Vancouver Sun, David Todd, January 8, 2012. 9:25 pm
The common wisdom, from Italy to the United States, is that resistance to immigration magnifies in direct correlation to how much a country’s citizens struggle economically. There are increasing signs that hard thinking is beginning to play out in Canada, which has the highest immigration rate per capita in the world – and which is now, along with the rest of the globe, undergoing financial strains.
Polls have long shown that Canadians, more than residents of any other country, believe that high immigration is “good for the economy.” But signs of wariness are appearing. A recent Nanos poll found four out of five Canadians either want immigration levels to stay the same or decrease. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, since the May election, has been responding by acting tougher. He’s banned face-covering veils during citizenship ceremonies, required more thorough knowledge of English or French among prospective immigrants, spoken out against marriages of convenience and frozen immigration applications from parents and grandparents.
What’s behind the shift in the social wind? Numerous surveys are showing average Canadian families are taking a financial hit. It now takes two parents to match the pay packet of a single working person three decades ago. The gap between rich and poor keeps expanding, with young B.C. couples especially seeing a drop in their incomes since 1976.
In this context, Canadians, especially Metro residents, can expect to see certain immigration issues gain extra attention in the next year and beyond. Just as Europeans and Americans are becoming more outspoken about immigration issues, expect Canadians to become openly animated about the five following topics:
1. Ethnic enclaves expanding
The history of Canadian immigration is predominantly urban. The vast majority of immigrants move to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, in that order.
In each of these major cities immigrants have increasingly been creating ethnic enclaves, which Statistics Canada defines as neighbourhoods in which more than 30 per cent of the population is a visible minority.
Tens of thousands of Metro Vancouver residents are among those who each year quietly make their housing choices based in part on whether they will feel comfortable with the cultural and ethnic makeup of a particular neighbourhood.
Canada had only six ethnic enclaves in 1976. Now Metro Vancouver alone has more than 110. Many neighbour-hoods in Richmond are more than 70 per cent Chinese, while others in north Surrey are 70 per cent South Asian. Meanwhile, many neighbour-hoods in Tsawwassen, south Surrey and the North Shore remain predominantly white.
Metro Vancouver residents continue for the most part to get along. But the noted Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam is among many researchers who are finding, to their regret, that trust levels tend to decline when a city is composed of enclaves.
Optimists, however, maintain that mono-ethnic neighbourhoods break down over generations, as the off-spring of immigrants gain the emotional strength to move into more diverse areas.
Whatever the case, expect the subject of ethnic enclaves, once only whispered about, to be discussed more overtly in coming years.
2. Canadians will heighten debate over the “limits of tolerance”
When Canada’s immigration minister heard in December that some Muslim women were refusing to take off their niqabs or burkas at citizenship ceremonies, he immediately declared they must reveal their faces if they want to become Canadians.
Except for some Muslim activists, few Canadians complained. Even though Kenney has spent years wooing Canadian immigrants to vote Conservative by attending hundreds of ethnic and religious banquets, the devout Catholic was likely aware his move would be applauded in a country where polls show Muslims are not as popular as Christians, Jews or Buddhists.
Similarly, many Canadians are suspicious about some forms of arranged international marriages. Kenney is being praised for taking a rhetorical hard-line against marriages of convenience, those difficult-to-prosecute frauds in which would-be immigrants jump to the front of the queue by pre-tending to be committed to a Canadian citizen.
Although arranged marriages often stand the test of time, expect Canadians to become more critical of immigrants who try to bring certain illiberal customs to this northern nation – including in some cases institutionalized homophobia, genital mutilation, domestic abuse, polygamy and gender inequality.
3. More economic anxieties will boil to the surface
Kenney is not the only politician publicly worrying about immigration. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson this year openly lamented how wealthy new immigrants were making city housing unaffordable for his children and countless others.
But housing prices are responsible for only one of many immigrant-related economic problems. For instance, studies show new immigrants are, on average, not doing as well as they were two decades ago.
University of B.C. economist Thomas Lemieux is among those warning that the declining financial fortunes of new immigrants are spilling over to the entire population. For all Canadians, says Lemieux, the gap is growing between the financially well-off and those with low incomes. The wealthiest Canadians, Lemieux says, “have doubled their share of the pie” in the past 15 years.
Both new Canadians, and home-grown ones, would most benefit from easier access to education, Lemieux maintains. But that will require major policy reforms. “What’s getting the most expensive in Canada?” Lemieux asks rhetorically.
“In the past 15 years it has not been TVs or cars. It’s actually education. It may be discouraging lots of people from going to school.”
4. Temporary foreign workers will be spotlighted
Metro Vancouver’s 80,000 diligent Filipinos form the centre of a growing concern over temporary foreign workers. Since taking office in 2005, the Conservative government has hiked the numbers of these short-term foreign workers from 160,000 in 2006 to 283,000 in 2010. Although temporary foreign workers have traditionally been brought into fill short-term skills shortages, they are increasingly being welcomed into the country to do unskilled, low-wage jobs as fast-food workers, nannies, farm labour and security guards. In a rare display of agreement, economists from both the centre-left Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and centre-right Fraser Institute have come out against the rise in temporary foreign workers, many of whom are from the Philippines.
Both sides of the spectrum say the over-use of temporary foreign workers is lowering overall wages, hurting productivity and, perhaps most importantly, discouraging Canadians and landed immigrants from upgrading their skills.
University of B.C. planning specialist Prod Laquian, who has Filipino heritage, adds another dimension to this thorny issue. He is among those who points out it is often devastating for developing countries to lose their more industrious citizens to richer countries such as Canada.
5. Inter-ethnic relationships will grow
Ending on a positive note, it is becoming ever more common to see couples of mixed ethnicity holding hands, dining out or playing with their offspring in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Canadians’ boast of building a true multicultural society – characterized by creative dialogue and a new synthesis of cultures – will not occur through just our legendary niceness, which can sometimes mask distance and superficiality. Authentic inter-ethnic bonding occurs when people can honestly face real social tensions, including some of those outlined here. Inter-ethnic relationships, which continue to be on the rise, may be the best way to help us cross these cultural boundaries. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has discovered, fondness between people of different backgrounds, religions and world views is most likely to swell when we take the risk of getting to know others – as friends, lovers, teammates or family.