Immigration is an issue that has much of the world deeply divided. In many developed countries, debate over immigration and its effect on the economy, personal safety, and perceived cultural value has overwhelmed public and political agendas across the globe. Successful far-right campaigns worldwide have been based on issues surrounding immigration and national identity, with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of populist parties throughout Europe all being spurred, to a certain degree, by rising numbers of global refugees.
Here in Canada, it’s a polarizing issue that is driven by highly charged secondary issues. It is difficult to address employment numbers without addressing the growing influx of refugees. Discussions surrounding terrorism are inexorably linked to discussions about radical immigrants. Even the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday is impacted by how changing cultural demographics are changing what it really means to be Canadian.
It’s a topic—or series of topics, really—that is highly divisive, emotionally charged, and yet essential to address. And while its impact on Canadian politics has not been as dramatic as it has been in the United States and Europe, it is becoming an increasingly important campaign factor. The waning days of the last national election, after all, featured debate over niqabs, “barbaric cultural practices” hotlines, and refugee acceptance numbers.
TRENT Magazine Editor Donald Fraser ’91 reached out to two members of the Trent community with very different backgrounds and viewpoints for their takes on how immigration issues actually affect the social and economic status quo of Canada and Canadians: Alumnus Mark Davidson ’79 is a former director for Citizen and Immigration Canada (including posts as director general of Immigration Policy, and director general of the International and Intergovernmental Relations Branch); Faculty member Haroon Akram-Lodhi is professor in the Department of International Development Studies, and a first generation Canadian who has recently celebrated 50 years of Canadian residency
The print and online editions of TRENT Magazine featured abridged answers to these questions. This TRENT Magazine Live exclusive contains the full interview.
Trent Magazine (TM): Compared to recent policy changes in the United States, who seem to be moving to an immigration policy that ranges from restrictive to punitive, Canada is seen as progressive and accepting: we accept approximately 15% of the refugees resettled globally in a given year and have gained a welcoming reputation by resettling more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, both by government and through private sponsorship. At the same time, Canada recently capped new applications for private sponsorship of Syrian and Iraqi refugees at 1,000 refugee spaces with only one month’s warning—a number that was reached in just over a month. How do potential immigrants and refugees view Canada’s immigration policy
Mark Davidson (MD): Before I get to the answer, let me comment a bit on those statements. Some of them I think are premature, and also a little bit inaccurate.
First off, certainly president Trump's campaign had a number of immigration statements. But in terms of significant policy, we're still waiting for some of it. He's been talking about increasing deportations, he's been talking about the wall. But like with much else in the context of Trump, it's still early days. We'll see what actually comes to pass.
In terms of resettlement of refugees, I haven't done the math. I imagine last year, 2016, Canada did bring in something in that range of 15 percent of the total resettled refugees around the world. But it's really important to remember that that resettled population is a small percentage of the refugee need. The vast majority of refugees around the world are not resettled to third countries. Most of them, the overwhelming majority of refugees, are either internally displaced into their own country, or are refugees that find themselves in a neighboring or very close country, most of which are developed countries.
Syria is a classic example. The vast majority of refugees that have been displaced by the civil war in Syria have either been displaced to other parts of Syria, or in Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey. It's a tiny percentage which are resettled to other countries, a slightly larger percentage that have gone to western Europe.
So resettled refugees is a subset. And Canada has always been a significant player in the resettled refugee game. But it's also important to remember that the United States has always been the number one country of resettlement. And usually the United States resettles about 50 percent of refugees that have resettled. Although there's certainly been an increase in screening for refugees coming from primarily Muslim countries in the United States – significant re-screening, and president Trump's talking about ratcheting that up again – United States still resettles far more refugees than does Canada. So it's easy for us to pretend that we play a bigger role than we actually do.
Haroon Akram-Lodhi (HAL): The first thing is, I think we have to look at immigrants and refugees as two separate categories. Refugees are driven by circumstances that make them leave, normally because of insecurity. Immigrants are people who have stronger economic motivations to leave where ever they're coming from. Their economic motivation is to try and create a better life. But they're not necessarily forced out in the same kind of way. So that's the first thing I would say.
