It has been interesting to observe the reaction to my local MP and Conservative Party leadership contender Kellie Lietch’s proposal to screen prospective immigrants to Canada for “anti-Canadian values.” Many people have expressed outrage at this proposal, although most are at pains to say exactly what is wrong with it.
There is, of course, a totally pragmatic objection, which is that in practice it is impossible to tell what people’s values are, and so the only way to implement such a program would be by discriminating against certain groups, or people from certain countries suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values (such as women who wear niqabs, etc.) After all, immigrants talk to one another, and so if there were to be a quiz administered, with questions such as “do you believe that men and women should be equal?” word would quickly get out about what the correct answer is. So really the only way to implement it would be by barring individuals suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values based on observable characteristics.
Apart from this pragmatic objection, however, I have not seen much in the way of a coherent response. Many people seem to think that the mere suggestion that immigrants might have unCanadian values is stigmatizing, or discriminatory. This is culpably naive. If one were to look at different countries around the world, and consider public attitudes toward homosexuality, gender equality, racism, parental authority, corporeal punishment of children, treatment of animals, and many other issues, it is obvious that the “values” of many other people are strikingly different from those of the majority of Canadians. Furthermore, most immigrants come to Canada for the economic opportunities, not to escape the values of their society, and so their values are likely to reflect the prevailing attitudes in their country of origin. As a result, many arrive with views on these questions that are deeply out of sync with Canadian attitudes. To take just one example, 52% of Muslim immigrants to Canada from Pakistan believe that homosexuality “should not be accepted by society,” compared to only 14% of Canadians overall who believe the same. This number is hardly surprising, since homosexuality is both illegal and deeply taboo in Pakistan.
Consider another example. Punishment of children is an issue that produces a great deal of anxiety in many different immigrant communities. Outside Canada, most people in the world beat children, consider it normal to beat children, and in many cases consider it obligatory to beat children. Most are told when they arrive (by other members of the community) that this is illegal in Canada, and that if you get caught doing it, your children can be taken away. But it’s not as though the Government of Canada gives them courses on alternative disciplinary techniques, like how to make judicious use of “time outs” or when to take away “screen time.” Furthermore, the law remains quite vague and in flux, since the idea that it is wrong to beat children is, in Canada, a fairly recent innovation. (Even when I was in grade school, teachers were allowed to hit students – although it was no longer official school policy, as it was for my father’s generation.) As a result, many immigrants continue to beat their children surreptitiously, as it were, and worry about getting caught (as do, of course, many native-born Canadians). Many also overreact, and impose no discipline on their children at all, because they are worried about someone calling child welfare on them. Overall the situation is a bit of a mess, because many immigrants know that their beliefs and practices are not widely shared in Canadian society, but are not entirely sure how far they must go in order to adjust. However, because of the fear of stigmatizing minorities, or appearing culturally insensitive, Canada does a terrible job at communicating what the values, norms and expectations in this society are.
Anyhow, it is pointless to argue that there are not immigrants who arrive here with values that are deeply unCanadian. (I can recall one year when Celine Dion won The Beaver magazine’s “worst Canadian” contest, and I thought to myself, “really? What about the Khadr family, or at least the parents?” Even if one thought that they weren’t bad people, one must admit that they were bad Canadians.)
So what are the objections to Leitch’s proposal? One objection is that there are a large number of Canadians who also have unCanadian values, and we tolerate this, so imposing a values test on immigrants would violate equality. For instance, if tolerance of homosexuality is to be the litmus test, then a very large number of conservative Christians are going to get classified as having unCanadian values – that cannot be a fight that Leitch is particularly keen to pick. An even better example is that Canada tolerated polygamy in Mormon communities in B.C. for many decades, and probably continues to do so. (As long as they don’t bother people, or marry girls at too young an age, we leave them alone.) Lots of immigrants come from countries in which polygamy is legal and commonly practiced (e.g. Pakistan again). Even if a majority of Canadians agree with Lietch that polygamy is a “barbaric cultural practice,” the fact remains that a minority of Canadians think it is perfectly acceptable. And so as long as immigrants from Pakistan understand that it is not legal in Canada and agree to obey the laws of this country (which they do), then we cannot complain about their values in this regard – or the fact that they might campaign for a change in the laws. There is already an active pro-polygamy movement in this country – again, tolerated by the government (I know, because they put me on their mailing list over a decade ago, and I still get their newsletter). That’s just what it means to live in a liberal society – that people are free to disagree about such questions. Government enforces the law, but it does not impose values.
