Let’s just jump into the piranha pond without caveats (they’ll come later) and say that much of the criticism of Kellie Leitch’s campaign statements on immigration has been overblown and distorted by those with hostile ideological and political agendas.
Still with me? Good. Now, let’s rewind and start with what she gets wrong.
Whether Leitch knew in advance that her campaign for the Conservative party leadership was asking prospective supporters via email if the “Canadian government (should) screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening for refugees and landed immigrants” is now beside the point, as she quickly embraced the position.
So did most Canadians. A Forum Research Inc. poll commissioned by the Toronto Star a week later showed 67 per cent of Canadians agreed with her. This included 87 per cent of Conservative voters as well as healthy majorities of Liberals (57 per cent) and New Democrats (59 per cent). But being popular does not make a policy good — and what Leitch is proposing is not good policy because it is unintelligible and impractical.
Phrased generally as “keeping out people who hold ‘anti-Canadian values,’” the idea has an almost tautological appeal. It is much harder, however, to explain what, precisely, you mean by “anti-Canadian values.” Like the cultures in which they are embedded, values are frustratingly hard to define. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promotion of “tolerance,” “acceptance,” “equality” and “diversity” (and once, curiously, “inclusive diversity”) reduces Canadian values to platitudes whose gauzy abstraction cannot bear much scrutiny.
Leitch’s list is not much more specific. Defining them in the negative, she says that “anti-Canadian values include intolerance toward other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms.” As with Trudeau, it all seems to boil down to tolerance and acceptance. The problem, of course, is that if Leitch and Trudeau appear to agree, it’s only because what they are saying is too ambiguous to have practical meaning.
Leitch found this out the hard way, when — under pressure from CTV’s Evan Solomon — she was unable to explain whether an observant Christian who, as a tenet of his faith, does not accept same-sex marriage would be barred from immigrating to Canada. One could add devout Muslims, Orthodox Jews … or, frankly, most people from non-Western countries. Her evasion was telling, as was her querulous eventual non-answer: “I’m not going to go point-by-point, issue-by-issue and trivialize this issue.”
Sorry, Dr. Leitch, but it trivializes a complex and important debate to raise questions without providing answers. And don’t complain about being pressed for details: This is your policy.
Nor are the experiences of Australia and the Netherlands — both of which have similar or worse integration problems than Canada — a compelling endorsement of such “screening.” This isn’t surprising: People will sign or say almost anything to come to Canada (or Australia, or Europe). Just ask the officials charged with immigration fraud detection. The tens of thousands of people who submit fraudulent education and employment credentials, marriage licenses and language test scores along with their Canadian permanent resident applications every year will hardly balk at signing a values pledge that is neither verifiable nor backed by a credible threat of enforcement.
An in-person interview, which Dr. Leitch has also called for, is a much better idea — but not for the reasons she proposes. Face-to-face interviews, which were the rule for most immigrants until the early 2000s, are much more effective at catching all sorts of fraud than a paper file review that is often conducted half-way around the world by people unfamiliar with the language or culture of the applicants. Former immigration officer James Metcalfe’s description of what was lost when Immigration Canada abandoned interviews is typical of what many older officials in the Department of Immigration will tell you:
There are all kinds of things that tipped me off about the veracity of an applicant’s claims. For example, I have never met a chef or cook who did not have burn marks or cuts or scars on their hands or arms. I have also never met a mechanic who had lily-white hands with no cuts or split fingernails …
(O)fficers were (also) allowed to award points for an applicant’s personal suitability for Canada. They could assess the individual’s ability to communicate in English or French right there, because they were in the same room together. Likewise, I interviewed applicants with obvious prison tattoos or gang related tattoos, which was a big red flag. That kind of instant vetting is all gone now.
(Interestingly, most immigrants who came through the old interview process also recall it fondly and can usually tell you the name of, or at least describe, the immigration officer who was their first introduction to their new country.)
But note what Metcalfe doesn’t talk about: abstract values or beliefs. The criteria that an in-person interview can confirm are the objective and verifiable traits of language ability, education, employment history and criminality. Leitch is quite right that in-person interviews absolutely should be required of permanent resident applicants — but as part of the existing vetting process, not a new “values” screening process. (The usual objection that it would cost too much is easily solved: Charge the applicants.)
Using interviews to screen for “anti-Canadian values”, however, would run into the same problems as a written values test or pledge. And as Leitch doesn’t explain how she would overcome those problems, it’s reasonable to conclude that her immigration policies are poll-driven pandering.
