By Gillian Hewitt Smith, Globe and Mail, May 23, 2012
Gillian Hewitt Smith is the executive director and CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
Ultimately, we must address the question of Canadian citizenship, its value and meaning.
Immigrants are more than bodies and minds imported to solve short-term economic imperatives. First and foremost, they are people whose successful integration into the social, cultural and political realms of Canadian society, along with its economic sector, is of critical importance.
Canadians agree with this point. In its 2011 Focus Canada survey, the Environics Institute found that Canadians put lower priority on immigrants becoming economically self-sufficient than on adapting in other ways to Canadian society.
Integrating into the labour force is only part of the picture. People everywhere have an innate need for connection, belonging and a sense of welcome no matter where life’s lottery assigned their birthplace. True, some of these needs are satisfied by meaningful work, but life is much more than a job or career.
Through the work of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship with tens of thousands of new citizens and more than 1,000 cultural attractions across Canada, we hear endless stories that make it abundantly clear that those newest to our country crave more than jobs. We hear how meaningful it is for a new citizen to discover a national park, how volunteering at a child’s school enables a new citizen to make friends in the community, and how visiting a museum helps them to connect to Canada.
A simple focus on immediate economic needs cannot come at the expense of longer-term nation-building.
The fact is, Canada naturalizes a far higher percentage of immigrants than any other country on Earth, with roughly 85 per cent of those eligible eventually becoming Canadian citizens. Landing and settling here are, for most newcomers, temporary points along the road to becoming a citizen.
Indeed, we look to marry, not casually date, those who choose to come to Canada. In a groundbreaking national survey on attitudes toward citizenship, Canadians on Citizenship (in which the ICC was a partner), foreign-born Canadian citizens and permanent residents were asked when they first felt “Canadian.” The overwhelming response: the moment they arrived in Canada. Immigrants arrive pre-wired for engagement in Canadian society.
It’s clear that Canada’s long-term stability, success and peaceful cohesion depend on creating engaged and active Canadian citizens, not just on employing immigrants.
This isn’t difficult. In Canadians on Citizenship, Canadians also identified that citizenship is far more than voting, obeying the law and paying taxes. They named community engagement, volunteering, acceptance of difference, protecting the environment and many other activities as essential acts of citizenship.
So then what of the Canadian-born? As a 13th-generation Canadian, I read the series (in the Globe and Mail) wondering if the “immigrant answer” gave me an automatic bye from contributing to the health and vitality of my nation.
By focusing on the immigrant answer, we are placing an undue and unfair burden on the newly arrived that we don’t place on ourselves.
Newcomers and new citizens are actively encouraged to participate in community life, while Canadians generally are volunteering in ever-decreasing numbers. We stress the importance of voting and political participation with those newly able to cast a ballot. Yet Canadians overall are less engaged in the political process than ever before. The test we make our citizen candidates answer before becoming Canadian citizens is filled with questions many Canadian-born would struggle to answer correctly.
In order to succeed, all Canadians must accept the responsibilities we impart to those who choose to make Canada their home and native land.
Three cheers from this corner of the arena, for Ms Hewitt Smith's prescient challenge to all Canadians to confront the "economic unit" argument of the government when contemplating immigration policy changes.
"We look to marry, not casually date" those who come to Canada...is as pragmatic and idealistic a phrase as one could muster in the situation.
And integration, as anyone knows who thinks about it, requires the active participation of both parties to the act. It is not up to government only to do the work of integrating newcomers to this country. Nor is the current government's definition of a potential immigrant as one with the skills needed for successful employment, and thereby earning an income and thus avoiding any assistance from the public purse (which has to be at least as important to this government as filling the holes in the labour market) sufficient, or even supportable as a public policy goal.
The Canadian culture, while publicly championing the accessibility of our country to those from other lands, cultures, languages and faiths, is not nearly as "open" and receptive and welcoming as our public face would seem to suggest. We do a miserable job of matching already achieved education with our professional educational requirments thereby facilitating the process, for example, of integration into the profession of the immigrant into the Canadian cadre of that profession. Hence, doctors and lawyers from other countries are forced to drive taxis in our major cities. Of course, the professional associations have both their pride and their gate-keeping requirments; yet these could and should be negotiated by the provincial governments with their professional associations.
On another level, we find that most activists in the field of immigration are either former civil servants retired to the bounty of "consulting" for substantial fees, or church-affiliates and ethically motivated citizens who comprehend the importance of "national hospitality".
When there is a tragedy, Canadians do respond to their neighbours. However, we tend not to see the landing of a family on our shores, or at our airports as analogous to "tragedy" when, in fact, that may well be the case. We consider more our pride in their chosing to come here, than our need to support their entry, and then their adaptation to our country's ways.
It is Canadians whose role as active, committed, informed and compassionate "hosts" that can and will demonstrate to the government and to the immigrants themselves, that any reduction of their "personhood" to a mere economic unit, with the right skills to fill the job holes in our corporate marketplace, is completely unacceptable to Canadians, and through our commitment to our country and to the immigrants we can push back against a government whose vision is so one-dimensional and so reprehensible.