Just another story on this score. I once watched a friend of mine, who immigrated here from the Ukraine, drown a litter of barn cats in his pond. He just tossed them in a sack, put in a big rock, and threw them into the water. Apparently that’s how you deal with excess cats in the Ukraine. This guy served in the Red Army – he is what you might call a “hard man” – so I don’t usually try to tell him how to do things, but I did point out that, in Canada, you can actually get into a fair bit of trouble for drowning kittens. At the same time, there are plenty of Canadian farmers who get rid of excess cats in exactly the same way. Usually they are more discrete about it. The point stands, however. Most people around the world do not have the heightened sensitivity to animal welfare that is cultivated in Canadian society, and so they come here with unCanadian values. (The fact that one is not allowed to kill raccoons, for instance, is something that many immigrants to Toronto find completely insane.) But they are unCanadian only in the sense that they are rather distant from the average view held by Canadians. They are not, however, completely outside the range of views held by all Canadians. In a liberal society, however, there is no presumption that the average view is the correct view, and so the state typically tries to remain neutral with respect to the full range of views.
The central problem with this argument is that the Canadian immigration system already discriminates in ways that the Canadian state cannot in dealing with its own citizens, and no one seems to find this terribly problematic. For instance, the Canadian state cannot treat you differently based on what you chose to study in university, but the immigration system does (awarding more points to people with particular specializations). There are myriad ways in which the state is constrained by a principle of equal treatment in dealing with its own citizens, but unconstrained in dealing with non-citizens. Now one may think that the whole points systems is unjust and illegitimate, but it remains open to Leitch to argue that what she is proposing is merely an extension of it. We give points to people for language skills, presumably on the grounds that it will help them to integrate into Canadian society. Why not give them points for other personal characteristics, that make them able to integrate more easily? (This could be implemented just by restoring the “personal suitability” category of evaluation, which was part of the points system until 2002).
Thus a better response to Leitch’s proposal, I believe, is to reject the need to screen immigrants for unCanadian values, because our capacity to integrate immigrants is sufficiently robust that within a generation or two they come to share our values, regardless of their family background. In other words, we can afford to treat “Canadian values” in much the same way that we treat “speaking English (or French),” which is that we don’t worry too much about what happens with the first generation of immigrants, because we expect that the children will grow up speaking unaccented Canadian English (or French), just as we expect them to wind up having fairly conventional Canadian values. Pakistani immigrants wind up having daughters like Irshad Manji, who is almost comically Canadian in her values. (Her central complaint against Islam seems to be that it isn’t run like a hippie commune, and that the imam keeps trying to tell her what to believe. That and they’re, like, totally uncool about her being a dyke.) This is something you see all the time in Toronto. The last student I had who wore a hijab to class was a self-professed libertarian, a Conservative party activist, and a general loud-mouth. Whatever values her father might have had, I suspect that he failed rather conspicuously to pass them on.
So the argument, roughly, would be that we don’t have to screen immigrants, so long as we remain good at integrating them into Canadian society.
One more little story. Last year, there was a boatload of Nigerian migrants that set sail from North Africa toward Italy. During the passage things became tense on the overloaded boat, an altercation developed, and so the (Muslim) passengers threw all of the Christians overboard (killing 12). Now there are a lot of things wrong with this, but one of the most obvious is that these people were migrating to Italy. One gets the sense that, psychologically, they were not entirely prepared for the challenges of integrating into Italian society. One might go even further, and suggest that if they have a homicidal hatred of Christians, then Italy might not be the best place for them to live. The moral of the story is that, just because people want to move to a particular country does not mean that they are already “on board” with the basic values and norms that govern life in that country. Immigrants often have deeply unrealistic expectations about what life will be like in a new country, and they are often driven by very narrow economic motives. So it is entirely possible for people to apply for immigration to Canada who have attitudes that make them deeply unsuitable. In principle, it is not crazy to think that we should screen such people out. The argument against it is that 1. in practice there is no way of doing so, without just discriminating against certain classes of persons, and 2. it is not necessary, because living here generates rapid convergence toward conventional Canadian values, if not in the first generation then certainly in the second and third.
The reason that Leitch’s proposal makes me somewhat uncomfortable is that we (academics and theorists of multiculturalism) have done a terrible job at articulating this second point, explaining how this process of integration works, and why it is that we can afford to be so confident in our abilities to integrate that we don’t need to screen. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll have a few more posts on the subject in the next week or two.