Harkening back to Champlain's immigration policy

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Americans gripped by immigration and ethnicity issues should glance for perspective at the large print on the base of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor ... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me ... Canadians with similar anxieties about immigrants and refugees -- categories that were often historically identical -- should think about Samuel de Champlain, who founded our country in the early 1600s.

Champlain's immigration policy was unusual, since he and the settlers he brought from France were the immigrants. In a way, it was the native peoples already here who had the first immigration policy; they welcomed newcomers, in the absence of reasons not to, as if good things were likely to arise from new arrivals. Champlain seemed to admire that.

So his immigration policy was also a policy of conquest, in an era of conquest. Yet, approaches differed. In the Spanish West Indies, he'd seen an empire enslave native peoples and work them to death, literally and collectively, then import new slaves from Africa. He also rejected the British route in Virginia or New England, of keeping apart from native peoples while pushing them off their land. His way was to treat prior inhabitants with individual and national respect: Learn from them, trade and live with them, intermarry. "Henceforth we shall be one people," he said.

It's a more creative and humane approach than trying to assimilate the "others" to your own values, which are always a mixed bag. It opens future possibilities. The young men Champlain sent to learn native languages often intermarried, as did French families of high rank into similar native families. Eventually, this process led to the Métis nation, "the only ethnic group created indigenous to this continent," says Champlain biographer David Hackett Fischer.

I've been reading his book this summer up in the region Champlain knew as Huronia, between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, where he spent a year and got to know a complex agricultural society with many towns, a political structure and enough surplus corn to export to other native peoples. Mr. Fischer says Champlain's enlightened openness came from having fought during 40 bloody years of religious war in Europe and feeling there had to be a better way. He calls it a "generational phenomenon," comparable to the Lester Pearson generation of "wise men." They lived through two world wars and a global depression; they responded with the UN and the welfare state. They make the Stephen Harper generation look callow, but that may just show that hard experience is a better teacher than stiff ideology.

The alternative mindset, now widely on offer, involves escalating exclusion and delegitimization, as if saying: First they came for the refugees, but I wasn't a refugee. Then they came for the immigrants. Then they came for citizens but ones who weren't like "us," such as Muslims in the U.S., who are told to be "more sensitive" when building mosques. But sensitive to whom -- "real" Americans? Or you get Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford, who said this week that, in a perfect world, there'd be no immigration here.

Yet, his words have not the ring but a certain ding of truth. He says, "We can't even take care of our 2.5 million people," and it's true -- though he doesn't name the reasons. Policies such as free trade and globalization sent away vast numbers of jobs in small manufacturing and their spinoffs that generations of new immigrants did, whose taxes, in turn, supported decent services. Many of those tut-tutting Rob Ford backed those economic policies and still do, lending them a whiff of hypocrisy discernible to stressed-out voters. He's hit the mood, though not the essence, of our situation. I imagine Champlain faced similar conundrums in his time.

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