I read the excerpt from Daniel Stoffman’s new book, Who Gets In, about immigration policy, in the last R.O.B. Magazine and found it aggravating. Then I read the book and found it more so. I think this is the nature of the immigration debate. It’s always happening, and it’s always hard to say what the issues really are. The topic is fraught with anxiety, like other ageless Canadian dilemmas. (Have we lost our way in hockey? What does Quebec want?)

Why immigration? There’s a sense of cartographic angst that seizes Canadians when they look at a map and see all that space, with so few places. Plus a feeling of cultural fragility: What if “others” with confident identities come pouring in? Will they say, Hey, we thought there was a real country here?

At the same time, the debate often seems to be about something else. It turns into a cover for discussing every current crisis such as globalization or terror.

Take one argument in Who Gets In against high immigration levels, especially for the poor and ill-educated: that these put downward pressure on wages, leading to big profits for employers and redistribution from workers to owners. Daniel Stoffman can’t see why unions don’t agree with him; they must be “prisoners of political correctness.”

It doesn’t occur to him that there is an alternative for workers, old and new; they can organize and unite to fight those pressures, as they have often done (pitting workers against workers is not exactly a novel business strategy), while pressing politically to ensconce union rights. That means Canadian workers wouldn’t have to choose between their economic self-interest and their desire to be welcoming toward the rest of the world.

I say his approach reflects the reality of globalization because it places an implacable economic system, to which resistance seems futile, at the centre of the immigration debate. Those economic forces obviate all other choices. The best you can do is batten down the hatches, or borders.

Yet immigration isn’t just about economics. It’s at least as much about community, on both sides of the equation. What immigration has always promised was not just hope for those coming but renewal for those here, by adding people from another rung, their energy, need, and demand for justice. That won’t happen when you cut back and then select only those who mirror the current population economically.

Or take September 11. It changed everything, according to Daniel Stoffman, making tighter controls on refugees and immigrants unavoidable, mainly due to U.S. pressure. Maybe so. But what’s surprising is his sneak attack on Canadian multicultural policies.

It’s odd since multiculturalism is not about immigration, it’s about communities already here. He describes it as “a creed that seeks to devaluate and eliminate anything that is distinctively Canadian.”

I’m no big fan of official multiculturalism, but I would like to see some evidence for that claim. In my experience, it serves mostly to allow newcomers to feel a share in what other Canadians take for granted, such as the literature, landscape and hockey — and they tend to respond with proud identification.

The gift to all speakers at a big multiculturalism conference I was at in Edmonton, Alberta, two weeks ago was a book called The Best Country: Why Canada Will Lead the Future, by Satya Das.

What we really have here is a Canadian version of the clash of civilizations thesis — Islam v. the West, Islam v. modernity, us v. the terrorists etc. “Because there are irreconciliable differences between cultures, multiculturalism is divisive,” Daniel Stoffman writes. But come on, there are irreconciliable differences within cultures, too, including Canada’s.

Left v. right, abortion, Kyoto. His statement itself is damn divisive. That happens because cultures are comprised by people, not abstract values, and contradictions arise. The way we deal with apparently irreconciliable differences is through laws, not through demands to accept a set of “Canadian” values as laid out by Daniel Stoffman, or Robert Fulford and others he quotes approvingly. You live by the laws or suffer the consequences, never mind whether or not you “value” polygamy.

In fact, a hearty conflict of values is a sign of vitality, as long as order and respect is maintained through law and custom. “How many girls have suffered genital mutilation in Canada,” Daniel Stoffman asks, “because immigrants believed Canada’s official policy gave them the right,” and “how many children have been beaten under [multiculturalism’s] imprimatur?” Well, maybe none, since such things exist elsewhere, with or without Canadian-style multiculturalism. Anyway, isn’t refusal to spare the rod a “Western” value?

I love it when people wig out this way in the middle of an ostensibly focused account and start thrashing around on another subject. It’s so chaotic, unlike the rules of economics or prescriptions for immigration reform. But I digress.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.