Special Issue on Immigration
by Walter Trkla
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(Swans - October 4, 2010) Recent letters to the editor in our local newspaper and reports from the Urban Alliance on Race Relations indicate that many Canadians are xenophobic. Canada has a history of racial intolerance, and even though our multicultural policies promote equality, we continue to see racist comments in the letters to the editor. Some comments in the paper in support of racial harmony and openness have been responded to with vicious attacks -- "People like you will allow anyone and anything into our country and to hell with what the majority of us consider sacred: CANADIAN values!"
This recent overt anti-immigrant tirade surfaced with the arrival of 492 Tamil refugees on the cargo ship MV Sun Sea. The Canadian government claims that there are 25 members of the Tamil Tigers terrorists among the passengers. Even those who welcome immigrants have concerns about this, since this is an issue of security. Some letter writers suggested that the Canadian Navy should sink the ship and make an example to others who come to Canada illegally. Others suggested that the navy should escort the ship out of Canadian waters and send it back to Sri Lanka. We have done this type of action twice before.
In 1939, we refused sanctuary to 900 Jewish passengers who came to our shores aboard the S.S. St. Louis. The ship was forced to return to Germany by Cuba, the United States, and Canada and most of the passengers were incinerated in German concentration camps. Their ashes were sold to fertilize cabbages. During the Holocaust, Canada admitted only about 5,000 Jews, which was one of the worst records of any of the refugee-receiving countries.
Earlier, in 1914, the Komagata Maru sailed from India with 354, mostly Sikh passengers who wanted to emigrate to Canada. The captain was told that in order to land, the ship had to be on a continuous passage from a port in India to a port in Canada without touching land along the way. The Komagata Maru was successful in sailing in a continuous passage, but because of racism, it was sent back to India where some of the passengers died in confrontations with Indian authorities who were serving their English masters.
Very few of those who write such comments to newspapers would label themselves racist. However, the Canadian Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) continues to receive frequent calls from persons who have experienced racial discrimination. The complaints they receive originate in the workplace, in the school system, on the street, in housing, and even in public places, such as taverns and restaurants. The survey on hate crimes conducted in 2004 by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics showed that "12 Canadian police forces reported 928 hate crime incidents during 2001 and 2002. More than half of these crimes were racially or ethnically motivated at 57%, followed by religion at 43%."
Information from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics is supported by a United Nations Special Report on racism, which found that "while Canada supports ethnic diversity through policy [multiculturalism], law and numerous government-led programs, "tangible" racism continues to exist in the country." Another survey by Léger Marketing published in Le Journal de Montréal found that "59 percent of Quebecers and 47 percent of those living outside of Quebec admit that they are racist to some degree."
The letters to the editor locally are representative of this racism since the number of racist letters slightly outnumbers the more tolerant letters. However, literature indicates that many of Canada's bigots are not all home-grown. We know that racism exists in the host society, but there are also profound racist attitudes from some immigrants. One letter writer explains, saying "the public including me is unhappy with parents murdering their children for dating out of their class or religion. And there is a concern that radical Muslims are seizing control of the mosques." For this reason the writers of some of the letters to the editor seem to want immigrants to assimilate and leave their "old country" conflicts at the door.
Those who want assimilation never ask why some of these people are knocking on our door. They ignore the plight of Mexican migrant workers in Manitoba and British Columbia whose lives were turned upside down by NAFTA so we can have green salad and avocados any time we want them. Manitoba's socialist provincial government, with pressure from the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), has recently passed legislation to protect the migrant workers with labour and healthcare laws. Wayne Hanley, the national president of UFCW, states that "As the union with the largest number of migrant worker members in Canada, we are committed to continually evolving such protections negotiated for migrants." Racists refuse to acknowledge that Canada has benefited from our participation in NAFTA and globalization as well as NATO expansion into the Balkans. Many Canadians are not informed on these issues or they just simply don't care that NAFTA, globalization, and NATO have impoverished others for our own benefit. In former Yugoslavia, roads, energy, minerals, tourism and anything of value is part of most stock portfolios and for them that is the bottom line.
They have forgotten that the 40,000 Hungarians who came to Canada in 1956 and many Czechs, Vietnamese Boat People, and Americans (who refused to go to Vietnam) have enriched us with their education and skills. The University of British Columbia Forestry Department absorbed much of the Budapest University professional staff after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. More recently, we received thousands of university graduates -- Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims -- who now work in our communities as doctors, businesspersons, managers, engineers, and other skilled professionals. We (Canada) paid a pittance for their diploma, expertise, and service, while we pay over $400,000 per diploma for the typical Canadian to get a university degree.
Chauvinists understand that for an umbrella to work it needs to be open, but they forget that this also applies to an individual's attitudes and thinking. People who are xenophobic are linear thinkers. When linear thinkers hear John Lennon's song, Imagine, they may enjoy the lyrics, but they fail to see the Civil Rights movement, The Vietnam War, and the struggle for freedom of speech. So, it is difficult for them, as Lennon so profoundly wrote, to:
Imagine there's no country
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
On the other hand, as soon as linear thinkers see a picture of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer wearing a turban, they don't see beyond the turban. Nor do they see the fact that in Canada, we have many freedoms guaranteed to all -- to people born in the country as well as to old and new immigrants. These rights include Freedom of Religion, and the right to be considered for employment in government jobs on equal footing with others, if qualified. We have had a history where one had to be a WASP in order to become a police officer, school principal, or teacher. Xenophobes see religion and culture of others as a threat rather than enrichment. These people, often children of former immigrants, are like the Puritans who came to America seeking religious freedom -- only to deny it to others.