Which is a shame, because her failure to articulate a detailed policy doesn’t mean she’s wrong about the bigger picture. There are legitimate concerns about Canadian immigration that are not being acknowledged, let alone addressed, by our political leaders and public commentators. Worse, Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal government are determined to exacerbate these concerns by substantially increasing raw numbers of immigrants while loosening or abandoning policies designed to ensure that immigration serves the interests of Canada rather than the electoral prospects of the Liberal party.
What Leitch has so awkwardly stumbled upon is a real and legitimate concern about what our communities will look and feel like if current immigration policies continue unchanged, or change for the worse under the Liberals’ plans. There is already a well-founded suspicion that Canada’s immigration policy is being designed by professional immigration lobbyists and their emotional and ideological progressive allies to benefit foreigners first and Canadians second, if our interests are given any consideration at all.
What could give people that idea? To start, the Liberals have increased already high annual permanent resident targets to 300,000 per year (a Liberal-appointed advisory panel recommended increasing targets by a further 150,000, to 450,000 per year, so keep an eye out for that), even though the government’s own polls showed that only 8 per cent of Canadians wanted more immigration when the target was “only” 250,000 per year. Three times as many wanted less immigration.
What else? A non-exhaustive list would include:
- Lifting the visa-requirement on Mexico, which was imposed because in 2009 there were almost 10,000 asylum claims from this close ally and NAFTA partner (after the visa requirement was reinstated, that number fell to 120 in 2015). This decision has been taken before the efficacy of the government’s new electronic travel authorization process has been tested.
- A photo-op refugee policy. When Trudeau announced that his government would bring in 35,000 to 50,000 Syrian refugees, an Angus Reid poll showed that more than 70 per cent of Canadians opposed the plan. No one could fail to be moved by stage-managed photos of the prime minister greeting the first Syrian families (almost certainly selected under the previous government’s refugee policy) at Pearson Airport, but immigration is a numbers game and the Trudeau government was clearly listening to registered refugee lobbyists like Janet Dench and a narrow urban sliver of their base in setting targets way out of proportion with Canadian preferences for lower numbers.
- A cynically political refugee selection policy. Trudeau’s government trumpeted the arrival of the late Alan Kurdi’s uncle’s family to Canada, even though Kurdi had been living safely in Germany and his family in Istanbul. Why would our refugee policy prioritize a family living in first-world comfort over persons facing genocide, unless the decision eschewed “evidence-based policy” in favour of an emotive political narrative?
- Permanent increases in refugee resettlement. Because the Liberals have mostly stopped talking about it, Canadians might be under the impression that the newly-inflated refugee resettlement program was a one-year thing. It wasn’t. After the initial cohort of Syrian refugees arrived in 2015, another 25,000 arrived in 2016 and 25,000 more resettled refugees are scheduled for 2017.
- An apparent lack of concern for the effects of high levels of refugees on local communities. Teachers in Surrey, B.C., for example, say their number one challenge is a lack of resources to accommodate a large influx of maladjusted and under-educated refugees. It apparently never occurred to the government that swamping communities with families from war zones might have effects that exceed existing integration resources. Housing, education and medical systems across the country will experience similar problems. It’s fortunate for the Liberals that the media have an almost missionary attraction to integration success stories, while mostly ignoring the challenges and failures.
- A pledge to raise the maximum age of dependents who can immigrate with their parents from 18 to 22. This will enable and encourage more chain migration through arranged marriages, spousal sponsorships, and parent and grandparent sponsorship of persons who are not selected for their potential economic contributions to Canada — but whose primary qualification is being a relative of someone who was.
- Watering down the requirements for language and citizenship knowledge tests by exempting anyone under 18 (previously 14) or over 54 (previously 64).
- Loosening the rules to qualify for citizenship based on residency in Canada. The Liberals are reducing the residency requirement from four years to three and are no longer requiring a permanent resident to spend at least half of each year in Canada to qualify for citizenship, meaning more absentee and oversees candidates will get the benefits of a Canadian passport.
- Promising to increase the number of temporary foreign workers and repealing measures put in place to ensure Canadians have the first crack at jobs.
All this in the first 18 months of the new Liberal government. The cumulative effect will be to increase overall immigration significantly and remove safeguards designed to make immigration more likely to address Canada’s economic needs.
