Ubiquity of racism facing immigrants and refugees in Canada

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For nearly a decade Canada has been regarded by the United Nations as the best country in the world to live in; this may be true, but there are persistent problems reflected in statements of officials and organizations that mar this image. The most obvious is racism, an attitude almost universal in European and North American societies. While Canada does not belong to the top league of racist countries (US, Britain and most European countries have that dubious distinction) there are racists even in Canada, nor are they confined to the lunatic fringe.

In Canada, racism has traditionally been exercised behind a sophisticated facade of civility. Even if one is not too hung-up about the crude comments last month of Toronto mayor Mel Lastman referring to Africans as “cannibals,” he would not dare, nor would he have tolerated, similar insulting language applied to the Jews (Lastman himself is Jewish). Lastman was forced to retract his statement and apologise publicly at a press conference, after protests from the African-Canadian community. One journalist asked him, after he had said sorry 18 times: “But are you really sorry?” to howls of laughter. Lastman was forced to retract because his comment could have international repercussions: Toronto is seeking to host the 2008 Olympic games.

Not so with another mayor of the city of Mississauga. Hazel McCallion blamed refugees and new immigrants for the crumbling healthcare system. “If you go to the Credit Valley Hospital [in Mississauga], the emergency is loaded with people in their native costumes. A couple will come here as immigrants and each bring over their parents. Now you have four people who not contributed a nickel toward our medical system using it at an age when they will cost everyone a great deal of money. No wonder we have to worry about our medical system looking after everyone.” McCallion, of course, is not a native name; it is Scottish. Her ancestors either migrated from Scotland, or perhaps fled the potato famine to escape starvation in Ireland.

McCallion has made a name as a blunt-talking mayor. While her no-nonsense style is welcomed when she tongue-lashes bureaucrats, it is a different matter when she blames immigrants for whatever goes wrong in her little kingdom. For instance, she mourned that “illegal immigrants” cost her city $1.5 million annually in welfare costs which the federal government has failed to reimburse to the municipality.

When she was denounced for her diatribe by members of the South Asian community, a large number of whom reside in her municipality, she tried to deflect criticism, saying that she was not talking about legal immigrants, but the “200,000 illegal immigrants and refugees.” Haroon Siddiqui, editor emeritus of the Toronto Star, took her to task for her inaccurate and offensive remarks in his column on June 28. He peeled off the veneer of sophistry behind which she tried to camouflage her racism. “Her whine about family class immigrants and refugees as ‘unproductive and unacceptable’ fits the worst stereotypes that, throughout our history, have provided cover for nativist sentiments wrapped in economic terms. The polemic against newcomers has always been the same: Keep the trash out, give us designer immigrants who speak English or French and have the skills we need,” he wrote.

Siddiqui went on: “But this nation of immigrants was not built by PhDs or by grammarians, rather by those who let their strong work ethic speak for them. In today’s hi-tech world, we arguably need more qualified immigrants. But much of the rhetoric surrounding the subject is patently false. First, the figure of 200,000 illegals is wildly off the mark. Ottawa estimates the number at 20,000.” He also pointed out that there has always been a steady flow of illegals into Canada. What is different now is that it is upfront; in the past it was underground and therefore not noticeable. He also debunked the myth that refugees and sponsored immigrants are uneducated.

But it is Siddiqui’s argument about the contribution that elderly immigrants make to the well-being of Canada that is original and worthy of consideration. He points out that they help family businesses as well as keep children focused on studies and off the streets. “They save taxpayers untold millions by reducing pressure on police, day-care and other municipal services.”

Canada is a country of immigrants, yet it is disheartening to note that every new group has to go through the misery of rejection, mind-boggling excuses and covert racism when it comes to employment, fair treatment, and equal access to services. Even the three levels of government (federal, provincial and municipal), while mouthing slogans of equity, fair representation and inclusivity, not only have not set a good example of proper representation for qualified newcomers, but have also discriminated against and marginalized ‘outsiders’.

At the municipal level, for instance, most boards of education ignore the concerns of groups considered to be from non-traditional backgrounds. A number of communities are currently involved in a heated debate with the York Region Board of Education about the content of the school curriculum. When Muslims and other community members called upon the Board to pursue an inclusive policy by teaching the history of all peoples, instead of only teaching the Holocaust, the Board was forced by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) to denounce this call as “anti-Semitic.” Muslim representatives challenged the board chairman on July 3 to define the term: he was unable to do so. Such hypocrisy is also evident in many other areas.

The treatment of new immigrants, most of them highly qualified and motivated, leads to great frustration. There are many highly qualified immigrants – PhDs and masters-degree holders – who are forced to do odd jobs. Some are even driving taxi-cabs. This is an immense waste of talent. The Canadian economy loses greatly as a consequence, but there is a pet phrase that most newcomers are confronted with: “Canadian experience,” when told why they cannot be hired for a job for which they are otherwise fully qualified. How does operating a computer in Canada differ from operating a computer in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India or Eastern Europe? Some newcomers, after months of rejections, have found a way around this dilemma. They make arrangements with some employers to provide them a reference and, if a prospective employer calls, to say that they are working at their office but that their services are not being utilized fully. Often this does the trick. “Canadian experience” is, therefore, simply a way of rejecting a person who speaks the truth.

The double standards begin even before immigrants arrive in Canada. Applicants for a visitor’s visa are routinely turned down by Canadian consular officials in Islamabad with a curt statement that they are “not satisfied” the person would leave Canada after his or her holiday. Many families have harrowing tales of rejection, some despite the fact that a family member may be getting married or be seriously ill. But consular officials are unmoved, dismissing such cases as convenient cover to gain entry into Canada. The issue has been taken up by many Canadian citizens with their local members of parliament and the minister of immigration, with little success so far. The government has no set policy; in fact, there appears to be a deliberate attempt to keep visitors from some countries out of Canada. Europeans and Israelis, in contrast, do not seem to have any such problem.

The Canadian government is clearly guilty of double standards. There is increasing frustration among many citizens, which is bound to make its impact felt politically as more and more people from non-white backgrounds strive for their rights as equal citizens of Canada.

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