This opinion originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
By Ratna Omidvar
Not every country can host a politician from the largest national economy in Europe and give lessons on how to run an immigration system. But Canada can — and did — when Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany, made a state visit in September. He stopped in Toronto for a round table on immigration that his people asked us to convene.
He wanted to know what makes us work. How does Toronto, with a foreign-born population of nearly 50 per cent, manage not to combust? I hear this question a lot. I can frame the answer a dozen ways and list dozens of the policies, tools and historical and geographic facts (what Malcolm Ross called “the impossible sum of our traditions”) that wire us for working multiculturalism. But there is one feature I include even in the most simplified version: that newcomers are seen as citizens in the making.
Future citizenship is both policy and public philosophy. There is a clear and relatively quick pathway to citizenship for immigrants to Canada, although the waiting time is set to get longer in 2015. As for public philosophy, immigrant children learn in public schools from a young age that “you’re just as Canadian as anyone else.” Because this message is in our books and infused in our day-to-day, the idea that immigrants are future citizens actually becomes lived expression.
In the last of her Massey Lectures on citizenship, Adrienne Clarkson explains why the Canadian mindset works using the theory of Hans Vaihinger, who thought that to act “as if” something is true is a practical way to get there.
Because we treat newcomers as future citizens, serious investment is made in their health, well-being and skill level from the start, often regardless of immigration status. Canada has a robust settlement sector, we pay for language courses, we extend health care and social services to non-citizens, and some cities invite non-citizens to sit on local boards. The Canadian mindset is why our school boards and police services follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so that status does not determine access to essential services. When we act as if newcomers are citizens, they truly are citizens in the making.
But this core trait that makes us work — and that’s exportable to countries like Germany where the citizenship laws are under revision — is being chipped away by policies introduced by this government. I alluded to one of these changes already: the coming increase in residence time from three to four years before applying for citizenship.
But there is another change buried in a thick new omnibus bill and it is far worse. It would allow provinces to restrict refugee claimants and others without permanent status from accessing social assistance by lifting a ban on minimum residency requirements — a ban that said we don’t care if you’ve been here for two years or 24 hours, if you’re a refugee claimant or other temporary resident, you will be treated humanely. In the worst-case scenario if this law is passed, people without permanent status would lose social assistance, which for some is their only source of income.
So far, the government has defended the legislation using familiar language. “Canadians have no tolerance for those who take unfair advantage of our generosity,” said Kevin Menard, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. It’s a classic misleading use of language, prompting us to conclude that refugee claimants in particular are taking advantage.
But refugee claimants in Canada have a legal right to make a claim before a decision-maker. Some will have their case accepted, some will not. And while their claim is undecided, we cannot ignore that they are here — and more, that they could be future citizens.
Each year, typically 40 to 45 per cent of claimants are accepted. There were 10,000 claims in 2013. That’s a lot of potential future citizens without social assistance, whose first taste of Canada could be embittered by needless difficulties. This is not the right thing or the smart thing to do.
When Canada invests in its newcomers, they invest back in Canada. Let’s not break what makes us work — treating refugee claimants and all other newcomers “as if.”