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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

margaret wente

Canada gets it right on immigration … so far Add to ...

The other evening I watched my seven-year-old niece play soccer in the park. The scene was typically Canadian. The parents cheered on their daughters from the sidelines, frequently in accented English. The girls seemed oblivious to ethnic differences. When the game got dull, they did cartwheels across the field. It could have been an ad for harmony and world peace.

We live in a marvellous, glorious, fragile bubble. The world is seething with nativism and ethnic tensions. Discontent about immigration sealed the vote for Brexit. The Republican candidate for president wants to shut out Muslims and build a wall with Mexico. A populist anti-immigration backlash is sweeping Europe and threatens to bring centrist governments crashing down.

Canada is that increasingly rare exception – a country in which public support for immigration is strong. Maybe we’re more tolerant and virtuous than other countries are. (We like to think so.) Maybe we’re smarter. Or maybe we’re just lucky.

Of course it helps to be an immigrant nation, where almost everyone’s grandparents came from somewhere else. It helps to be separated from the world’s dispossessed by three oceans and a rich neighbour with a lot of real estate. It also helps to be very picky about who we take. Unlike most countries, Canada has a points system. To get in, you have to accrue enough points.

We love to imagine ourselves as a haven for the huddled masses of the world. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at this week’s Three Amigos love-in, “No matter where you are from, nor the faith you profess, nor the colour of your skin, nor whom you love, you belong here. This is your home.” Which is all very fine and noble. But the fact is that you’re here because we think you’re a good bet. We think you’ll fit in and become good Canadians. So far, so good.

Mr. Trudeau articulates the modern progressive-romantic view of immigration – that diversity is strength, that national identity is a dangerous anachronism, that beneath our superficial differences in dress and cuisine, everyone’s the same, and if you doubt it you must be some kind of xenophobe. Fortunately our policy makers are harder-headed. They know that support for immigration is highly conditional, and that the social contract with the public can easily be broken.

What is that contract? People want immigration policy to serve the national interest, not the immigrants’ interest. They want skilled immigrants who have something to offer Canada, who work hard, learn one of our official languages and won’t be a burden on the welfare state. Immigrants who have already settled here are among the first to agree.

People don’t sour on immigration for economic reasons. As a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out, they sour on immigration if they feel it is a threat to national identity. Nor is race a big factor. The biggest factors are culture and assimilation. People want immigrants who will embrace our values – Western liberal values – of tolerance, inclusion and women’s equality. We also expect newcomers to put down roots and pledge their loyalty to Canada first. (If they embrace hockey, so much the better.)

Europe is in crisis because too much European immigration doesn’t look anything like this. The British ran into trouble because they’ve had too much immigration, too fast. Countries that can’t control their borders always face a backlash.

The United States now has more than 11 million illegal immigrants. Neither party has been willing to tackle the issue, which is why a disastrous demagogue is now running for the presidency.

Australia solved its border problem by diverting asylum-seekers to remote offshore processing camps. Humanitarians and refugee advocates are outraged, but Australians aren’t. They must be doing something right – Australia, like Canada, is among the most successful immigration countries in the world. About 28 per cent of Australians are foreign-born, according to the Pew Research Center.

When a boatload of Tamils arrived in Canadian waters in 2010, the Harper government detained them (some were eventually accepted as refugees), and the public heartily approved. This was widely taken as a sign that Canadians are racist. In fact, we’re no more racist than the Australians or the English. We simply think it should be up to us to choose who gets in.

Even our sympathy for the refugees we do accept is contingent. Let’s hope those 25,000 Syrians we’ve taken in do well. If they don’t, public support for Mr. Trudeau’s open-heartedness won’t last long.

I love watching the soccer-playing kids in the park. To me they are a symbol of the kind of country I want to live in. We have something very precious here in Canada, and I don’t want to blow it. Tolerance is part of our national identity. But so is pragmatism. And you can’t have one without the other.

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