Each policy has been a conscious choice by the new Liberal government and together they reveal Justin Trudeau’s vision of Canadian immigration. Fewer people selected for language ability, economic skills, or other traits that have been shown to improve integration. Watered-down citizenship and language requirements that will relax the ties between new citizens and Canada. A tolerance for significantly higher levels of illegal immigration from Mexico and elsewhere. And relative indifference to the settlement outcomes of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have passed through his photo line and will continue to do so for years to come.
Beyond the content of the policies, the important point about these choices is that they are, in fact, choices. It’s no good telling people that population change or demographic and cultural change is inevitable and that they must accept it passively, because it’s not true. Immigration isn’t like aging or the weather, against which one rails vainly; immigration policy is a set of deliberate decisions made by governments — by politicians. Different choices will lead to different outcomes. Worse choices will lead to worse outcomes. And Trudeau and his hapless former minister of Immigration, John McCallum, have chosen to make Canada’s immigration policy worse in almost every way.
If you require fewer newcomers to be able to speak English or French, you will get more ghettoization. If you allow companies to hire more workers without having to first test the Canadian job market, you will get more workers competing for jobs Canadians would be willing to do for higher wages. If you increase the opportunities for families to game the immigration system through arranged marriages of adult dependents, you will get more immigrants who are not selected based on skills they can contribute to Canada. And if you allow more people to bring over their grandparents to live with them, it will impose a higher burden on the Canadian healthcare and welfare systems. These are stubborn facts.
By increasing the quantity of immigrants while reducing their quality in objective terms, Prime Minister Trudeau risks fuelling existing unease with Canada’s immigration and integration policies. By making deliberate choices that Canadians have told the government in poll after poll they oppose, he is thumbing his nose at the electorate.
If the electorate continues to object, the blame is on the nose-thumber, not the thumbee. If people don’t like the policy choices a government makes, they are free to say so, and to say so loudly and stridently if the government continues to ignore them. In a democracy, they should.
Given Justin Trudeau’s determination to defy the existing Canadian immigration consensus — that immigrants should be carefully selected to benefit Canada and for their potential to integrate — it is dishonest to dismiss Leitch’s clumsily-articulated campaign positions as racial dog-whistles or lump her in with fringe white-nationalists. She is on the side of the majority and that majority deserves to be taken seriously.
You can be concerned about immigration and integration policy without being racist. You can support some immigration without being in favour of more immigration. You can support some kinds of immigration without favouring other kinds. You can question the efficacy of current screening and call for more stringent screening without being a fearmonger. Most Canadians agree with one or more of these views. Heck, most Canadian immigrants themselves agree with them. If you’re going to slap opprobrious labels on everyone who raises such concerns, you’re quickly going to run out of labels.
Believing that Canadian immigration policy (like any other government policy) should be designed first and foremost to benefit Canadians — and not the hundreds of millions of foreigners who would like to be Canadian — is not xenophobic. A desire to preserve a way of life that represents the pinnacle of historical human society is not a symptom of incipient fascism. Concern that rapid changes to the look and feel of your community risk upsetting a quality of life that is vanishingly rare around the world is not unreasonable. It is simply a layman’s intuitive application of the precautionary principle.
Sure, change might come with some benefits (and almost certainly some costs), but why change so aggressively something that is already the envy of the world? The caution and scepticism that is sneered at today as blinkered nationalism would have been — until recently — praised as common-sense patriotism.
In 1991, Nathan Gardels, the editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, sat down in the postcard-perfect Italian town of Portofino to interview the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Gardels asked Berlin about the reemergence of nationalism in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the liberal sage’s response is worth quoting at length:
(Johann Gottfried) Herder virtually invented the idea of belonging. He believed that just as people need to eat and drink, to have security and freedom of movement, so too they need to belong to a group. Deprived of this, they feel cut off, lonely, diminished, unhappy. Nostalgia, Herder said, is the noblest of all pains. To be human means to be able to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind.
Each group, according to Herder, has its own Volksgeist — a set of customs and a lifestyle, a way of perceiving and behaving that is of value solely because it is their own. The whole of cultural life is shaped from within the particular stream of tradition that comes from collective historical experience shared only by members of the group.
“Herder’s idea of nation was deeply nonaggressive,” Berlin insisted. There was nothing in Herder, “about race and nothing about blood. He only spoke about soil, language, common memories, and customs.” Warming to his subject, and personalizing it, Berlin added:
Like Herder, I regard cosmopolitanism as empty. People can’t develop unless they belong to a culture. Even if they rebel against it and transform it entirely, they still belong to a stream of tradition. … But if the streams dry up, as for instance, where men and women are not products of a culture, where they don’t have kith and kin and feel closer to some people than to others, where there is no native language — that would lead to a tremendous desiccation of everything that is human.
