North America

Canada, the country that actually welcomes refugees

Jillian Stirk and Bessma Momani look at how Canada’s multicultural past is letting it buck the angry populist trend

Syrian refugee Kivork Karajalian attends a mass in Toronto on the night he arrives

As the United States and Europe wrestle with divisive and angry populist movements, Canada seems launched on a different path. A young, charismatic prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is championing the value of diversity at home and abroad, calling it ‘the engine of invention and a force that can vanquish intolerance, radicalism and hate’. Is Canada somehow isolated or insulated from the economic and social turbulence that fuels populism? Is Canada immune to populist politics and the anxieties that feed them? Or is there something about the Canadian model of pluralism that makes this kind of divisive politics less appealing?

Of course, one can argue that Canada does not fully embrace diversity and that there can be a disconnect between official rhetoric and reality. Certainly the shameful history of relations with indigenous peoples and various episodes in the mistreatment of minorities over the years suggests there can be a credibility gap. But against the backdrop of the US election campaign and the racist rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe, Canada’s approach to diversity presents a successful and distinctive model, whether you measure legal protection, political participation or social cohesion.

Populism thrives when governments lose connection with their electors, when ordinary people feel marginalized and lack opportunity, or when fear replaces hope. But too often populist prescriptions hark back to a past that existed only in the imagination, or to a future that ignores current realties. Canada has had its own populist movements and personalities on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Some have had a transformative impact, especially in the post-Depression years. More recently the Reform Movement − a response to western provinces’ alienation and frustration with a central government that seemed to have lost touch − brought a populist perspective to its successor, the Conservative Party.

Today some of the contenders to replace former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the leadership of the Conservative Party are playing dog-whistle politics and ramping up the debate around threats to security. Yet, it was in part these ‘populist’ sentiments and thinly disguised anti-Muslim rhetoric that cost Harper the last election. Still, the tenor of the discussion pales in comparison with that south of the border, and it would be hard to imagine a Donald Trump or Geert Wilders having much traction in mainstream Canadian politics today.

While Canadians may like to think they are inherently more tolerant, more pragmatic and less prone to the conspiracy theories that are the life blood of populists everywhere, the reality is that Canada’s politics are shaped by a set of experiences and decisions that mitigate in favour of inclusion. Starting with the inherited values and traditions of the First Nations, a constitutional framework that reflects a linguistic and cultural duality, and more recently an evolution towards asymmetrical or flexible federalism have all provided tools for managing differences within a diverse federation. But most important, Canada’s defining narrative is one of immigration and multiculturalism.

Today, approximately 20 per cent of all Canadians were born outside the country, including more than 40 per cent of those living in Vancouver and Toronto. Immigration is a powerful driver for the Canadian economy and the only source of demographic growth and renewal. The Canadian model of immigration is also unique. Most of the almost 300,000 new immigrants to Canada each year are selected on the basis of education and skills, bringing financial investment, or through having family ties, all of which provide new arrivals with a running start.

The goal from the outset is full citizenship and rights and their strong participation in society. The fact that 80 per cent of immigrants become Canadian citizens is a key element in reinforcing social cohesion among diverse groups. By the second generation, wage gaps largely disappear and educational outcomes are as good or in some cases even better than for native-born Canadians.

‘New research has shown that immigrants are more likely to start businesses than those born in Canada’

Refugees, too, are carefully screened and generally arrive under government or private sponsorship where groups of individuals or organizations such as faith groups provide the necessary financial and other support for a refugee family. This community-based support provides a unique opportunity to build bridges between Canadians and arrivals and to generate wider support for refugee resettlement. The success of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees in the past few years is a case in point and the support for this policy remains high.

Canada’s approach to being a place welcoming of refugees is not new. We have done this before and it has generally been successful. Canadians want to see their society as open and welcoming, even if it doesn’t always live up to those ideals. But beyond Canada’s tradition of inclusion, there are known economic benefits of immigration too.

New global studies show that workplace diversity and building a gender and ethnically diverse workforce can drive economic growth. There is also evidence to show that an inclusive workforce contributes to social cohesion in return. According to a 2015 McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Similarly, firms with a more diverse board of executives achieved an average of 53 per cent higher returns on equity and their earnings were 14 per cent higher than less diverse firms. In an age that rewards innovation and creativity, differences among us can be capitalized for business success and economic prosperity.

Moreover, as societies invariably become increasingly diverse with global travel, companies know it makes good business sense to reflect that diversity to understand and expand the customer base and improve customer service. Or, as leading Canadian companies point out: ‘Hire the market to serve the market.’

In Canada, new research has shown that immigrants are more likely to start businesses than those born in Canada.

Undoubtedly, entrepreneurial rates of immigrants who come to Canada as investors are certainly higher than for thoseentering other categories, but what is interesting is after that, there is no discernible difference between immigrants who entered in the economic class, family class, skilled class or even refugee class. Canadian immigrants are simply highly entrepreneurial and some attribute this to policies of a social safety net that allows entrepreneurs to take risks.

These are not just ethnic businesses, such as restaurants or specialized grocery stores, immigrant-owned businesses are more likely to export than businesses owned by native-born Canadians and in recent years nearly half of these immigrant-owned businesses introduced at least one type of innovation. No wonder then that among Canada’s most celebrated companies such as Magna International, BlackBerry, Saputo, Larco, and Shopify were started by Canadian immigrants and are now among the largest employers and generators of wealth in this country.

In a highly competitive global economy, diversity is proving to be an important asset. Diversity, international experience and cultural fluency contribute to success in global markets. As countries compete to attract skilled workers and investment, an inclusive society can act as a magnet.

One of the common features of talent hubs such as London, New York, Toronto, Singapore or Silicon Valley is their cosmopolitan flair that includes ethnic diversity. Indeed, successful Canadian immigrant entrepreneurs noted that one of the key pull factors in coming to Canada was its diversity and multicultural policies. Creating ‘livable cities’ is an important means of attracting talented, sought-after immigrants and factors such as safety, green space, good schools and social mobility are as valuable as multiculturalism for many high-skilled immigrants.

Although Canada is not immune to the current climate of rising intolerance, there is something unique about our approach to inclusion. By welcoming immigrants on a path to citizenship with full rights and responsibilities, by implementing policies that support innovation and social mobility, and by leveraging diversity as an asset, we can create a more prosperous and cohesive society that will counter the narratives of extremism and bigotry.