Coates: Immigration is changing Canada for the better. But the conversation can’t end there

More generalities, with little awareness of existing integration programming, or efforts to increase knowledge of Indigenous peoples by newcomers. While I agree on the need for an “open, frank and supportive conversation,” it needs to focus on fundamentals, not generalities, and the externalities of immigration – housing, healthcare, intrastruture, environmental and climate change impact:

Canada, without a doubt, has been deeply enriched by immigration. Waves of newcomers, starting with French and British explorers all the way to the planned broadening of the immigration pool to include 500,000 new arrivals from around the world a year, by 2025, have brought with them their talents, cultures and enthusiasm for a chance at a new life.

Much like new Canadians themselves, Canada has adapted, creating a stronger but different country as immigration trends evolved. Canada’s already impressive cultural diversity continues to grow and flourish. There appears to be an informal agreement between Canada’s major political parties, and most provinces other than perhaps Quebec, that newcomers can solve critical labour shortages.

Despite all the exciting change that migrants bring, however, Canadians too often take an almost casual approach to immigration policy itself – and its corollary, which is how we ensure immigrants integrate comfortably into our country. With the government promising to continue to increase Canada’s immigration volumes, it’s worth considering how the country is changing and how policy makers might manage that change deliberately and thoughtfully.

The scale of the migration is stunning. Each year, Canada will admit a group of newcomers that is 10 times greater than the population of the Yukon or an influx roughly equal to the population of Newfoundland. Every two years of immigration brings enough newcomers to nearly match the population of Nova Scotia or Saskatchewan.

Yet as our population grows, the demographic and political importance of the country’s smaller jurisdictions fade considerably. Canada has become a nation of city-states, dominated economically and politically by a handful of major metropolitan areas, where most immigrants move. According to 2021 census data compiled by Environics chief demographer Doug Norris, 79.6 per cent of the Greater Toronto Area’s population are first- and second-generation newcomers; in Vancouver, the number is 72.5 per cent. Major cities such as these sustain the current Liberal government, and will almost certainly determine the outcome of future national elections.

Indeed, the benefits of immigration are distributed unequally across Canada’s vast geography. Smaller communities, including resource towns under threat from federal antidevelopment strategies and rapid technological change, are attracting few immigrants, and the influx is nowhere near enough to staunch the steady decline of rural and small town Canada.

To address this, the federal government has suggested that it is prioritizing immigration to rural areas and small towns. Yet only a small number of newcomers will end up there. Many of those who do are likely to migrate to the larger cities later, chasing perceived job and life opportunities, as well as the larger cultural and language communities that exist there. A focus on attracting and retaining immigrants in those places is needed.

Canada is blessed to be known as one of the most attractive destinations for international migrants and our immigration procedures are globally recognized for prioritizing the admission of individuals and families who can best contribute directly to the Canadian economy. Yet, we do little to aid the transition of migrants into our society.

Arriving migrants need support with job searches, recognition of credentials, language training, cultural and political awareness, housing, and more. Their children will require considerable resources as they enter Canada’s public-school systems. Though NGOs and intergovernmental co-operation play a major role in facilitating these key components of immigration, policy makers too often relegate these considerations to afterthoughts. This is a disservice to new Canadians most especially, but also to the communities that welcome them.

Mass migration presents considerable challenges for Indigenous peoples as well. There are, according to the 2021 Canadian census, some 1.8 million First Nations, Metis and Inuit in Canada. At current rates, four years’ worth of immigration is equal to that entire Indigenous population today, further diminishing the relative political power of Canada’s first peoples.

Most new Canadians also have little familiarity with the people, cultures, histories and rights of Indigenous communities, and understandably so. Without concerted effort to correct for this lack of knowledge, there is a real risk that Indigenous needs and interests will fall further down the priority list for the growing electorate and, therefore, for governments.

Canada can and should embrace change, and immigration has a positive role to play in this. But it needs to be thoughtfully done. Our current approach to immigration feeds our national strengths – a set of truly world-class, multicultural cities and a rapidly expanding service economy – but it also exacerbates existing weaknesses. It need not be this way. It is time for an open, frank and supportive conversation about how to better foster the success of newcomers, and of the future of Canada.

Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow and director of the Indigenous affairs program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.

Source: Immigration is changing Canada for the better. But the conversation can’t end there

Coates: Condemning historical figures like Ryerson and John A. Macdonald must not distract us from true reconciliation

Condemnation and renaming are easy compared to addressing the substantive issues, where action is more needed, not to mention the regrettable lack of nuance in understanding history and context:

With the decision to rename itself Toronto Metropolitan University, the former Ryerson University — known briefly as “University X” — fumbled the opportunity to use public criticism of Egerton Ryerson as a learning opportunity, instead bowing to the passionate protests of activists who believe that condemning a handful of historical figures is one way to address generations of discrimination and paternalism. 

Attacking the reputation of Ryerson, one of the most effective educational reformers in Canadian history, requires a narrow reading of his career. Regardless, he is now a dead letter in Canadian public life, and efforts to expunge his name from schools, monuments and other public facilities will no doubt continue apace. 

The number one target in the country is now Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald — like Ryerson, singled out for his role in Indigenous residential schools. Across the country, statues in Macdonald’s honour have been removed or doused in red paint, and public bodies are having earnest discussions about removing his name from schools and other facilities. 

There is nothing wrong with calling out or re-examining the public memory of historical figures for their actions. However, reading history reductively, losing sight of context, and misreading personal responsibility do not help us to understand the past. 

Right now, for good reason, the country is focused on a specific policy — residential schools — with the belief that by removing the tributes to the architects of the school movement we can turn a page. This approach is seriously misguided. 

Residential school education was horrific, its multi-generational negative effects still not fully understood. A system purportedly designed to provide personal opportunity to Indigenous students was instead used to attack Indigenous cultures, undermine centuries-old languages, destroy Indigenous families, and assimilate Aboriginal peoples. Dealing with the long-term impact of the residential schools has rightly become a national priority. 

We must, however, remember that the residential school concept was not foisted on an unwilling nation by its government. Virtually all non-Indigenous Canadians of that time, led by the Christian churches and supported by non-Indigenous advocates for Indigenous peoples, favoured residential schools. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, many non-Indigenous Canadians still defended the schools as clearly being a “good thing” and a sign of the benevolent state. 

Most Canadians did not know — or did not want to know — what happened in the schools. They neither expected nor countenanced the violence and brutality, but encouraged teachers and principals to undermine Indigenous language and culture, believing this was in Indigenous people’s best interests.

In today’s efforts to assign accountability for wrongs of the past, the tendency to focus on individuals — whatever their roles in establishing the institutions — simply misses the point. It was racism and a nationwide sense of cultural superiority that backstopped all of Canada’s aggressive actions against Indigenous peoples. If dismantling a statue or renaming a school (or university) serves some, it also deflects attention from where responsibility properly rests: with society at large. 

Criticizing early promoters of residential schools misses the historical mark. 

With Ryerson’s name now removed from a campus, and Macdonald’s image being assailed across Canada, where next? There are thousands of targets, including the political leaders, government and church officials, and public supporters who expanded the residential school system, including its rapid acceleration after the Second World War. 

Let’s consider two potential targets, modern-era political leaders who espoused simple ideas of potentially destructive impact on Indigenous peoples. They wanted to eliminate the Indian Act and Indian status, break up the reserves, abandon treaties, and integrate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream. Their stated goal sounded honourable to some — producing “real” equality among all Canadians — and there had been consultations, of a sort, with Indigenous groups. 

The 1969 White Paper was one of the most aggressive Indigenous policy initiatives in Canadian history, designed to remove barriers between peoples and overcome decades of discrimination and state paternalism. The response from First Nations was ferocious. Indigenous leaders organized protests and demanded the federal government retract its policy. The government did so, to the dismay of many non-Indigenous Canadians who wanted to remove the “special status” afforded Indigenous peoples. The contemporary Indigenous rights movement in Canada owes a great deal to the reaction to this ill-conceived and assimilationist strategy. 

