Is Canada the most tolerant place in the world because Canadians are more enlightened than others? The answer is no. Accidents of geography and history account for our blessings.
Some may dispute the premise of the question above, but I do believe that Canada can make an honest claim to being the most open-minded and open-hearted place on earth. For two decades now, a land once occupied by descendants of European settlers has been importing just under 1 per cent of its population annually – 258,000 in 2012, more than five million in total – with most new arrivals coming from Asia and the Pacific. No other country on earth has done such a thing. No country brings in as many immigrants as we do, on a per capita basis, from as many different places. And we all get along with each other amazingly well.
Many developed countries have a pro-immigration party and an anti-immigration party. In Canada, each of the national parties claims to be more pro-immigrant than the other two. To the best of my knowledge, Stephen Harper leads the only conservative party in the developed world that is strongly supported by immigrant voters. He owes his majority government to new arrivals in the suburban cities outside Toronto who supported him in the last election.
Our tolerance goes beyond race. Not only was Canada among the first countries to legalize gay marriage, Ontario just elected Canada’s first lesbian first minister. Far more important, Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality wasn’t an issue in the election. It seems not even to have crossed people’s minds. What a way to celebrate World Pride, which Toronto hosted last week.
So how did we get this way? We lucked out.
Canada is bordered by three oceans. We are very, very far away from anywhere except the United States. Few illegal migrants seep through our undefended southern border; few boat people land on our shores; few refugee claimants arrive at our airports. (Even fewer, since the Conservatives tightened up the refugee laws.) It’s easier to be tolerant when you don’t have millions of people next door, desperate to get in, as the United States and Europe do.
We are as lucky in our cultural geography as we are in our physical. Canada was originally a union of French and English, who had been at war with each other in Europe for much of the past 800 years. The only way to make the dominion work was for each to give the other plenty of breathing room. That respectful distance made it impossible for Canada to gel as a nation, but it also prevented immigrants from feeling they were outsiders in some nationalist club. Multiculturalism is the greatest gift of our Constitution, even though the Fathers of Confederation hadn’t the faintest clue they were bequeathing it.
That same culture of accommodation makes it possible for sexual minorities in Canada to feel safe, even welcomed. There is not a city, town or village in Canada where my husband Grant and I would hesitate to live.
Of course, things are far from perfect. The legacy of intolerance and abuse by the Europeans toward the aboriginal community is Canada’s shame.
But even on this front, there are signs of hope. I write this column in Inuvik, NWT, population 3,500. Like all resource-based towns in the Far North, Inuvik goes through booms and busts, as the prospects of offshore oil development wax and wane.
But in many conversations, the story I heard was the same. The Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and non-aboriginal populations (the town is about one-third each) get along remarkably well. Yes, there are tensions, yes there is misunderstanding, yes there is the occasional bit of bad blood.
But for the most part, Inuvik is a (very) small and (very) northern version of Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver: a place where people of different cultures live together peacefully. This fall, 120 children from all backgrounds will learn and play together in the new day-care centre. There are 100 Muslims in Inuvik, with their own mosque. (Where else in the world can you step out of an airport in a High Arctic town and hear two taxi drivers chatting in Arabic?) If aboriginal and non-aboriginal can get along in Inuvik, then why not everywhere else?
Happy circumstance made Canada the vibrant, cosmopolitan, peaceful, creative and delightful hodge-podge of languages and cultures it has become. It’s our job to keep it that way. In the wake of another Canada Day, and in the final years before the 2017 sesquicentennial, the example of Inuvik suggests we just might be up to the task.
John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.