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(SHAUN BEST/SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
(SHAUN BEST/SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

Our Time to Lead

Why Canada needs a flood of immigrants Add to ...

Watch out for the ‘25th frame'

Superintendent Ken Klassen remembers scrambling to deal with the sheer number of newcomers who kept showing up without warning in his classrooms. “We got huge families, 10 to 13 kids and one in every grade,” he says. “Classes were getting new kids on a weekly basis.” And most of the newcomers did not speak English.

But the problems did not stop at finding more classrooms and teachers. There were cultural confrontations that threw everyone off. Russian-German parents objected to yoga in gym class, for example – saying its Eastern religious roots conflicted with their Christian beliefs.

They felt the same way about aboriginal dream catchers in classrooms, and ghost stories at Halloween.

Most astonishing of all was the immigrants' objection to any educational video, even the most innocuous: The parents suspected that each second of video carried a hidden “25th frame” that contained subliminal anti-Christian messages.

Mr. Klassen, who is descended from German-speaking immigrants himself, met with the concerned parents. Remember, he says, that they were raised in the Soviet Union, where they developed a deep suspicion of authority and a fierce protectiveness over their religious freedoms. He assured them that the 25th-frame story was not true, but he agreed that students could opt out of videos or yoga if they chose.

It took as long as five years for Steinbach to adjust, Mr. Klassen says. By then, the migration was coming from all over the world, not just Germany. “From being almost a monoculture before, we now have up to 40 cultures represented in our schools,” he says.

In 1999, the schools had 20 educational assistants for languages and special needs. Today, they have more than 200.

Yet Mr. Klassen is totally enthusiastic about the final result. Vocational classes, once a dumping ground, have become a centre of excellence thanks to the trades interests of the immigrants. There are two new schools under construction, the first since 1973 (when “I was one of the first students through the door,” Mr. Klassen recalls, chuckling). And as the first wave of immigrants' children are now starting families, an “echo boom” is about to hit that may be bigger than the first.

Richard Harder, a settlement worker in Steinbach, has been working with newcomers for years. In many cases, he says regretfully, immigrants who arrive in middle age, speaking little English, are not as successfully integrated: They can live comfortably in their own society, interacting only as much as is necessary with the broader community to buy their groceries, send their kids to school and receive public services. It's not uncommon in Steinbach to see an earnest seven-year-old translating for a parent in a government office.

But their children all integrate, he says, largely through the public schools, as generations of immigrants have done before them. And the society around them learns other lessons.

Last summer, Mr. Harder watched as his recently immigrated neighbours put their teenage sons to the task of clearing every inch of their small acreage of trees, bushes and rocks. It was long, backbreaking work, day after day. He marvelled at the boys' diligent ethic, noting that his own sons could not be roused from playing video games in the basement.

When the clearing was done, the neighbour wandered over and offered to have his sons do the same for Mr. Harder's property too. He declined, explaining that he preferred the disorder of trees and bushes. The neighbour was puzzled, and persisted. It became an odd standoff, with each side struggling to grasp the other's position.

“We explained to them our Canadian view on that and they explained their view on it. They thought that it looks more cleaned up … more orderly,” Mr. Harder says. “We chose not to. And in the end they were okay with that.”

In a small way, that's the story of immigration in Canada: It reshapes the social landscape, while negotiating boundaries with the sensibilities that came before. The question now, when necessity and ambition demand that we welcome newcomers in greater numbers and at a brisker pace, is whether we can maintain the peaceful tenor of that process – and where we'll find the limits of our abilities to accommodate each other's points of view.

As we stress immigrants' skill sets, will we still be able to harmonize our values? How will the new priorities change the mix of faces in the Canadian crowd? And what national virtues will we emphasize as we circle the world in search of recruits? Our future depends on how we answer such questions – and the time to begin the debate is now.

– With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe

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