If we take that as a separate issue, immigrants versus refugees:
Canada has a well-established global reputation for having a very transparent immigration system in which the rules are reasonably clear for anyone to be able to understand. Internationally we're seen as being quite generous in terms of immigration, simply because of the sheer numbers that we take in every single year.
On refugees I think the issue is a bit more muddled, I must say. If we look at the crisis in Syria, which has driven the largest mass movement of people in the world in more than 40 years... When the federal election was taking place that saw the current government come to power I was in communication with a local federal candidate, and I pointed out to him that Germany – where I currently am – they were in the process of taking in a million Syrians. A million. I said to the candidate at the time that for Canada to do the same we would have to take in more than three hundred thousand refugees. And we've taken in forty thousand. So on the one hand, forty thousand is really good. But on the other hand, I think Canada was capable of doing a lot more, given the nature of the crisis in Syria.
When the Hungarian uprising took place in 1956 Canada let in sixty thousand Hungarians in two weeks. So we've let in forty thousand Syrians in a year. I think we can pat ourselves on the back – but maybe we pat ourselves on the back too easily when it comes to the generosity we have for Syrian refugees. Especially given the fact that many of the Syrian refugees that have come into Canada are pretty well-educated, and, once they get English language skills, I think they'll probably be able to get work pretty straightforwardly. So maybe not quite as good a record as could be the case.
And the other thing I would also say, because I know you were going to ask about Sweden, is that Sweden, as a share of its population, was even more generous than Germany. So Canada, is not the United States, but there's still more we could be doing on the issue of refugees.
Actually, let me bring up another thing that really, really strikes me. The second worst humanitarian emergency, after the Syrian conflict right now, is what's going on in South Sudan. And in Uganda, which is one of the poorest countries of the world, there is one district which has six hundred thousand refugees. Six hundred thousand! And this is a very poor country. There was a Guardian article recently: “Is Uganda the Best Country In the World to Be a Refugee?” The reason being that Ugandans let refugees work immediately; but not only do they let them work, because most of them are farmers, they give them land. They give them land to farm. It's quite remarkable how generous some countries are when it comes to these things.
TM: Recently, wealthy countries such as Sweden have come under scrutiny for their immigration practices. While alleged links between increased crime rates and increased immigration rates in Sweden have been largely debunked, debate still rages about the country’s welcoming immigration policy and its affect on both employment and the overall economy. What is the effect of Canada’s current immigration policy on employment rates and job availability for current Canadians?
MD: The economic argument for immigration certainly resonates in Canada more than it does in other countries. The main reason why that's true is, as I’ve said, most immigrants we're selecting are individuals we're selecting because they have skills they'll be able to take advantage of, and language ability, and a solid education. Most of the migrants in Europe – and even in the United States – are coming on the basis of either making an asylum claim, in the case of western Europe, and in the United States most migrants are actually family migration. And they're not being selected on the basis of their skills. The calculation is different in those two areas than it is in Canada.
There's been lots of studies in Canada that suggest that, taken as a large group – and obviously there are differences if you narrow down and look at individual populations of immigrants – but taken largely, immigration does benefit the economy. It improves the gross human capital of the country. In terms of its overall impact on the economy, it's pretty small. I haven't seen any studies that suggest it's a massive improvement for the Canadian economy. But most of the studies I do see indicate that it's a small positive economic development for Canadian society.
In Europe they don't really have the same kind of research, so the analysis hasn't been as clean. But I think, depending on which groups and which countries you're talking about, you could probably make a stronger argument that maybe immigration or migration isn't as positive an impact on the country.
