Is Canada as open-minded as the media present it?
It was an example of great compassion and vision. The day US President Donald Trump announced a ban on refugees and immigrants from certain Muslim-majority Middle East countries entering the United States, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that his country would provide shelter for them.
This has almost always been the face that Canada presents to the world. That it is a land of multiculturalism and diversity, where newcomers are welcome. One-fifth of Canadians are foreign born, a 2011 survey concluded.
While the United States said it would accept 10,000 refugees during the Syrian crisis, a number from which it has since backed away, Canada has taken in 39,000. It provided them financial support for a year. The media are full of stories about refugees fleeing Trump’s ban who have braved the cold and snow to cross the US border into a remote town in Manitoba.
That welcoming and friendly image is one that Canadians value and, by and large, new immigrants to the country say they feel treated as fellow Canadians, not as outsiders. This situation has not gone unnoticed internationally, with publications such as the Economist citing Canada as one of the last bastions of open-minded liberalism in the Western world.
The reality, however, is that Canada is not quite as open-minded as the media present it. The January 29th killing of six Muslims in a Quebec City mosque, allegedly by a 27-year-old Canadian with white-supremacist and neo-Nazi leanings, shows that Canada is not immune to the racism and hatred found in much of Europe and the United States.
An October 2016 poll by Angus Reid showed that the image of Canada as an open and welcoming society was at least partly illusion. The poll said that 68% of Canadian respondents said minorities should “do more to fit in”, rather than keep their cultural traditions, customs and language. That compares to poll data in which 53% of Americans asked said minorities needed to do more to fit in.
Canadians do tend to adapt quicker to change than Americans. An example of this was the kerfuffle in the 1990s over whether Sikh police/military officers should be allowed to wear turbans while on duty. While a subject of great controversy then, it is perfectly normal to see a turbaned Sikh officer these days. In fact, Canada’s minister of Defence is a Sikh.
Right-wing Canadian politicians, encouraged by Trump’s success and aware that many of their fellow countrymen are feeling uneasy about the surge in immigration, have been quick to capitalise on this resentment.
Canada’s Conservative Party is having a leadership campaign. One of the leading candidates, Kellie Leitch, has proposed immigration policies that would require immigrants to be screened for what she has termed “Canadian values”. The proposal was roundly criticised by the governing Liberal Party and by even members of her own party.
Leitch, however, has had a more positive response from some quarters in Canada, especially among those who feel that their way of life is being threatened or who feel left out of the political process. Basically, many of the same types of people who elected Trump in the United States.
It will be a bit of a tightrope for Trudeau to walk in the next few years. On the one hand, Canada strongly encourages immigration because of the clear economic benefits, especially in terms of helping to fund its much vaunted social safety net. On the other hand, however, the question of how welcoming white Canadians will be to the idea of increased diversity and multiculturalism at a time of great global turmoil is an open question. It will not be an easy problem to solve.