Canadian Exceptionalism: The very idea

Has liberty moved north? Is Canada the last immigrant nation left standing?  Are we a bright light on a dark political stage?

The notion of “Canadian Exceptionalism” predates Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the pretensions of Kellie Leitch. It goes back at least to 2012, when the Berkeley professor Irene Bloemraad published an article entitled Understanding ‘Canadian Exceptionalism’ in Immigration and Pluralism Policy, which juxtatposed “the widespread and increasing support of immigration among Canadian citizens with growing anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to multicultural policies across Europe and the United States.” And our own Joe Heath has been workshopping a talk for a while now building on Bloemraad’s work.

So it’s not a new idea. But the basic thesis — that Canada seems to be unique in having built a stable, immigrant-driven multicultural society — has become more prevalent in the Trump/Brexit era, finding proponents both domestic and foreign. It has also drawn a predictable reaction. And so when NYT columnist Nick Kristof called Canada the leader of the free world this past weekend, it was quickly rebutted by Buzzfeed Canada writer Scaachi Koul, who said, essentially, no we’re just as biased, racist, and discriminatory as the US, we just flatter ourselves more.

So which is it? Is Canada an exceptional country, or not? And if we’re an exceptional country, is it because we’re doing something right, or are we just winging it? Are we good, or are we lucky?

That is the subject of my first annual conference as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, being held this Thursday and Friday at the Sofitel in Montreal. The aim of the conference is to interrogate the thesis of Canadian exceptionalism: What are the theoretical underpinnings of what we are trying to do as a multicultural society? And how do our efforts compare with other countries? More broadly, how worried should we be about rising populism, and how can our political elites and institutions work to mitigate the effects while channeling those energies?

To set the table for the conference, we commissioned Michael Donnelly of the SPPG at UofT to do a survey on Canadians’ attitudes towards immigrants. The results were published earlier this week in the National Post, and were picked up by a number of other media outlets. The take-away: There is nothing exceptional in our attitudes. And so if there is something going on here, it has to do with how our political culture and institutions work, and how the elites respond within that institutional context. But what exactly that means is something we need to explore in greater depth.

That’s our challenge this week. If you can be in Montreal, please join us. If you can’t make it, CPAC will be streaming it live on their site. You can also follow Martin Patriquin on Twitter — he’ll be live-tweeting the proceedings.

The full conference programme is available here.




Canadian Exceptionalism: The very idea — 8 Comments

  1. While it is true that immigration here has gone much better than just about anywhere else in the world, it is important to take a look at just what immigration in Canada looks like:

    1. The regular Canadian immigration process quite ruthlessly screens for immigrants that are likely to succeed materially.
    2. The regular Canadian immigration process quite ruthlessly screens for immigrants that are already half-assimilated through education in their own countries.
    3. The number of immigrants from any one place is generally quite small and there is still a large hegemonic white majority.
    4. The largest groups of immigrants are from high achieving Asian groups, in particular Chinese and high caste Hindus.
    5. The other large group of immigrants is from the Phillipines, and that group has seemed to make for more docile blue collar workers than people from other parts of the world.
    6. The number of Muslims is quite small and they have all been through the screening process outlined in points 1 and 2.
    7. Because of 1 and 2, most immigrant groups tend to materially prosper at roughly the same level as the white majority, which tends not create much jealousy and resentment between groups.
    8. The most troublesome groups tend to come in through the refugee process. For example, Somali refugees and their descendants have been very problematic, though fortunately on a relatively small scale. Other less well integrated groups include the descendants of those who came here under earlier, less restrictive immigration regimes, such as many Black Caribbeans.

    From the above, one can easily see why Canadian immigration has been a comparative success. Unlike the United States, it has not been taking in large numbers of historically low achieving Mexicans and Central Americans, nor does it have a large Black population taken in as slaves. Unlike Europe, it has not been randomly taking in lots of historically low achieving Middle Easterners and North Africans.

    No country which has failed to heavily screen its immigrants has been able to successfully integrate them into the host population. Even those that do screen heavily have had trouble integrating the groups which they have not screened. It is almost as if it cannot be done.

    • Regarding: “No country which has failed to heavily screen its immigrants has been able to successfully integrate them into the host population.”

      Indeed. Just look at how badly the unscreened European immigrants to North America have integrated into the host population over the past five centuries!

        • Strange. My history lessons failed to mention any extensive screening processes conducted by the First Nations vis-à-vis the French, English, Spanish, Dutch, etc., arriving on their lands…

    • Historically low achieving Middle Easterners and North Africans invented algebra, alchemy, and medicine.

      • I realize the choice of words this commentator used can be construed as insensitive, however, the fact remains that the majority of Arab and Middle Eastern immigrants we accept are “high achieving” in that they are highly educated or already posses a certain degree of wealth. Hence the lament that many immigrants driving cabs were originally trained as doctors, lawyers etc. There are “high” and “low” achieving people in every society and culture. I doubt many Canadians would be allowed into their own country under our existing immigration laws.

      • I’ll give you algebra, but alchemy is a pseudoscience, and up until about a hundred years ago the medical profession was more likely to kill you than do any good.

        Incidentally, very few societies have produced nothing of any cultural worth, but that doesn’t mean they have all achieved at the same level.