With whom did these attitudes and beliefs originate? The first big slice of refugees came to Canada from the United States. These were the United Empire Loyalists or Tories, the upper crust of colonial America who came after the American Revolution, with their slaves, to settle in Nova Scotia and Ontario. Between 1780 and 1830, the Loyalists were followed by the "great migration" of immigrants from the British Isles. The population push in Britain caused by the Industrial Revolution, the Enclosure Acts, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, as well as the potato famine in Ireland forced the government in London to find new settlements for the unemployed soldiers, displaced farmers, and poverty-stricken peasants and orphans. Canada became the main destination for these displaced and disadvantaged masses. Similarly today, Tamils and many others who come to our shores are fleeing war and/or poverty in their homeland, in some cases caused by our interest, as did the Scots, Irish, and English 150 years ago. The only difference to some Canadians is that the earlier immigrants were white, while the current ones are a bit tanned.
This racial intolerance, which has been present since the arrival of the Europeans, can be traced to the 19th century literature of the early settlers of Canada, the Loyalists, and upper-class immigrants from the United Kingdom who believed that they were the "culture carriers" and as such should bring civilization to the backward people of the world whom the European conquerors viewed as uncivilized. This attitude was true of both the upper and lower classes from the British Isles, particularly among those who emigrated in the nineteenth century. The British aristocracy and those who supported the social structure were influenced in their thinking about people and their place in society by the French Revolution and the Romantic age, which extended in an altered form into the Victorian Era.
The Victorians, as summed up in the writings of Darwin, felt that it was the white man's responsibility ("white man's burden") to bring civilization to the backward races of the world. We can see that this thinking continues to this day. There are strong indications in some letters to the editor, and the discussions that follow, indications of aloofness by whites demanding respect from those who are non-white. They want some entitlement because of their ethnicity and parental contribution and their own service to country (e.g. military). Those who feel entitlement due to race see their tax dollars going down a deep hole of never-ending asylum seekers.
The tax dollars that the government provides to help modern immigrants to start a new life in Canada is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the amount of tax immigrants pay in their lifetime. In the nineteenth century, help was provided for the immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and England. In many cases, these families were very poor and the government provided them with assistance, which we also do for contemporary immigrants. The Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants did not assimilate into the Native and French culture. They replicated Old England in the New World and held onto their culture which they saw as superior to any other.
These immigrants supported the Tories who dominated political life in Canada beginning in 1867. The Tories promoted and protected the class structure and the concept that those from the British Isles were 'primus inter pares' or first among equals. The Conservative Party, or as they are historically called, the Tories, tend to hold views of entitlement due to race, conquest, family history, and military service. Both rich and poor from Britain rallied around the slogan "God, Queen and Country." Today, those who are most blatantly racist and xenophobic support Prime Minister Harper's Conservatives Party who are also supported by the Tea Party in the USA.
This attitude of British superiority has created a political backlash in the province of Quebec, which is predominantly French in language and culture. The backlash has spawned separatism in Quebec. Large numbers of Quebecois have the inferiority complex of a conquered people that will only be erased with "vive la Quebec libre." The French in Quebec, through exposure to conquest, race, and English attitudes of superiority, as well as fear of cultural assimilation, force new immigrants to assimilate into the French culture, even though many immigrants want their children to learn English. For these separatists, a "no" vote in any referendum on independence will be continually ignored; their fight for independence will be never-ending.
Much of this xenophobia is driven by fear that new immigrants may want to change us or enlarge our scope of acceptance. Xenophobes don't see Sharia Law, arranged marriages, honor killings, and turbans in the workplace as stemming from cultural and tribal roots, and they certainly don't want to engage in a dialogue on the issues. They see our immigration policy as permitting backdoor acceptance of unacceptable differences. They point to the turban worn by Indo Canadian RCMP officers as subversion of our culture. They point to writings and opinions in the legal profession which suggest that certain ethnic practices should mitigate criminal offences of new immigrants as unreasonable. Canadian social standards, for example, do not allow parents to slap their children around while certain cultures are far more permissive. There have been cases in Canada where such cultural practices have been argued as a defense in court cases. Marriage laws as well as treatment of children and women by some cultures have been used by judges to give lower sentences to offenders. This alarms many Canadians.
Xenophobes stereotype and denigrate the many new immigrants based on the actions of a few, as well as by association, culture, and the way they dress and look. They also ignore the contributions to the wider community. Immigrant doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and labourers enrich and expand our defined culture while providing employment and service to the whole community. Immigrants have, and probably always will, represented an important addition to our nation. We should adopt an understanding attitude, be willing to learn, discuss, accept, celebrate differences, and welcome others to the current cultural mosaic, rather than force them to be like us, which inevitably, is impossible. Those who want assimilation ignore the fact that every culture must adapt and become a different "whole" through contact with other cultures as presented by immigrants. How that interaction changes the country is dependent on the individuals and institutions at that moment in time.
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About the Author
Walter Trkla is a retired high school teacher of world history, law, and economics. He holds a master's degree in teaching. He also taught geography at Thompson Rivers University, and supervised student teachers for the University of British Columbia. Mr. Trkla was adopted by his uncle after his father was killed in WWII. He lives in Kamloops, BC, Canada, with his wife Judy. They have two daughters. (back)