Immigration and the Harper version of multiculturalism

This week Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, the energizer bunny of the Harper cabinet, popped up to put more polish on his argument that immigration needs to be driven by business specs. "People with flexible human capital, high levels of language proficiency and a pre-arranged job," he said, "are set for success, so that will be an important guidepost as we move toward transformational change."

My question is: If his policies are about nation-building, as he often proclaims, why does it sound so boring? Like an accountant's approach: plug in the figures, match them with skill sets and out comes a nation. For most of recent history, immigration to the New World was, for those experiencing it, an adventure, full of tragedy, achievement, a sense of loss yet creativity. Where do you plug that in, minister?

Of course, those earlier phases were based on economic criteria too: Chinese workers who built the railway, Italians who built cities, Jews in the needle trades -- but they were less predictable demographics than Kenney's credentialed professionals, who might turn bitter if they're driving cabs rather than going straight to an "average annual salary of $79,000."

Earlier groups started near the bottom; there was a randomness and chaos to their trajectories along with an energy suited to "nation building." My friend Graz, former patron of Dooney's Café and The Annex Live (and for the moment merely between bistros, I hope) stood behind the bar one day sorting basil for the kitchen and inhaling deeply. "Basil reminds me of Calabria," he said. His Portuguese neighbours grow basil in pots on their front steps, not for pesto, just "for the smell."

You don't know what will emerge when you toss these types into a new setting. They tend toward enthusiasm and gratitude rather than bitterness or a sense of entitlement. Graz's brother is an MPP and former cabinet minister. Another brother is a retired high-school French teacher.

Or take the language proficiency so coveted by Kenney. What's wrong with having to master a language from scratch? It gave anglophone lit some of its treasures. Kids who spoke better English than their parents felt empowered. They wrote songs with crazy, tight rhymes ("I'm bidin' my time/Cause that's the kind of guy I'm") just to show they could. The next generation, like Bob Dylan, né Zimmerman, didn't need to prove they could rhyme and revolutionized pop music by not rhyming. That's the potential in uncontrollability.

What helped cushion the damage lurking in the uncertainty among those earlier waves? Clearly it was family and community. But this is what Kenney's policies will undermine, by weakening family unification as a rule, even though most Canadians support it. Instead, who will those entrepreneurial professionals turn to? Their employers and the government so well-disposed toward them. As relatively isolated individuals, they'll have fewer ways to draw on their culture and thread it into their new nation's. But they may find time, while rising to their $79,000 average, to join their local Tory riding association.

I mean it. This is the Harper version of multiculturalism. They couldn't have copied the outright anti-immigrant, anti-multiculti stances of admired figures like Germany's Merkel or France's Sarkozy. But they managed to embrace it while backing off and making faces about it. Jason Kenney appears at (almost) every ethnic gathering yet sounds negative and hostile in most of his policies: denouncing levels of fraud in getting citizenship, changing the test, banning veils at the ceremony and this week attacking "birth tourism." It's like the Harper version of Canadian nationalism. They've decided to live with it, but that includes restoring symbols of the British crown -- astutely having it both ways.

What I find oddest is a whiff of the "social engineering" that libertarians and neo-cons are supposed to loathe. Kenney says his policy is "about matching immigrants with the jobs rather than just pushing them into the general labour market to sink or swim." The only neo-con component in that sentence is sink or swim. This jibes with other Big Government, interventionist behaviours by the Conservative government. We can attribute it to hypocrisy or, more generously, the chaotic, contradictory element in all human activity, no matter how self-deluded.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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