Let’s first focus on Canada. What do you think are some of the major debates or challenges facing Canadian immigration today?

The major debate in Canada is whether our immigration system, which seemed to serve us so well for so long, is continuing to do so. In particular, since the justification for and popularity of our immigration policy rests on the assumption that it is economically beneficial, the most important questions are whether immigrants who are coming here in massive numbers are able to find the sort of work that matches their qualifications and whether they are serving the interests of the Canadian economy. Unfortunately, as many researchers such as Jeffrey Reitz have found, we are seeing declining levels of earning, educational attainment, and senses of belonging among more recent immigrants of the last 20 years, compared to immigrants who came in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s. I think that is the major question.

One of the hot topics in Canadian immigration is the idea of multiculturalism. In your recent paper “Assimilation by stealth: Why Canada’s Multicultural Policy is really a repackaged integration policy,” in Jack Jebwab, Debating Multiculturalism in 21st Century Canada, [McGill-Queens, in press), you raise the point that Canada’s multicultural policy might actually be a repackaged integration policy. Would you care to comment on this tension?

I think there is a terrible misunderstanding that the success of Canadian immigrants is due to multiculturalism, understood as a deliberate effort to encourage immigrants to retain their own culture—whatever that is—rather than their integration into Canadian culture. This is nonsense on several levels. The first is budgetary—the program is 15 million dollars. Any program that could generate the sort of success that Canada has for 15 million dollars would be a program that you could patent and sell around the world; it’s simply not credible. More fundamentally, I think, are two things: First, in my view, the success or failure of any immigration policy is whether immigrants get into work quickly and whether they succeed in work, which involves keeping their jobs, rising within professional and labor hierarchies, and seeing their children do better than they do. All of that is happening in Canada. And so, the extent to which Canadian immigration policy works is because immigrants in Canada work. The second element is that multiculturalism is actually quite misunderstood within Canada. It is actually an integration if not an assimilation policy. Why is that? The multicultural component of it is, as I said, small in budgetary terms, mostly symbolic, and about a lot of rhetoric. What you see in practice is a situation where traditional institutions of integration, above all the public school that most immigrant children attend, are effective. A small number of immigrants opt out of public schools to attend parochial schools. Some ambitious immigrant parents might enroll their kids into expensive private schools such as Upper Canada College or Havergal. But by and large, immigrant children attend public schools with other Canadian kids, and this encourages integration and assimilation into Canadian society.

More anecdotally, I see this all the time in my students; the average student at UT, whatever their ethnic background, looks, speaks, acts, and behaves like all the other students. And if that isn’t integration and assimilation, I don’t know what is. That doesn’t mean there aren’t different religions and languages spoken at home, but that has always been the case in diaspora communities. Even the Americans at the height of the nativist assimilation/Americanization movement didn’t ban the speaking of Italian in Little Italy in New York.

So, why do you think Canadians are so attached to the idea of multiculturalism when we might not even be practicing it here?

I think that the attachment to multiculturalism has very little to do with immigrants and everything to do with Canadians. It is about identity; it is about the eternal Canadian quest, which is to be different from Americans. Traditionally, we have had two anchors for our difference. On the one hand are our ties to Britain, which have declined very gradually and peacefully. On the other hand, the social programs of the 1980s made us feel different—but we can’t really afford those programs anyway, and at their peak, they were nothing compared to European social programs. Now, we believe that Canadian multiculturalism, as contrasted from the American melting pot, helps us distinguish ourselves from our Southern neighbours. And if you want to guarantee something to be popular in Canada, you make it different from being American. And so, it’s not surprising that Canadians support multiculturalism because what they are really affirming is not so much immigration, but themselves. They are giving themselves a nice pat on the back. Aren’t we wonderful? Those American assimilationists are so intolerant but we are so open-minded. This is a fallacy; if you think of the reaction to the debates about Sharia law in Ontario or the funding of religious schools beyond Catholic ones, the reactions are highly assimilationist and intolerant. So, it’s pretty hard to make the claim that we’re a multicultural paradise. All of that said, there are still benefits to that myth. It creates the impression that because we support multiculturalism, everything is wonderful and working, which makes it more likely that things will work—a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast, the Germans are obsessed about their supposed terrible problems of integration. But if you actually look and compare, they are no worse than anywhere else in Europe, if not better. We are the opposite. We think everything is wonderful and that helps a little bit. And also, there are positive consequences for attitudes; you have mutual feedback. People who support multiculturalism are more likely to support immigration. Supporting multiculturalism is an affirmation of Canadian nationalism that will encourage you to support immigration. Conceptually, it is possible to support multiculturalism and not immigration, but in practice, that tends not to occur.

