Once upon a time, almost all of our family lines weren’t here in North America. Of course, going back far enough — and anthropologists, climatologists and geologists believe we don’t need more than 12,000-14,000 years (17,000 at the outside and only for Alaska) to be able to say none of us were here. Human settlement of the Americas is just not that old.
So we are immigrants, and, granting the First Nations their pride of place (I’m not sure how many years of continued residence are required to make someone autochthonous, but the majority of us are measured in decades to a few centuries, not in millennia, so let’s just call the First Nations “here long enough” and be done with it) as the original peoples of this continent, only the oldest of European lines and settlements have been here long enough to possibly be verging on the “native” by historical terms — a St. John’s, say, or a Québec, or an Annapolis Royal, or, south of the border, a St-Augustine or Jamestown (the only two settlements approaching the same age as the Canadian ones). [Please leave L’Anse-aux-Meadows and Roanoke Island out of the discussion: continuity matters.]
Those of us born here — especially those of us of blood lines that go back a few generations in this land — have nowhere else to call home, of course. This shows up the dreadful ambiguity of the whole “immigrant” versus “native” discussion: it all depends on timescale. To my mind, one key question is the culture which is built. The Québec profond of the pur laine is certainly an indigenous culture now — but when precisely did it become so, as opposed to just a settler colony? So, too, the original culture of Southern Ontario — still seen in its Clear Grit southwestern and hardscrabble Tory eastern forms (alas, as George Grant noted, the Golden Horseshoe in the middle gave that culture up in the 1950s) — once American settlers with a Celtic overlay from UK & Irish immigration, but now a culture (and an accent) found nowhere else. Add the Acadians, the Newfoundlanders, and a host of others to the list … this is the Canada we know.
Since 1966 Canadian immigration policy first changed to be open to the whole world, and not just Europeans, Americans and other British settler colonies, and then, starting first with the Mulroney Government and as extended and modified through the Chrétien, Martin and now Harper years, a means of doing two radically dissimilar things: extended family reunification, and attracting skilled people to this country using a points-based system that is being increasingly copied around the world today. This has changed the face, and culture, of Canada in its major urban centres.
Having grown up in Toronto while it changed from being a pseudo-Victorian outpost of the Orange Order to what UNESCO called “the world’s most multi-cultural city”, and now living in Vancouver, which has cities in its regional fabric that are majority immigrant communities, I must say that I am not only used to the glorious mosaic that this can create, but find places without it a tad on the boring side. (Perhaps this is why, in the United States, I prefer New York, and why in Europe I prefer London, and found Sydney in Australia quite congenial: they “felt like home”.) We are richer for this mix, added to the mosaic of indigenous cultures that were Canada already.
The Harper Government’s latest Immigration changes come with the good and the bad. The good part is that the Ministerial discretion being sought is designed to allow us to capture the specific types of skilled people currently in demand in Canada and accelerate their applications up the queue and into the country. This is a good thing. We do not want to become, as the United States with its Homeland Security attitudes and anti-skilled worker (consider the restrictions on H-1B visas [and the mandated H-4 status for spouses that exclude them from even unpaid volunteer work] currently in effect) approaches has, a country headed into (in the words of The Economist) an “Idiotocracy”. Nor do we want to lose the best available immigrants to other countries: these are a key part of our future prosperity. If you want a comfortable retirement, you should be pro-immigrant.
Which, when it comes to skilled immigrants and immediate family members, I am. I am less so in the other part of the category: extended family reunification. Here’s why.
In the nineteenth century, when immigrants came to this country, landing in either Halifax or Montréal and riding the Intercolonial, the Grand Trunk or the Canadian Pacific to their new homes, it was effectively a one-way trip. Almost none of them would ever go back to their ancestral homes. Other family members — brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, etc. — were accessible by slow and infrequent mailings at best. (In my own grandfather’s case, an infant immigrant in 1912, it was the last time he would have contact with his own elder brother or father or any other extended family member until World War II took him to the UK and he was able to use a leave to go to Scotland and research lost relatives.) The decision to emigrate was the decision to start a new life.
Today, of course, cheap air travel has made the world much smaller. (I have one friend, himself a childhood immigrant to Canada, whose parents make an annual trip back to their ancestral community to visit “the other part of the family”. We are fortunate to live in this brief period when the remaining cheap energy makes it easy to travel in this way.) One needn’t make a one-way trip: it is possible to return for weddings, funerals, even births, and still live in a new land. (As I learned myself last fall, travelling across this country — 4,492 km by road, or a little farther than the distance overland from London, England to Baghdad, Iraq — we can go for the dying and funeral of a family member and think nothing of the distances involved when travelling domestically: Vancouver to Toronto is nothing; London to Baghdad would be a great journey, indeed.)
As a result, extended family reunification ought to be a very secondary goal of our immigration policy, indeed. Often, these extended family members do not end up contributing much to Canada relatively speaking: we end up (a mutual pact of ignorance) putting them in a language and cultural ghetto of compatriots “from the old country”. Yet often this has been the implicit priority of our immigration system. The Harper Government is right to try and change it.
What is just plain awful about the proposed changes, of course, is the further concentration of power in the centre that it brings with it. I can accept that this time for a while, I believe, but I am not happy about it. (I’d much rather an honest accounting of what we need to do on the immigration file.)
Finally, there’s the missing element. The professional and learned societies, and the provincial licensing boards, need to be informed in no uncertain terms that if they are unprepared to move speedily and expeditiously to (a) recognise the credentials an immigrant brings, (b) handle such upgrading in as minimal a manner as is required [i.e. individual requirements, not wholesale credential re-acquisition], (c) license these immigrants to practice their professions, and (d) accept them into the field of practice [i.e. hospital privileges, join the firm, recognise tenure, etc.] then the Government will modify the terms of their Charters to “make it so”. It is perverse in the extreme that we work to acquire the best possible new Canadians only to introduce them to the joys of late night taxi driving and other forms of work that do not allow them to use the credentials and skills that gave them the points to come to Canada in the first place.
We need our immigrants: we need them to augment our own workforce, and to continue to build Canadian prosperity. We should want them to add to the tapestry that is Canadian culture, joining in and enriching it. We don’t need to turn the immigrant into a pauper. We also don’t need to eat into our own social services by creating an immigrant underclass through poor prospects and poor subsequent selections.
Perhaps if the Liberals were talking like that I’d be more inclined to see their huffery and puffery about the Immigration provisions as real, as opposed to simple posturing for votes.