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The effect of immigration on social cohesion in Canada

11 The effect of immigration on social cohesion in Canada

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With rising immigration and the resulting ethnic diversity, many Western nations are concerned with the effect on social cohesion. There are two policy agendas that governments can pursue regarding this issue (Soroka, Johnston and Banting 2007). One approach is to celebrate diversity, respect cultural differences and allow minorities to express their distinctive culture. The second agenda is to focus on social integration and assimilation, and to try to build a common national identity. These agendas can be pursued simultaneously, but often the balance shifts between the two. In the very recent past, events in many European nations have led them to consider what agenda might be most effective in maintaining social cohesion in the face of rising ethnic diversity. Demonstrations and violent confrontations have prompted concerns regarding social cohesion in some European nations.

But Canada, at least to date, has escaped such demonstrations and clashes between minority groups and the state. There is little evidence of a breakdown in social cohesion, in spite of the very rapid increase in ethnic diversity and the share of the population in visible-minority groups. There are some signs of concern, such as a recent debate in Quebec regarding ‘reasonable accommodation’ of immigrant groups entering Canada with very different cultural and religious backgrounds. Overall, however, Canada has largely escaped both the outward signs of disharmony between immigrant groups and the Canadian born, as well as prolonged debates about such an issue. There are a number of possible reasons for this outcome. Statistics Canada has conducted virtually no research on this topic, but some speculation may be worthwhile.

  • Canada, unlike many nations, has never pursued or developed a single national identity. At Canada’s inception in 1867, there were two founding peoples with very different cultures, religions, histories and languages: the English in Ontario and the French in Quebec. From the very beginning, Canada has needed to try to accommodate very different groups as equals and, in the process, built up a tradition. Furthermore, concerns with the protection of minority rights, such as those of the English in Quebec and the French outside of Quebec at the time of the creation of Canada, also have a long history in Canada. The latest manifestation of this was the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This history has no doubt influenced the way in which people from different cultural backgrounds integrate within Canadian society.
  • Following its creation—and even before that—Canada became a nation of immigrants, and immigration has long been seen as a natural part of the growth of the country. Most Canadians take pride in the ability of the country to welcome people from many different cultural backgrounds, and they expect immigration to contribute positively to the growth of the nation, as it has done in the past. Many European nations, on the other hand, have only recently begun to think of themselves as immigrant-receiving nations. Hence, the Canadian population has a very different perspective on immigration and its effects.
  • The very high level of education among Canadian immigrants—much higher than that of the Canadian born—promotes adaptation to a modern ‘knowledge-based’ society. Furthermore, the typical immigrant in Canada is not perceived as a less educated person lacking the skills to succeed: rather, the image is often one of a highly educated, ambitious and capable individual with the potential to contribute positively to Canadian society. The education level of immigrants to Canada is higher than that of (legal) immigrants going to the United States and most European nations.
  • In Canada, politicians at all levels—federal, provincial and municipal—have clearly stated that higher immigration levels are essential to the economic health of the nation (or city). Leaders in cities not receiving their ‘share’ of immigrants often devise incentives to attract more. This message has been largely accepted by the population, and it affects their views of the value of immigration. Immigration is seen by most as necessary to maintaining population growth and prosperity. There is no political party that has adopted an anti- immigrant stance, and hence there is no vehicle for the expression of what dissatisfaction may exist among some of the population.
  • Political and civic engagement among visible minorities, while not at the level of that of some other groups, is substantial in Canada. This activity sends a message to the newly arrived immigrant that participation in the political system is possible and to the country that visible-minority group members play an important and active role within the state. The naturalization of newcomers to Canada, a necessary step for participation in a democracy, is among the highest in the world (Banting, Courchene and Seidle 2007). While voter turnout rates are lower among recent immigrants than in the Canadian-born population, they are at significant levels. Furthermore, there are somewhere from 15 to 20 members of the federal parliament from visible-minority groups, and they have been premiers of provinces and members of provincial parliaments.
  • The fact that immigration is extremely racially diverse may contribute to its relatively small negative effect on social cohesion. In nations where immigrants from one particular ethnic group dominate, the native born may react to the cultural values and norms of that group. However, immigrants to Canada come from such a wide range of source countries, and they also have such widely varying cultural and religious backgrounds, that accommodation of the differences becomes the norm.
  • The absence of any significant number of illegal immigrants in Canada may also contribute to the relatively positive attitude that most Canadians have toward immigration. Illegal immigration is a significant issue within the United States and some European nations. One result is an increased sense among some citizens that some immigrants are not following the rules and that they are receiving benefits to which they are not entitled. The situation in Canada is quite different, given the relative absence of illegal immigrants.

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