One of the other elements about the Canadian model for successful migration is the way we integrate individuals into the country. The phrase I like to use is: we have a robust ecosystem for immigrant integration in Canada. What that means is that we have a huge number of players that all are engaged in helping migrants – whether they're refugees, family immigrants, or economic immigrants – succeed. The federal government is a major funder. All of the provincial governments are also very active, and often are providing top-up funding to the funding made available by the federal government. Many employers, big, medium, and small, are also actively looking and actively searching for people, potential immigrants, offshore but also here in Canada. They see these as a necessary addition to their labor force. We've got a huge network of NGOs that are very active in the field, again funded by the public sector but often also funded through trust funds or other sources of funding. We've got church groups, we've got community associations, municipalities, et cetera. So there's this huge infrastructure of support that's for the most part pushing all in the same direction, in Canada.
And I think that really became very clear in the context of the Syrian movement over the past two years, where not only were governments working very hard at significantly bringing in new, massive increases in resettled Syrians, but we also had a massive increase in the number of private sponsored individuals – which is a unique Canadian model. There are no other countries, certainly not at that scale, that have this kind of a model.
I've spent quite a lot of time traveling in Sweden, and seeing the Swedish model. In a lot of Europe, most of the integration work that's being done is being done by bureaucrats. Integration is seen as the sole responsibility of bureaucrats. Even though they're incredibly committed, and they work hard, it's not seen as the whole society's job. Whereas in Canada, it really is. People see that integration has to happen in the workforce, it has to happen in communities, it absolutely has to happen in schools.
I didn't talk about the schools as well. Primary and secondary schools are massive, massive integrators. And the Canadian public school system is really important to the way that we integrate immigrants. Because most Canadians – and again, this is different than in some European countries – have been educated in the public school system. That's the same public school system that the immigrants are using as well. So it's part of who we are, that integration. The average Canadian is engaged in that process, with the parent-teacher meetings and other avenues of communication. Again, it's that broader infrastructure that really has been working very well in Canada – particularly in comparison to other countries.
And this is something that it took me a while to understand, this comparison to Sweden. In Sweden, they put a phenomenal emphasis on training and language development. They have very high standards in terms of when that training has succeeded. But the result is that, on average – and this is a shocking figure – on average, in Sweden, and it's true of other northern European countries, the first job that a refugee gets is seven years after they've arrived. They've spent seven years learning Swedish and being re-skilled. In Canada, seven years is inconceivable. And this is on average.
In Canada, we have expectations that refugees and immigrants are going to get jobs quickly. Immigrants definitely, as soon as they arrive. With refugees, particularly government-sponsored refugees, there's more of an understanding of a process. But seven years is inconceivable in Canada. Seven months is definitely a long period of integration without a job. So what happens is, after seven years you're starting work, you've been de-skilled, you don't know anything, you've lost all of your abilities. There's just a completely different emphasis on that holistic approach to integration
HAL: The thing about it is, comparing Canada and Sweden, and thinking around the issues, there's a lot of smoke and mirrors going on here. And one has to be very very clear of the differences in the circumstances that immigrants and refugees face when they come into both of these two countries.
The most important difference is that Sweden has much more restrictive labor market policies than Canada. Now, when I say this what I mean is that when workers are hired in Sweden, their job security is significantly higher than it is for Canadians. The costs of unemployment are borne by the employer, not by a central fund the way we have in Canada – which you pay into and which is managed by the government. This makes employers very reluctant to hire people who they're not sure about. So it can be very difficult for a newcomer into Sweden to actually get a job, because employers can be reluctant to hire.
Very different circumstances in Canada. It certainly is true that unemployment is an issue in many parts of the country, and poverty is an issue of course in many parts of the country as well. But it is the case that most incoming Canadians' family members end up in employment very very rapidly after their arrival in the country. The net effect of incoming immigrants and refugees onto the labor market is really quite minimal because they end up taking jobs, because they want to get a job; and end up taking jobs, generally speaking, which are actually not reflective of their qualifications or their status in the place they've come from.
The actual impact, in terms of incoming immigrants drawing upon various mechanisms of social protection from the welfare state, is very much largely a myth. In fact, across the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is a club of basically the rich countries of the world, it is shown quite conclusively that, no matter where immigrants go, they tend to be a net gain to the economy. This is because they end up contributing more in taxes than they take out in terms of social spending. And that's just as true in Canada as it's true in other places. The Economist has a column on this just this week, in the issue that's coming out today.
