Adapted from the 2013 Ismaili Centre Lecture, delivered Dec. 1 in Burnaby, B.C.
Canada can feel like the world’s experiment, the one country that has everything but an abundance of people, and so that’s just what the world is giving us.
About one-quarter of our population is now foreign-born. Greater Toronto is home to more than one million people born outside Canada – including immigrants from 22 countries that account for at least 1 per cent of the city’s population.
Unlike anywhere else on the planet, these newcomers become citizens in numbers not seen anywhere else. In the past decade, we have accepted about 70 new citizens for every 1,000 we already have – well more than double the rate of other Western countries. About three-quarters of our foreign-born population are citizens. In Britain, it’s less than half.
Much of the world watches in wonder as this social experiment continues apace, without serious social tensions. We shouldn’t assume that can continue.
The Quebec Charter of Values is a message from one part of the country that our rights-based approach to multiculturalism is not endorsed by all. More insidious perhaps are growing ethnic divisions in both education and employment that may play out negatively a decade from now.
In education, we have the opposite experience to Western Europe: Immigrants here do remarkably well in our schools, completing high school and university at rates unmatched in other Western countries, and well ahead of the non-immigrant population.
But there’s potential friction in the gap between immigration groups. For first-generation Chinese immigrants, the postsecondary participation rate is 88 per cent. For those from Africa: 65 per cent.
Since education is a key determinant of economic success, and in turn economic success increasingly determines educational outcomes, we may soon find ourselves in a country of self-perpetuating enclaves of success and stagnation.
That leads to the other major challenge in our national pursuit of a pluralistic society – jobs and income. New Canadians do fairly well for employment, and have done much better than non-immigrants since the recession of 2008. But unemployment statistics mask the participation rate. Truth is, immigrant youth – especially in our big cities – have been excluded from the formal, or mainstream, work force and are not gaining the skills to be economically relevant.
Also masked are important divisions between immigrant groups. The highest rate of employment is found among Filipinos. Unemployment for African-born immigrants aged 25-54, who have been here fewer than five years, is 21.3 per cent.
For those concerned about such divisions – look only to the United States and Western Europe – there are plenty of policy options already in our hands. Here are four:
1. Universal health care that innovates
Health care is the No. 1 determinant of economic success and social mobility. While there is plenty of room for innovation and efficiency, and better cost management, universal health care is critical to our sense of pluralism. We cannot continue to attract record numbers of skilled immigrants, and see them quickly excel in Canada without quality, accessible health care.
2. Education that integrates
In a diverse society such as ours, schools need cultural accommodation, especially in the early years. An Oxford University study of immigration and diversity among Western countries found Canada to have excelled in intercultural education, except on two counts – allowing schools to modify curricula and teaching materials for the local population, and adjusting daily life in school to the culture and beliefs of pupils, who tend to learn better when they are in familiar milieux.
3. A labour market that mobilizes
Canadians today are increasingly mobile, led by new Canadians. In 2011, more than half the employment growth among landed immigrants was accounted for by newcomers living in the Prairies and British Columbia. We need to address structural rigidities, including faster certification of overseas professional standards, a national skills program along the lines of what the federal government is currently pushing on reluctant provinces and, notably, an overhaul of the employment insurance program, which continues to impede a mobile society.
4. Citizenship that both inspires change and withstands it
We give citizenship, even dual citizenship, more than any other country. That approach has reduced social tensions, and given immigrants better access to schools, courts, hospitals and the ballot box.
As we have seen through our history, reasonable accommodation is about more than open doors, even more than a Charter that secures rights and freedoms. It’s about a country that enables its citizens, new and old, to fulfill their promise. The great Canadian experiment is not so much about whether we can keep our doors open to the world; it’s about what we can do with the hopes and dreams that come through those doors.
John Stackhouse is editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. Full text is available here.
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