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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Human Migration and the Changing Demographics of Canada

Immigration and refugees are words that have become an anathema in Europe, evoking strong emotional responses, making it impossible to conduct a rational debate on the subject. The rise of the Donald Trump brand of politics in the United States indicates that there is a groundswell of opinion that covertly supports stringent measures to keep a check on the influx of immigrants. Even though the other side of the political spectrum may seem balanced, there is an unmistakable unease amongst some of the most liberal minded leaders and their followers about the possibility of the great unwashed turning up in planeloads at the nearest airport.

Most of us in Canada take pride in the Justin Trudeau brand of liberalism that encouraged 25,000 refugees from Syria to come to Canada in 2015. However, as the recent Munk debate in Toronto on the subject clearly showed, even those who are inclined to support immigration of refugees appear to want strict measures in place to control the influx. 

I urge you to watch the Munk debate on the subject because it is indicative of the gradual shift of public opinion away from the liberal ethos that Canadians have by and large embraced (irrespective of their political inclinations) on the question of immigration and allowing refugees.

In the Munk debate, the audience poll showed that prior to the debate an overwhelming majority was in favour of refugees being allowed into Canada; however, the pendulum of opinion swayed dramatically in the other direction by the end of the debate. And on conclusion of the debate, even though a majority of the audience members were still in support of Canada’s liberal policies on refugee immigration, the margin between those in favour of and those opposed had shrunk dramatically, not to say disconcertingly.

The same issue was debated at the 2016 edition of the Spur Festival. The subject of the debate was ‘Human Migration and the Changing Demographics of Canada.’ The panelists were Margaret Kopala, a journalist and Conservative political activist; Kiran Banerjee, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto; Abdul Nakua, a community organizer and activist; Dana Wagner, senior research associate at the Global Diversity Exchange. CBC’s David Common moderated the debate.

The debate was pertinent, engaging, and provided a fresh perspective to the Canadian experience. Setting off the discussion, David Common observed that in the Canadian context, the debate on immigration would not be on “whether to,” but on “how to,” because, uniquely in Canada, the entire political spectrum supports immigration.

Abdul Nakua observed that increasingly the debate has veered towards the status of Muslims immigrants in the western world, and the third generation of Muslim immigrants are seriously questioning their status in the western society vis-à-vis their identity. He said that by 2030, nearly 80% of Canadians will be immigrant, so it is necessary for Canada to develop mechanisms to accommodate immigrant aspirations – immigrants continue to face cultural, economic and social barriers. Nakua emphasized that Canadian identity is not based on ethnicities but around values – Canadian values.  

Dana Wagner said in Canada integration of newcomers whether immigrants or refugees has worked quite well. She explained that when multiculturalism as a program was launched, it was state-led and aimed at the majority community to help change Canada’s predominantly British identity to a more diverse identity. However, Wagner said, Canadians cannot be complacent about social licenses because there is race-based poverty.

Margaret Kopala demanded that the influx of refugees should be slowed down immediately till Canada has proper controls in place. She said in 1981 there were just six ethnic enclaves in Canada, but that number has leaped to over 200 in present times. She warned that the 25,000 Syrian refugees who were allowed in Canada in 2015 will be allowed to sponsor their relatives and that would lead to more than 150,000 refugees coming into Canada. Kopala insisted that screening of refugees and immigrants should not just be for security but also for compatibility.

Kiran Banrejee observed that in present times, over 60 million people are affected by war and there are more than 20 million refugees across the world. He said the norms and definitions for refugees laid down in the UN convention on refugees (1951) is to a large extent outdated, but is the only policy document that protects displaced persons. He said refugee camps have been permanent when by nature they are temporary, and increasingly, refugees are unable to access permanent resettlement.

In the ensuing debate, Kopala observed that it was necessary for the countries in Western Europe and North America to go to the refugees where they are to provide them succour rather than have them immigrate. Wagner said clarity on the subject has been hampered because of a huge gap between perceptions and reality. There are two systems of permitting refugees in Canada – resettlement and inland system, she said, adding that there are three streams of immigrants – economic, refugee and family. Wagner advocated for private sector participation in integration of refugees and immigrants.

Kopala said newcomers need to understand the influence of sex, drugs and social media on their young adults. She also seemed to imply that immigrants and refugees are not economically as productive as native Canadians, and this is the key factor for the lowest productivity indices that Canada has amongst OECD countries.

Towards the end of the debate, panelists appeared to come to a consensus that for immigration to succeed, economic integration of the immigrants had to succeed.

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