So I think there's a lot of myths around the impact in terms of employment, in terms of social spending, and things like that.
I lived in the Netherlands for 12 years, and I was always very struck by the differences between the degree of integration of migrant communities in the Netherlands and the degree of integration of migrant communities in Canada. And that was all down to the way in which labor market policies worked. Labor market policies made it very difficult for a lot of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants into the Netherlands to be able to get jobs, because once they were hired, they were very difficult to fire.
I can remember when my uncle arrived in Canada in 1974, he had a job within ten days of his arrival, and he held that job up until the day that he died. And he worked. He worked his five days a week, he worked for his entire life. And the fact of the matter is that it wasn't a particularly great job.
But in Canada, the labor market works in such a way that there's no trouble in someone coming in, if they want to work, they can find a job. And the thing is, most people want to work; they don't want to rely on handouts. They want to look after their families themselves; they want to be able to support their families, and contribute to an improvement in the standard and the quality of life for their families. And they know that relying upon handouts isn’t going to do it. The only way you're going do it is by going out there and getting some hard graft.
TM: One of the primary objections to accepting immigrants (particularly refugees from countries such as Syria and Iraq) is the likelihood of violence—either through terrorism, organized crime, or crime by individuals. Are these fears founded?
MD: Terrorism is obviously a significant concern by the public, and therefore it's something that the government is paying a lot of attention to.
We're talking, in the Canadian context, mainly about resettled refugees. Refugees that are being resettled – and that definitely includes the population from the Middle East – go through significant security checks where we're interviewing them by experienced visa officers and security professionals. Their information is being vetted by various databases. Stories are being corroborated, et cetera. These are not individuals who are coming in cold. We know more than a little bit about them before they come to Canada.
And I'll contrast that to the much much much higher numbers of asylum claimants that have been arriving in Europe over the past three years. In those cases, these are not individuals who are being vetted before they arrive on European soil. These are self-selected refugees who have decided that they can't stay in, particularly, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, for whatever reason, and so they're pitching up in Italy and Greece and various other parts of Europe. And they haven't been vetted before they've arrived.
In the Canadian context, I think part of the understanding by the Canadian public is that the government is doing a good job of verifying before these individuals arrive. That's also an important part of that broader Canadian story: there's public support which then leads to a non-partisan dialogue on migration in Canada. The Liberals and the Tories certainly have different emphases and different approaches, and some of the policies change, but generally speaking there is significant consensus about the immigration story in Canada, which is not the case... certainly in the United States; it's absolutely not the case in Australia and New Zealand; and it's definitely not the case in Europe. But an important element of that is the public confidence that the government knows what it's doing and is protecting us. If it looks like we have lost control of the borders, or it looks like there's been a wave of possible terrorists who have arrived in Canada, then public support could be fragile. It's not something we take for granted, it's something that needs to be maintained and bolstered all the time.
I keep coming back to the integration story. Most terrorist incidents in our country have been homegrown terrorists. I'm not a big fan of that phrase, but it's an understandable phrase. These are individuals who are either born in Canada or the United States, or in other countries, and grew up here, or have been here for a number of years. Integrating immigrants well, giving them access to good jobs, fair access to the public welfare system, welcoming them in schools, providing opportunities for them and their children, real opportunities for them and their children. Not like what has happened in France in particular. That's the best protection against radicalization and homegrown terrorism. By integrating these individuals well, by showing them that they have a life here and that they can participate in Canadian society – that's the best protection against terrorism.
HAL: The thing about this is that, when it comes to refugees coming into Canada from Syria – they're not coming from Syria. They're coming from refugee camps in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Turkey. And many of the people, with the Syrian conflict is now in its sixth year, are not people who have arrived in Lebanon or arrived in Jordan in the past year: they're people who have been sitting in those camps for years already. And they're vetted very, very carefully. Multiple times.