The Prime Minister was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His minister of Indian and Northern Affairs was future prime minister Jean Chrétien. They were the architects of the White Paper of 1969. Trudeau believed “no society can be built on historical might-have-beens,” and opposed Indigenous land claim negotiations, modern treaties, and the concept of historical redress. 

The Trudeau government’s much-touted “Just Society” had a blind spot when it came to Indigenous peoples. The government’s preference for state intervention and the inherent paternalism of federal policy in the 1960s and 70s arguably accelerated the decline of Indigenous language and culture, fostering a culture of welfare dependency in Indigenous communities. 

Would it be appropriate for critics of government policy to focus their anger on Trudeau and Chrétien, leading to more monument destruction and renaming? Absolutely not; we can use our time and effort much better. Besides, when faced with sustained Indigenous anger, the Liberal government backed down. Unlike residential schools, which had major effects across generations, the White Paper brought to the surface the core ideas and values of the government of the day.

The past is a complicated place. It should not be reduced to memes and social-media messages. Historical leaders are people, with personal foibles, living in and reflecting their places and times. Democracies hold leaders accountable during their political lives. Historians and the public determine their legacy. Attitudes toward the leaders and their actions change over time, as the debate about John A. Macdonald demonstrates. But these discussions should be handled with caution. 

The piecemeal and reactive redoing of historical nomenclature, however well meaning, produces distortions of history. This said, Canada is desperately overdue for a rethinking of the many people and events we memorialize. 

Names and monuments should not be fixed for all time. New Zealand, now also known as Aotearoa, and Australia have both ventured down this road, with considerable achievement. New Zealanders are increasingly comfortable with both Maori names and cultural references in public affairs; Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was introduced on a stage where the Australian flag shared pride of place with the flags of Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.

There is so much to recognize and celebrate in Indigenous cultures that Canada should get on with it. Indigenous peoples, cultures and knowledge need to be more prominently recognized across Canada. The same holds for women, minority groups, and events either poorly or inaccurately represented in our historical nomenclature. A cautious renaming process in Canada could actually produce the most thoughtful and comprehensive historical and cultural reuniting in the nation’s history. 

Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples requires thoughtful and engaged reflection. Changing the names of institutions and tearing down monuments might gratify some, but there is a better way. Toronto Metropolitan University will hardly provide a rallying cry for a nation seeking real healing with Indigenous peoples. 

If Canada is to find common ground with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, the country must reverse the lens, begin to view history from Indigenous perspectives and listen respectfully to elders and knowledge keepers. 

This reckoning will take more than attacks on historical figures. The problem rests not with a few individuals but with the profound sense of racial superiority that animated public policy for generations, underpinning a suite of government initiatives that marginalized and overwhelmed Indigenous peoples. For all of our condemnation of historical decisions that are now seen as egregious and destructive, Canadians remain largely oblivious to the paternalism and discrimination toward Indigenous people that is part of our national reality.

Canada is, by international standards, a remarkably successful country, even if it is built significantly on the displacement and domination of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. They were sacrificed in the interests of the nation, with most non-Indigenous peoples truly believing that assimilation and cultural domination was the only legitimate path forward. This position, dangerously and tragically wrong, animated the government for a century and a half, to be replaced in our time by a more evolved but still paternalistic approach to Indigenous affairs. 

This country needs to devote a great deal of effort to improving relationships with Indigenous communities. To Canada’s collective good fortune, Indigenous peoples remain open to such discussions and to rebuilding Confederation, despite the painful destruction of the past. 

We can do much more than try to eliminate historical guilt by changing a few names and sloshing paint on some statues. Instead, the country needs to listen closely to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and build a policy agenda inspired by Indigenous priorities, a deep understanding of the multi-generational impacts of racism, and a real commitment to lasting reconciliation. 

Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.

Source: Condemning historical figures like Ryerson and John A. Macdonald must not distract us from true reconciliation