Across the country, senior lawyers, doctors, business people, artists, senior civil servants, union leaders, are organized to tutor immigrant kids. They do this in large rooms so that it is like joining a club. The educational results are spectacular, with university entrance levels above the national average. But again, the whole experience is also part of a two way conversation. Both sides learn and change. Doors are opened to the job market. Friends are made. Society’s leaders, through their direct involvement with immigrant students, find themselves rethinking their often comfortable points of view.

Another program I am personally involved in through the Institute for Canadian Citizenship is called the Cultural Access Pass. At the thousands of citizenship ceremonies held every year, each new citizen is offered a Cultural Access Pass, which gives their family a one year free membership in some 1400 cultural institutions. That includes almost every major art gallery and museum. After all, the taxes of working immigrants help finance those institutions. And if these families want to be part of shaping the country’s cultural evolution, they need to be involved in the cultural institutions. As for the institutions, they need to reach out to these new citizens, in order to both teach and to learn. The idea is that we are all changed by immigration and that this is a good thing.

Here lies perhaps the biggest difference between Canada and other Western countries. It is the consciousness that we are engaged in developing a new approach to belonging; you could even say to identity. This has nothing to do with size or space or newness. Rather it is an idea of social complexity as a positive force, an idea of positive tensions, of living in a permanent experiment and building a non-racial, non-religious idea of citizenship, which denies neither ethnic nor faith differences.

The risk is that this is an experiment in a time of tired and confused elites in most countries. More and more they are caught up in burgeoning campaigns of fear aimed at turning people against each other along the old lines of race and faith. A single example: a growing number of people see immigrants as a financial burden when virtually every study shows that, given a chance, they are more likely to become entrepreneurs than those born in a country. But fear is not based on facts or truths.

I believe that in such an atmosphere the greatest protection is transparent policies, carefully put in place with clear purposes which everyone can understand and debate. At the core of that conversation there needs to be as great an emphasis as possible on citizenship and on the inclusion of newcomers.