So where does this leave Canada and Canadians, when their ostentatiously cosmopolitan young prime minister (photographed recently wearing a T-shirt with the literally nonsensical slogan: ‘I am a global citizen’) tells the New York Times that we are the first “post-national” state?
The definitional and factual problems with Trudeau’s statement have been exposed elsewhere, but it’s worth considering what Trudeau himself thought he meant by it. In that same interview he explained: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada … There are shared values (Dr. Leitch, call your office!) — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice. Those qualities are what make us the first post-national state.”
Got it? (It helps if you ignore the fact that these qualities, which would be claimed by every modern liberal democracy, are in no way incompatible with the idea of nationhood.)
If we’re not a nation (or the union of multiple nations, as Stephen Harper formally recognized), I suppose it doesn’t matter who we let live here or what they do once they are here. It’s all cool, man. Anyone can click their heels and be a Canadian — there’s no place like home, whatever “home” means, amiright?
Trudeau’s shallow vision of a country, unrooted and hardly worth rooting for, echoes Yann Martel’s description of Canada as “the greatest hotel on earth” (it’s still hard to believe he meant that as a compliment). Most Canadians, including those most accepting of change, would feel pretty strange living in a hotel, surrounded by a shifting and unpredictable population of strangers.
As Isaiah Berlin knew, for people to feel most human they need to feel they belong to a common culture that amounts to more than just platitudes. Nor is fluency in the same language sufficient (though Trudeau seems determined to undermine that aspect of Canadian culture by downplaying language ability for immigration, even while paradoxically reinforcing official bilingualism for our ruling elite). It means familiarity with the same experiences, cultural tropes and stories. If you are not born and raised with those cultural markers, it means embracing them yourself and instilling them in your children.
This is not controversial to most Canadian immigrants. They have chosen to come to Canada precisely because our culture and values, ineffable though they may be, underpin a social certainty, security and opportunity that their birth countries do not. They know better than most Canadians the difference between people who come to Canada to better themselves and contribute to their new country and those who come to leach off our generous social benefits, nursing resentment and uninterested in integration.
Instead of wasting time on symbolic but ineffectual “values” screening, Conservatives should talk seriously about restoring and then further tightening selection standards such as official language ability that have been shown to correspond to better immigration outcomes.
They should promise to reverse Trudeau’s cheapening of Canadian citizenship by restoring the longer residency and acclimation period before permanent residents are eligible to apply for it. If they want to push the envelope, they could propose requiring basic English and French-language ability for sponsored spouses, as Britain does to discourage forced marriages, to ensure spouses are not trapped in a linguistic ghetto and are able to participate fully in their new society.
On overall numbers, someone needs to speak for the large majority who oppose the Liberals’ recent increase in immigration levels. It bespeaks an unhealthy public discourse that, until this month — when Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney made noises about restoring Harper-era levels of immigration — no one in any major party was reflecting the majority view favouring lower temporary and permanent immigration levels. It is not surprising that the only candidates willing to take even a modest stand against ever-increasing immigration are from rural Quebec, where a sense of a common identity is most deeply rooted.
What accounts for the silence? I suspect the media outlets which mediate the national conversation are largely to blame, but so too is the timorous consensus among our political class that even mentioning immigration is somehow an affront to our social cohesion. In truth, the threat comes from our failure to discuss, let alone address, the problem. And if you doubt either the discomfort or the problem, try raising the topic of housing prices in Vancouver or gang violence in Scarborough and listen as exquisitely self-conscious progressives dance uncomfortably over and around the unspoken root cause of bad immigration and indifferent integration policies.
It is long past time that we began thinking about and discussing immigration policy as policy, and not simply an exercise in lump-throated nostalgia, national mythology and wishful thinking. Already, most large Canadian cities contain neighbourhoods in which Canadians can feel alien in the country of their birth. That is a failure of either immigration selection policy or integration policy, or both. More immigration and worse selection — the twin highlights of the Liberals’ profligate immigration policy — will exacerbate this failure.
At least one of our national parties needs to take seriously the concerns of a majority of Canadians about what level and kind of immigration best serves Canadians and their communities. Someone needs to make the case for the lower immigration levels and better selection criteria that Canadians have told the government they want, and which will enable smoother cultural and linguistic integration of newcomers.
On the evidence so far, that person is probably not Kellie Leitch. But for now, she’s the only one stepping up.