Now I think you probably remember, during the United States' election, this whole issue that Trump was bringing up about refugees and terrorism, and how the opposition to Trump would turn around and say the extent to which the vetting is taking place by multiple organizations. Vetting is taking place with possible refugees, not only by the United Nations organizations, but also by the Canadian government. If you were a terrorist, and you wanted to commit an atrocity in Canada, going the refugee route is probably the most difficult, long-winded way of doing it. The idea that you're going to sit in a camp for three or four years, to win a lottery, to be able to move to another country, is not a very sensible way of actually trying to commit a terrorist act.
And it must also be said that if we look at recent acts of terrorism in Europe – whether it's in Paris, whether it's in Brussels, whether it's in Germany – most, not all, but most recent acts have been committed by people who have German and Belgian and French passports. So if we wanted to prevent terrorism, there's an argument that we would actually want to restrict Germans, French, and Belgian people coming to Canada. I don't think we want to do that.
TM: With rising immigration and the resulting ethnic diversity, many Western nations are concerned with the effect on social cohesion. How do you think current immigration trends will affect a common national identity in Canada?
MD: One of the other expressions we use in the business is “the two-way street.” And it's a concept of integration whereby we set expectations on the part of newcomers to Canada that they need to integrate into Canadian society; that they need to adapt and change their attitudes and their modus operandi to deal with their new life in Canada. And that concept is something that all countries talk about. But we also talk explicitly that, in doing so, those newcomers are changing Canada. And so the flipside of them integrating to Canada is that they get to change Canada.
What is Canada? It's fluid, and has changed dramatically. I've been in this business for 35 years, and have been involved in a number of big waves of migration that have completely changed Canada. But that's also been going on for generations, obviously. So, yes, there are some individuals at the local, municipal, provincial, and national level who want to turn back the clock – or who want to stop the clock. But Canada has always adapted to migration, and has changed as a result of migration, and will continue to do so. The thing we call Canada today is not the thing that we called Canada when I started 30 years ago, and it won't be the thing we call Canada in 30 years from now. I'm actually very positive and optimistic about it, particularly when we see successful immigrants from whatever community, over the generations, and realize how they've changed Canada. I think it's such a cool area of public policy…
…If you take a longer-term perspective out of it, again, other than the indigenous population, every group of migrants have arrived in Canada and then parts of those groups have tried to close the door behind them. The French and English hated the Irish. The Irish were all criminals, they didn't wash, they were lazy, blah blah blah – they were going to ruin the country. I have Scottish heritage and I can just imagine my Scottish-Canadian immigrant forefathers talking like that. Every wave. Then it was the eastern Europeans, those lazy Poles and lazy Ukrainians, and the Italians, they're going to do horrible things. Every wave has had the same challenge.
That's not to say that every wave has been successful on the same timeline as others. A big part of the challenge for immigration, for immigrants, is how the economy is doing when you and your family arrive. If the economy is booming when you arrive, you and your cohort are going to do better over the long term than if the economy was in a downturn when you arrived. And again, when you step back you can see these patterns very clearly in the data.
One of the other things I wanted to talk about was that, about maybe 15 or 20 years ago, we talked about what we were calling the MTV phenomena, meaning that immigration was primarily a feature of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. And the government, political and bureaucrats, saw this as a problem: that if immigrants were only going to the major centers, then yes, that would be great for those major centers, but they would become little examples of dynamic international communities that would look very alien to most other Canadians. And so we worked very closely with provincial governments in particular to figure out ways of using immigration to benefit other parts of the country as well.
One of the other features of Canada, which is again different from many other countries, is the role of provincial and territorial governments. I talked about the federal political consensus, but there's also a jurisdictional consensus that immigration is good. That's not the case in any other country I'm aware of. Often immigration is a feature of a particular place in a country, but in other parts of the country, no immigrants at all. The fact that a small city like Peterborough has seen waves of immigration, particularly over the past 20 years, is positive, because individuals whose only experience of Canada is the Peterborough experience will then see the same kind of dynamic, on a smaller scale, that's going on in the Torontos and in the Calgaries and in the Ottawas.
