Most Canadians see themselves as a welcoming people and market their country abroad as a receptive land for newcomers*. Americans on the other hand, are maybe unfairly seen as racist and Europeans can be called bigoted--colonialist and xenophobic, but this is, of course, not the case, officially speaking, in Canada. One of the world's most multicultural states likes to imagine itself a social-cultural utopia and a bastion of tolerance, irreproachable morality and probity. How do I know this for a fact? Well, because firstly, I have over the years lived and worked abroad. Yet moreover, most recently as an assistant to an international organisation overseas, I have seen, sat in countless multilateral meetings, and listened to, high-ranking officials, diplomats and government spokespersons from Canada, preach and pontificate to the rest of the world, how open and receptive our country is to the world's wandering and displaced populations.
This self congratulatory attitude perhaps stems from the country's "checkered history" related to its discriminatory treatment of aboriginal peoples. Or may be attributed to a lingering guilt over the "closed door" policy Ottawa adopted during the war years towards Europeans (mostly Jews) fleeing from Nazi persecution. In the post 9/11 world, however, Canada as other rich industrialist nations, is questioning its identity and the role immigration plays in society as never before.
A snake in northern Eden?
This immigrant paradise has some snakes crawling around in it it seems. Some time ago, a 2007 nation-wide poll taken by a major Canadian marketing firm gave the country's citizens a sudden cold shower. Entitled "racial tolerance report," conducted by Leger Marketing, the survey showed that 47 percent of those questioned considered themselves somewhat racist.
The "good news," however, is that overall Canadians have good opinions of "ethnic groups," although Arabs and Muslims in general among other so called "visible minorities" faired the worst in the poll. In Quebec, where nationalist and cultural sensitivities are the highest due to the distinctive nature of this province's French speaking minority within Canada, those polled, back then, showed a 59 percent of "pure wool" Quebecers to have racist inclinations.
These politically incorrect attitudes and notions of intolerance have been attributed to media coverage of current events in the Middle East over the years. Bashir Hussein of the Council of Muslim Communities in Canada told the national news outlet the CBC, at the time, that: "Whatever people read in the newspapers, they form their opinion from." For his part, David Scholz, vice president of Leger Marketing tends to agree: "What (this poll) shows me ...is how easily current affairs can influence our country."
Events abroad impact attitudes on the home front
2006 seemed to be a watershed year for Canada's recent immigrant population. In August of 2006, at the height of the Israeli Lebanon conflict, 16,000 of Montreal's Muslims took to the streets to denounce the surprise attack. On Aug. 6, the streets of the Montreal looked like a movie backdrop for downtown Beirut. "Ethnic" Canadians poured out into the streets of the city. The demonstration revealed how highly politicized recent immigrants are in their newly adopted country. Media reports later documented the "boat lift" of nearly 50,000 "Lebanese Canadians" who "returned home."
The Canadian government, under fire for being not prompt enough, organized a massive rescue for its fellow citizens in Lebanon yet it turned out later that some of these "neo-Canadians," while traveling on Canadian passports, were residing most of the time in Lebanon and returned there once the conflict ended. This raised the uncomfortable question of the Lebanese communities' "divided localities" and prompted the federal conservative government to re-examine the controversial dual citizenship policy which enables all Canadian citizens to enjoy access to many social benefits (health insurance, unemployment, welfare etc.) while retaining the national and residency rights of their birthplace.
Racism: A hypocritical taboo uncovered
Does this mean Canadians are no longer receptive to new immigrants? Well, not really, according to the politicians who until this poll was made public strangely remained absolutely silent on the issue of the integration of immigrants into Canadian society. So far, only in Quebec has a major leader ventured to react to the survey's findings. Staunchly denouncing the mere hint of racism in Quebec revealed by the poll's query Prime Minister Jean Charest declared then that "Quebecers aren't racists... I see the opposite. I see a society that is proud of its diversity, proud of the fact we have different cultural currents present within a society where the majority is francophone."
Yet despite these reassuring statements the politically charged immigration issue and its racism corollary remains for the most part, until today largely an unaddressed topic for the majority of politicians who need the "ethnic vote" to be elected or re-elected to office. Any real debate over the immigration reform which is already underway in Europe is thus stymied by short term political imperatives. The most striking aspect about the media marketing survey, done in 2007, is that it was not commissioned by any official or government body what so ever; hence immigration policy seems to remain a taboo concern in Canada. The media's attempt to de-mystify and de-stigmatizes popular views on immigration is something elected officials will have trouble ignoring from now on.
*In 2004, Canada admitted 262,236 permanent residents (candidates for Canadian citizenship) who settled in three major urban centers: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.