As The Globe and Mail concludes its series The Immigrant Answer, it should be congratulated for tackling a subject vital to Canada’s long-term health and prosperity. Strong and sound immigration policy and settlement practices are in Canadians’ collective best interest; a national conversation to identify and explain the key issues and debates about the choices being made to evolve immigration policies is essential.
The series falls short, however, in two key areas: failing to look at immigrants as more than economic engines, and forgetting that all Canadians have a role to play in the success of our extraordinary nation. 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 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.
The good news here is that there is room for all Canadians to take ownership of their citizenship. From learning about our history, giving to our communities, participating actively in civil society and contributing to political life, the active engagement of Canadians in all aspects of their citizenship is our ultimate achievement as a society.
Immigrants are an essential, undeniable and significant piece of the Canadian puzzle. Yet all Canadians – whether born here, naturalized citizens or recently arrived newcomers – have a stake in Canada’s success.
For Canada’s sake, please make the next series The Citizen Answer.
Gillian Hewitt Smith is the executive director and CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
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