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How many? From where? The immigration debate we’re not having

October 10, 2015

By Robert Sibley, Ottawa Citizen |

Our leaders aren’t facing the tough questions about Canada’s immigration policy, argues Robert Sibley, such as how many newcomers can our economy and culture actually absorb?

This is the second of a two-part series on issues not being discussed in depth during the 2015 federal election campaign.

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It’s still a good place to live, but that’s all Canada is now — just a good place to live. – Historian Donald Creighton

Several years ago the National Post staged a contest asking readers to come up with a motto to describe Canada. The winning entry was “Canada — A Home for the World.”

The phrase is revealing in its assumptions. There is no suggestion that Canada possesses a national identity that makes it distinct among nations, no allusion to geographic or historical circumstances, or even some intimation of a national ideal beyond, well, the comforts of home. Instead, the motto portrays Canada as a pleasant suburb of the global village, or what novelist Yann Martel pithily described as “the greatest hotel on Earth.”

Martel meant this positively, but not everybody sees it that way. Some argue that, after 50 years of large-scale immigration, Canada has become a “diasporatic society,” a convenient home away from home for many whose identity remains elsewhere. In the words of political scientist Stephen Gallagher, mass immigration has resulted in “a country with little underlying coherence in the sense of sustaining a primary national identity aside from being a desirable place to settle.”

Is this a reasonable judgment? There is no question that Canada has become a “nation of immigrants” to a degree not seen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The country has taken in 10 million immigrants since the end of the Second World War in 1945. But the intake curve has become much steeper in recent decades. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, the annual immigration rate hovered in the 150,000 range, and sometimes even dropped to 80,000. But since the late 1980s it has swung between about 200,000 and 260,000 (a figure that includes refugees who’ve received permanent resident status). In 2010, the total was 280,000. This is one of the highest per capita immigration intake levels in the world, and doesn’t include hundreds of thousands of students, temporary foreign workers and refugees who are not yet permanent residents.

What might immigration on this scale mean for the country in the long run, ask Gallagher and others? Immigration policies pursued by successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, constitute a gamble with the nation’s future, they say. Yet these policies have never been subjected to a national public debate.

According to a 2013 Statistics Canada report, 20.6 per cent of Canada’s people, or 6.8 million, are foreign born — the highest foreign-born level among the G8 countries. What might Canada look like — economically, politically and culturally — in 30, 50 or a 100 years should this percentage hold or even increase?

The election is seeing some controversial issues related to questions of immigration — everything from stripping convicted terrorists of citizenship and prohibiting the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies and in the public service, to tip lines for reporting “barbaric cultural practices” and the government’s response (or lack of response, depending on your political persuasion) to the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet, there has been little, if any, direct debate about
immigration policy writ large.

True, the parties have issued policy platforms on immigration. The Liberals promise to reduce the application processing times for sponsorship, citizenship, and many other visas. They’ll also accept larger number of refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions. The NDP have made family reunification central to their immigration policy. And they, too, promise to change refugee policy to take in more people. The Conservatives have made few policy commitments on immigration, but their record suggests they will continue to focus on bringing in skilled immigrants while tightening up on citizenship eligibility and even revoking the citizenship of those convicted of treason or terrorism.

But none of the parties appears willing to raise fundamental questions about immigration itself: How many? Where from? Does large-scale immigration really benefit the country economically? Will an increasingly diverse population that maintains deep loyalties elsewhere share much in common, historically and culturally, beyond the satisfaction of living in a good place?

Such questions are not asked, says University of Ottawa economist Gilles Paquet, because the country’s political, social and media elites maintain a tacit “conspiracy of silence” about immigration even though it is “the one single issue that will determine Canadian politics for the next 10 years and more.”

For decades, says Paquet, Canada’s opinion makers have been instrumental in generating a “manufactured consensus” that sustains public support of high immigration levels. Decades of “continuous disinformation about immigration, massive government propaganda in support of the view that diversity is an absolute social good, and that all cultures are equally worthy” have, he says, persuaded Canadians that mass immigration is an unqualified good.

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