HAL: That's such a good question. My father was Pakistani, and when we moved to what was then Port Arthur in 1967, he was the first Pakistani man to settle in the town. My life is the life of the expansion of the diverse set of communities of this country. When he died, I phoned up the local funeral home – and there was a small Muslim community in Thunder Bay by that time – and I asked them: would they be prepared to try and set up a funeral plot for Muslims in Thunder Bay? Set aside part of the cemetery, and then follow the religious procedures – I'm not religious myself – for burials of Muslims in Thunder Bay. The funeral parlor saw this as a great business opportunity of course, and grasped it, and within the space of three years, there was a Muslim cemetery in Thunder Bay. So one person's threat to social cohesion is another person's business opportunity.
Canada has changed tremendously over the course of the five decades that I've been here. Even though there was an influx of people who were not Caucasian starting in the late 1960s, a lot of migration into Canada, immigration into Canada, was, of course, people from Europe – all through the 70s and the 80s, with the exception of the Vietnamese boat people. It's only from the 80s onwards that you start to see the real growth of these much more diverse communities. I lived outside Canada for a very long time, I've only been back for 11 years, and the thing that really strikes me in terms of how Toronto has changed is the huge influx of people from South Asia, and the huge influx of people from the Horn of Africa. Because those communities, in the early 1980s, didn't exist. Huge transformation. This is what you see in places like Markham, like Brampton, like Scarborough.
It's interesting though... I think if you want to identify problems around social cohesion, there are several things that are going on in terms of those issues.
First of all, some of the most dire poverty that we've got in Canada amongst immigrant groups are not amongst newcomer groups; they're amongst immigrant groups that came in the 60s and the 70s, who, for whatever reason, never really integrated at all, at a time in the country when multiculturalism was more of an experiment than a reality. So you see a lot of issues. I'm thinking particularly around the Afro-Caribbean community, in Toronto and in Montreal. A lot of poverty, a lot of very hard times in those communities. But those communities have a much older history than the South Asian community and the community from the Horn of Africa.
There are also issues, it has to be said, within the Somali community in Toronto. But every Somali migrant community in North America faces a certain set of issues around changing social expectations within the communities, and what happens within the communities can be a really big problem, in terms of how they're able to integrate into society. There's this huge problem we've had out in Alberta with huge numbers of Somali men being murdered, out there in the oil patch during the boom. No one could figure out why so many people were being murdered, and what the connection was there.
Social cohesion in Canada is a work in progress. We as a country are still trying to find our way. We cannot have a cohesive society in Canada, in my view, until we achieve full reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples. That's our first priority, more than anything else.
In terms of immigrant communities into the country, social cohesion relies, more than anything else, on people being able to get ahead. And that means people being able to get decent jobs where they can invest in the future of their families. And I think, historically, Canada's done a pretty good job at that. We could do a better job, but we've done a pretty good job of it.
I must say that when I came back to Canada 11 years ago, I'd lived in the Netherlands for 12 years, and I'd witnessed the rise of a very virulent right wing populism which was explicitly racist, and in which good liberal people thought that being a good liberal meant that you had to accept people being racist. It was extremely disquieting to live through that.
When I came to Toronto in 2006, having never lived in Toronto, having been from northern Ontario, and being from therefore the part of the country that looks down on Toronto, the thing that struck me almost immediately is just how incredibly diverse the city is. And how it seems to work, how that diversity does seem to work. Which is not to say there's not problems around poverty and racism, because there are. And very often, Canadians in particular do not acknowledge problems around racism. They like to wish it away. So there are issues. But I think that, of all the places that I've been, Canada is the country which has been able to be a leader in navigating those rocky waters of trying to manage the cohesion of a society which is extraordinarily diverse.
To me, Canada is the great democratic experiment of the 21st century. If Canada doesn't work, the world will not work.
So I sure hope Canada will work.