Douglas Todd: What do Indigenous voices say about immigration?

Some interesting voices. A more comprehensive survey would be of interest:

As a First Nations leader, what would you think of Canada’s immigration policy?

“It’s a bit late to ask that question,” answers Tsawwassen First Nations Chief Ken Baird, with a wry smile.

Indeed, Canada’s Indigenous people have never really been asked how they feel about immigration policy, despite experiencing wave after wave of newcomers.

A small number of First Nations leaders over the years, however, have said they want more influence in shaping immigration. There came a point more than a decade ago when the Assembly of First Nations resolved to “freeze all immigration coming into Canada until the federal government addresses, commits, and delivers resources to improve housing conditions, education, health and employment in First Nations communities.”

But not much came of the Assembly’s demand. Immigration policy in Canada continues to be made mostly behind closed doors, particularly in the Prime Minister’s Office.

First Nations are often said to be in a double-bind when it comes to the issue of large-scale immigration, which has shaped Canada more than most nations.

“Regarding immigration, Aboriginal peoples are caught between a rock and a hard place,” academics Bonita Lawrence, a member of the Mi’kmaq Nation, and Enaskhi Dua have said. Either Indigenous people become implicated in anti-immigration rhetoric, they said, “or they support struggles of people of colour that fail to take seriously the reality of ongoing colonization.”

Outstanding questions are many: How does increasing Indigenous self-determination fit with immigration? And how does it connect to official multiculturalism, which supports the thriving of all of Canada’s subcultures? Should an umbrella organization for the country’s 1.6 million Indigenous people help set immigration levels, as Quebec does?

While the Tsawwassen First Nation’s elected chief says Indigenous people, like others, have a wide range of views about immigration, he is personally mostly sanguine about it.

“I’m all for people who want to come here and work hard and build themselves a life and have good family values. And 99 per cent of immigrants do. And I think that’s pretty admirable,” Baird said.

While Baird is among the First Nations leaders who don’t intend to push on immigration issues, University of B.C. sociologist Rima Wilkes and colleagues have made public presentations in which they ask questions about immigration and Indigenous peoples. Their questions are designed to urge Ottawa to take First Nations perspectives more seriously.

“What does it mean to settle people on someone else’s land?” Wilkes asks in a presentation. “Why is there ‘consultation’ (with First Nations) on natural resources such as mining, oil and gas and timber, but not on the human resources such as immigration policy? What about real decision-making?”

Veteran B.C. Indigenous leader Bill Wilson, who helped found the First Nations Summit, has said he is open to most forms of immigration, particularly for refugees.

When asked about immigration, the member of northern Vancouver Island’s Kwak’wala-speaking peoples, who is also father of former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, told a story about the late Vancouver Sun aboriginal affairs reporter Ron Rose, with whom he became close friends.

“It may have very well been Ron Rose asking me the same question (in the 1980s): ‘What do I think about immigration and the people coming in?’” said the blunt-talking hereditary chief. “I said to him, ‘Well, at least the colour is getting better. He and I laughed. And he said, ‘You’re an a–hole.’ And then we moved on.”

The citizenship exam that is required of all new immigrants, Wilson believes, should include more on Indigenous history in Canada.

“I don’t have any problem with people coming to this country. But what I object to is they’re not required to understand the history,” he said. “Hopefully they could start to embrace some of the laws we are finally resorting to as a country in terms of (Indigenous peoples’) relationship to the land and the water and the sea resources.”

The First Nations lawyer believes a portion of new immigrants, the majority of whom are now non-white, “are basically oblivious to Indigenous issues” at the same time they are becoming more influential. “WASPS are obviously becoming a minority and losing a great deal of their power.”

Baird, who worked as a fisher and water-system specialist before becoming chief of the self-governing Tsawwassen First Nation, believes the coming together of Indigenous people with early settlers and immigrants has “turned us all into minorities in a way. And that’s a good thing.”

Although some wonder whether Canada’s official multiculturalism policy ignores the special status of First Nations, Baird said, “I don’t see a problem with it. At the end of the day, we all want to be treated equal and have the same rights and prosperous lives. And your colour and blood and race and religion shouldn’t matter. That’s part of being in a free country.”

Wilson values bringing in more refugees, but he questions the country’s immigrant-investor programs, both national and provincial, which have urged wealthy foreign nationals to gain Canadian passports by promising to divert money into the economy.

Wilson strongly opposed such “selective citizenship,” saying “money-backed immigration is not sincere and it’s not necessary.” But “accepting refugees makes sense,” he said, because their inclusion “is based on need.”

Although Wilson generally agrees First Nations should get more say in immigration policy, especially over their own traditional territories, he is not sure how that would work.

“How do you implement that? We have a multiplicity of tribes. There are 27 separate tribes in the province of B.C. alone.”

When it comes to questions of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and immigration, the conversation is only beginning.

Source: Douglas Todd: What do Indigenous voices say about immigration?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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