To what extent do you think the tension surrounding multiculturalism is relevant in Europe?

It is relevant in two senses. One, there was a great rhetorical embrace of multiculturalism in Britain and among public intellectuals across Europe; Netherlands even had a formal multicultural policy. And the argument was that, “It works in Canada”. But they completely misunderstood Canadian multiculturalism, and now you have a reaction against multiculturalism based on the same misunderstanding of what multiculturalism is. And the European definition of multiculturalism is one that everyone except for Canadians uses, which is this idea of supporting, funding, subsidizing, encouraging differences, namely, isolation, separation, segregation. So, there has been a big debate on multiculturalism in Europe, which has been roundly condemned in Canada because we think we have a horse in this race. We don’t. What Europeans are saying recently is that they oppose segregation, and that they want to see the sort of integration that we take for granted. Particularly with more successful communities—Chinese, Indians, Persians—the kids go to the universities in larger numbers than White Canadians. This is what we take for granted in Ontario—that people just come to Canada and succeed in Canadian society, and their children do as well as everyone else. You don’t have that in Europe.

Do you get the sense that Europeans want more acceptance of immigrants or are they still setting up barriers against their success?

It’s incredibly complex and conflicted. Europeans are more likely to be begrudging in sharing wealth with new immigrants because they have a greater sense of having first claim as Germans, Dutch, French. But in fact, if you ask them, they will say that they want more acceptance. They are, furthermore, much more generous than we are in terms of welfare support, such as providing free housing for unemployed immigrants.

In addition to multiculturalism, what are some of the other challenges facing immigrants in Europe?

Islamophobia exists, for sure, but the extent of it is exaggerated. And there are a couple of contextual aspects to consider. One, North American Muslim immigrants differ demographically from their European counterparts. North American Muslims are, on average, more educated and more economically successful than the population at large—an important factor that will shape the context of integration and mainstream attitudes immediately. The Muslim population in Europe, with some notable exceptions, is generally more rural, poorer, and more religious. So, you could say that the European reaction is Islamophobic, and it might as well be, but you can’t say that North Americans are so much better, given that we have a different population. We’re comparing apples and oranges.

That said, Europe, in a sense, defines itself against Islam (e.g. the stopping of the Turks at the gates of Vienna). But we shouldn’t overplay this attitudinal difference, because twenty years ago, no one talked about Muslims. We talked about Turks, we talked about Pakistanis, Algerians, Tunisians. So this opposition against Muslims has kind of been a construction of 9/11, and it has been a distraction. Since 9/11, you’ve had a huge conversation on both sides that gets it wrong. The European Islamophobes or Islamo-sceptics (I think there is a category of Islamoscepticism, which is less oppositional than Islamophobia. It describes a concern about Islam rather than a hatred of Muslims) think that this is a problem of Islam—its traditions and practices are alien to Europe, Medieval, and misogynistic. This is wrong. The other side, Conservative Muslims, say that the government is not recognizing Islam enough. We need more accommodation, we need more subsidies, and we need more Islamic rules. Both sides get it completely wrong. The problem is not religion and culture. The problem is economic failure. And what’s gone wrong with Muslim communities in Europe is what has gone wrong with immigrant communities in Europe, and that is a failure to succeed economically. Low educational achievements, leads to high unemployment—50 per cent in some communities around Paris. Related to this issue are the slim chances of upward social mobility for Muslim children. This is what’s going on. And it comes back to this point that I say time and time again: Immigration policies work where immigrants work. And what they are not doing in sufficient numbers in Europe is working. Islam is not the problem; there is no reason why Islam cannot be a European religion. The problem is unemployment. It’s a vicious circle in Europe. You have less educated immigrants who are less likely to take school seriously and are less likely to do well. Aggravating the problems associated with unemployment is an overly generous European welfare state.

Tell us about how a generous welfare state actually creates problems for Muslim integration in Europe.

In the context of unskilled immigrants, high income support at times of unemployment will encourage individuals to take welfare rather than work. Why? Welfare pays more than work. People don’t have that option in Canada. That’s why we have the PhD as the taxi driver in Canada. Your only option is work. And it’s hopefully well-paid work. If not, it’s poorly-paid work—but it’s work. Some of the Left will say that this is dehumanizing. This is for a tenured professor to say (though one, I should add, who paid his way through college with lousy jobs), but I do fundamentally believe that it’s better to be in bad work than no work because exclusion from the labor market can become permanent. If you are in the labour market, even in a lousy job, you stay in the labour market and can move on to another job.

