Immigration and Integration in Canada

While most of the Western world has seen a backlash against immigrants (and diversity more broadly) in recent years, one country stands apart in maintaining robust national support for immigration: Canada. Yes, Canada, that mild mannered nation we Americans love to poke fun at, has somehow discovered the secret to integration that the rest of the West lacks. What’s the story?

One attempt at explanation can be found in this excellent article here (alas, I can’t remember how I came across it). I’ll run through the arguments, but first, some stage setting.

Most of us have heard the analogy of America as a ‘melting pot’ of peoples. This is supposed to conjure a vision of many diverse peoples coming together and becoming something altogether new. We’ve probably also heard that this is a bad analogy, at least for the short term, because it implies a cultural homogeneity that simply isn’t the case. Something like a salad bowl or a mosaic is more accurate analogy, because immigrants retain many aspects of their prior identity for at least a few generations, but we’re all in the same ‘bowl’. The question is, how mixed are the ingredients? If all the tomatoes and cucumbers are clustered at the bottom of the bowl, that’s not much of a salad.

In the US we do a far better job of integrating our immigrants than, say, France, where immigrants remain cloistered in ethnic enclaves for generations and have poor labor market integration; a contributing factor, no doubt, to the recent spate of terror attacks. Still, the election of Trump partly on a campaign of demonizing immigrants, and the increasing number of Republicans with hardline positions on immigration suggests a growing problem.

Canada, by comparison, manages to bring in a greater fraction of its population from across the world with no political backlash.  In the main, the author argues that “what Canada has been very successful at doing is integrating immigrants into the basic institutional structure of society”, without requiring them to integrate culturally as well. What does this mean?

In Western society, we generally can separate out the rules of governance from cultural norms. The process of filing a tax return or registering a vehicle is neutral with respect to culture (unless you happen to be a sovereign citizen). This is part of our liberal political tradition (not to be confused with the current American meaning of liberal), where the ideal government respects the beliefs and practices of the individual. In a theocratic society, compliance with the law is synonymous with adherence to religious law.  

Despite this ideal, it’s quite difficult to achieve in practice. Even our laws against violence and killing have cultural bias; in a number of countries, honor killings and such are culturally and legally acceptable. Obeying our laws around violence is potentially an instance of requiring cultural assimilation while integrating into our institutional structure (though thankfully in this instance, probably very minor). To take France as an example again, they have laws prohibiting face coverings or headscarves in public spaces, which means that Muslims are required to assimilate culturally to integrate institutionally. (For an exploration of what a truly neutral liberal society might look like, check out this SlateStarCodex post).

Canada’s comparative success lies in designing their institutions such that they are minimally obligatory towards cultural assimilation. The example given in the article is that of Canada altering the Mounty uniform so as to allow Sikhs to wear turbans. It’s a small thing, but as such Sikhs who wish to serve are allowed to maintain an important aspect of their cultural identity while also contributing to the larger nation.

Now that being said, there are some other factors that contribute to Canadian success; after all, I don’t think the United States places an especially heavy institutional burden towards cultural assimilation either. One striking difference is that Canada has basically no illegal immigration. To an extent, this is beyond their control; Canada lacks a long border with a considerably poorer nation, as we do here. But what is under their control is the policy of favoring permanent migration over temporary work visas; in the United States much illegal immigration is actually instances of overstaying visas, and not illegal border crossings. When people feel that the new people around them ‘deserve’ to be there, there’s more buy in than if there is a widespread sense that the immigration process is uncontrolled.

Another factor is that Canada deliberately selects its immigrants to be as diverse as possible, which means there is no single large minority group as in most other Western countries. If you’re at the wedding of a family member, you’ll probably spend most of your time talking to your own folks rather than seeking out the other family. But at the wedding of your spouse’s friend, with no in group fallback, you’ll be forced to engage with the wide variety of guests (or, if you’re like me, nobody at all…maybe not the best example but you get the idea).  A large concentrated minority group makes an ‘us vs. them’ mentality easy to come by.

And most interesting to me is the idea that Canada has institutionalized protection of the majority culture clear from the start, which stems from the Quebec situation. The argument goes like this: French Canadians are a minority nationally, but the majority in Quebec. Large scale immigration would dilute the power of French Canadians even within Quebec if most immigrants chose to integrate with the Anglophone majority.

“Because of this, the only way that it has been possible to have something resembling a national immigration policy has been to offer a set of very explicit protections for Quebec, and in particular, for the French language. These same protections, however, have been extended to the English majority as well. So, for instance, Canada is far more explicit with immigrants about the importance of language-learning than many other countries are, in part because we have an ‘official languages’ policy that sets out very clearly the privileged status of English and French.”

The result of this is that there needn’t be any anxiety about immigrants ‘taking over’, since the English language is protected. I think this is a really powerful insight. Language and culture have a powerful connection; being surrounded by people who look different but speak your language is considerably less threatening than the alternative.

So we can see how the United States fares comparatively on these counts. We have a large chunk of the immigrant population that’s ethnically homogeneous, often perceived as coming here without restraint, and who are linguistically apart from the rest of America. The rhetoric of fear coming from many anti-immigrant activists is directed towards Latin American peoples; you just know that people complaining about immigration don’t mean Slovenians. Problems around Mexican immigration end up clouding the broader issue of immigration for many Americans.

It’s possible that what we are going through right now in terms of immigrant backlash is the national version of what happened in California in the 90s (and with the Irish and Italians and Germans in the 19th century); if so, this sentiment will pass with time. Still, if we want to prevent such pain the in future, there are steps we should take.

One is to increase the perception of border control. The reality is right now illegal border crossings from Mexico are at historic lows, but many people are still stuck in 2000 (and the majority of those border crossings are actually people fleeing violence in Central America). I really don’t know the best way to do this; Trump’s wall is functionally a giant waste of money, but if it sets people at ease, maybe it’s worth it.

Most immigration to the US is centered around family reunification, which means that the immigrant populations already here tend to grow in size. We have a diversity visa (DV) program, which aims to bring in underrepresented countries, but the program is tiny in comparison to family reunification immigration. We could expand the size of the DV program considerably as to add more balance to our immigration mix.

And finally, we should consider making English an official language. As it stands, there is no official federal language, though obviously English is the working language. For some reason, proposals to codify English’s status are often viewed as anti-immigrant by the left. To me it just seems obvious that people should have some working knowledge of English; it’s a small price to pay. I’m staunchly pro-immigration, but having worked several years in retail in an urban area, it’s just annoying to have people you are simply unable to communicate with. (If you can’t communicate at a cash register, the most basic of social interactions, what are your chances of integration into society?) For those already disposed to be skeptical of immigration, the sensation that English is threatened is certainly not going to help any. I’m not saying English should be the only language, but we need something more than living in the same territory to bind us together.  


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