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Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes a funding announcement for a new hospital in Windsor, Ont., on Oct. 18, 2021. Ford has come under fire for comments he made about immigrants.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Adnan Khan is the author of the novel There Has to Be a Knife.

For many prospective Canadians, the equation for entry looks simple: Pass the points system. Our federally regulated immigration scheme grades applicants on their ability to contribute to the economy by doling points out based on needed skills and education. The more in-demand, the higher your chance of invitation. Nurse or engineer? High score. Filmmaker or musician? Back of the line. From the beginning, then, migrants to Canada are defined in economic terms: How can you serve us?

The Ford family has given voice to that line of thinking in Canada. As a Toronto city councillor in 2008, Rob Ford offered what he believed was praise for Toronto’s Asian population: “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines.” And just this week, his brother Doug, now the Premier of Ontario, told reporters: “Folks, if you have some hard-working people, I just have one criteria: You come here like every other new Canadian has come here. You work your tail off. If you think you’re coming to collect the dole and sit around, not going to happen. Go somewhere else.”

The Fords have thus revealed the burden of proof immigrants must constantly provide: that we are worthy of Canada, and what counts as proof is largely limited to the confines of work.

The Premier’s recent dog-whistle, at a campaign-style press conference near Windsor, Ont., relies on old tropes that cast suspicion on immigrants as cheats and dodgers coming to Canada to suck its welfare system dry. But this is a myth: The Ontario government’s 2021 study of provincial employment found that 73.2 per cent of those who immigrated in the past five years are employed, a figure that jumps to 78.2 per cent for those who have been here for 10 years. This is comparable to those born in Canada, who boast a 82.9-per-cent employment rate.

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That relatively narrow gap was not created by a desire to “sit around,” either. The Ontario government’s own website recognizes that “entry to practice” issues, caused by discrimination, bias and a lack of recognition of credentials, contributes to unemployment. Other complicated mitigating factors are involved. In 2006, 51 per cent of recent immigrants had a university degree, compared to 20 per cent of people born in Canada. And yet, a recent Statistics Canada study of hiring trends over the past two decades showed that immigrants are increasingly unable to find work that matches their education, while the rate of education-employment match for Canadian-born workers increased. And never mind that when foreign workers are employed here, they can face working conditions that Mr. Ford’s own Minister of Labour recently described as “modern-day slavery.”

Mr. Ford’s comments make explicit that there are two types of Canadians. There’s the “old stock,” which need not prove themselves against the Premier’s “one criteria,” and whose worthiness does not need to be assessed or proven because it’s enough to be born on the soil. They have won what scholar Ayelet Shachar calls the “birthright lottery,” and one of the prizes is that society will not debate your value. Then there are the other Canadians, to whom Mr. Ford said two things at once: You’re only here for your labour, and, simultaneously, you’re lazy. He narrowed migrants’ worth – you’re only good if you work – but also mocked efforts at integration, on top of that.

Exactly whom was Mr. Ford speaking to? His language was delivered in a minor key compared to some of the diatribes delivered by other leaders across the world – from former U.S. president Donald Trump’s painful claim that Mexicans are “taking our jobs,” to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allegations of “love jihad,” a conspiracy theory that suggests Muslim men are marrying non-Muslim women to convert them to Islam – but it’s born from the same populist strain. His folksy talk hides tactics that rely on base fears to trigger panic.

And on the question of migrants, there is plenty of panic to be ginned up on all sides. Either migrants aren’t working hard enough, and thus taking from our hard-won welfare benefits, or they’re working so hard that they’re suddenly responsible for stealing jobs and destabilizing nationhood. Migrants are damned in both directions.

This thinking fuelled the successful campaigns of Mr. Trump and Brexit. And when Rob Ford noted the work ethic of Toronto’s Asian communities, he also added that “they’re slowly taking over” – and he became mayor two years after his remarks. As the Premier now heads into campaign mode, Ontarians will have to see whether he, too, will be rewarded for this kind of language.

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