Then, would you say that the shrinking of the welfare state of Canada is beneficial to immigrants?

I think there is a benefit to shrinking some programs. Let’s be clear—we’re not talking about taking away education or health. Part of the reason why immigrants to Canada succeed at the end of the day is because our public schools are pretty good, internationally. So, spending on education is very important; that should never be reduced. Also, spending on health care has no negative effects. So, we’re talking about one component of the welfare state, and that is income support in times of unemployment. We actually don’t quite face the dilemma in Canada because most of our immigrants are highly skilled. Indian doctors and Chinese entrepreneurs are not going to go on welfare. There is no temptation to leave their $200 000/year job to go on welfare. But if you have unskilled immigration, you can’t have the generous element of the welfare state.

In light of the issues you’ve raised, let’s take a step back and look at the picture of immigration holistically. Canada prides itself as a country of immigrants. Compared to what you’ve seen in Europe, how well do you think our immigration policies are actually working? Is there anything to be learned, either Europeans from us or vice versa?

On the whole, our immigration policy is working well. We have advantages over the Europeans. You’ve said it—we are a country that has always defined itself through immigration. We’re all immigrants, except First Nations, if you go back far enough. In that context, it becomes very hard to exclude people because they are immigrants. In Europe, there has been lots of immigration but you have to go much further back; communities are much more settled. Furthermore, we have lots of space in Canada. Toronto just spreads in all directions. In Europe, you can’t do that. So, we avoid arguments over space in the centre of the city, which might arise in Europe when new immigrant settlements compete with old working class communities. Immigrants to Canada can just move to Markham or Brampton and get a nice big house. And I’m partly joking, partly serious. What’s striking here is that Europeans have had to cope with the transformation of their neighbourhoods. But most neighbourhoods in Toronto—the Beaches, Rosedale, the Annex, Forest Hill—are almost as White as they were 30 years ago because we’ve had this suburbanization of immigrants. In a sense, everyone’s happy. New immigrants tend to like new housing; old Canadians tend to like old housing. I mean, neighbourhoods do gentrify, and that’s another process of exclusion, but it’s not really a race-based one. So, those are our two advantages.
On the whole, Canada is in better shape than Europe. Our immigration policy works well, and we were smart to get in early with the skilled immigration system. We got skilled people that are now bringing in their families. I think what the Europeans could learn from us is that what we do is kind of cheap. They actually spend more money than we do. In addition to language training and education that we also invest in, Europeans spend a fantastic amount on welfare. What Canadians do that costs nothing is that we’re just kind of welcoming. Those “You Belong Here” stickers? They are probably produced very cheaply in China. And the attitude that says, “You’re welcome here. We like you. We hope you make it”. This attitude can make a difference. I’m not of an immigrant background myself, but talking to people, I get the sense that being made to feel welcomed can make a huge difference. That costs nothing. What we actually do for immigrants is very little—we tell them to go get a job. What the Europeans do is the opposite. They spend a huge amount of money, some of which is misallocated, and then they have this begrudging, unwelcoming attitude. This creates resentment among immigrants, and then in turn, resentment among non-immigrants who say, “We’re giving you all this money, and you’re all on welfare, and now you’re complaining.” So, in terms of rhetoric, we get it right, and that’s what the Europeans can learn from us.

(*Europe refers to the countries of Northern Europe (Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Netherlands, Austria) in this interview)

Photo credit should go here

Professor Randall Hansen

Randal Hansen is Director of the Centre of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Immigration & Governance at the University of Toronto. His research covers immigration, population policy, and the effect of war on civilian populations. He is author of Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after July 20, 1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) (with D. King), Sterilized by the State: Eugenics, Race and the Population Scare in 20th Century North America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), (with G. P. Freeman and D. Leal), Immigration and Public Opinion in Liberal Democracies (New York: Routledge, 2013). (with J. Koehler and J. Money (eds.), Immigration, Nation States and International Cooperation (New York: Routledge, 2011), Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945 (Toronto: Doubleday, 2008; New York: Penguin, 2009; Quebec: Laval University, 2010) and Citizenship and Immigration in Postwar Britain: The Institutional Foundations of a Multicultural Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).