Canadian exceptionalism

Between Jeremy Corbyn’s showing in the last U.K. election and Emmanuel Macron’s phenomenal sweep in France, there is grounds for optimism that the fever of right-wing populism is beginning to break. In part I think this is due to Donald Trump himself, who is such a perfect specimen of the ugly American that his election and subsequent behaviour no doubt did considerable damage to the fortunes of populists in countries where voters would like to think of themselves as above the impulses that brought him to power. (This is, I suspect, an important part of the story in France.)

Just a few months ago, things were looking quite different. At that time, a fairly widespread discussion broke out over the seemingly anomalous circumstances that prevailed in Canada, where nativism seemed to be gaining no traction. The picture we all saw of a smiling Justin Trudeau greeting Syrian refugees at the airport was reprinted in newspapers around the world. And it led a lot of people to wonder what we’re putting in the water here in Canada.

As was widely noted, there are several important respects in which attitudes towards immigration and diversity in Canada diverge from those in other Western countries (leading many people to announce the dawn of “Canadian exceptionalism”). Typically, as the number of immigrants goes up, public support for immigration goes down. Canada is the only country in which both immigration and support for immigration have risen over the past few decades. Furthermore, patriotism and support for immigration are positively correlated in Canada, whereas in most Western countries, including the U.S., they are negatively correlated.

Things in Canada were not always this way. Until the mid-1990s, Canada looked like most other Western countries – high levels of immigration corresponded to declining support for immigration, as well as decreased confidence in the ability of the society to successfully integrate them. (People may remember this as an era in which several very pessimistic books about multiculturalism, including Nationalism Without Walls by Richard Gwyn and Selling Illusions by Neil Bissoondath, became bestsellers.)

Some sort of an inflection point was reaching around the middle of that decade. Perhaps it was simply that, after being told countless times that “the centre cannot hold,” people noticed that “the centre” was, in fact, holding, and that many of the predicted ill effects of high immigration rates were failing to materialize. Whatever the explanation, popular support for immigration reached its nadir around 1995, after which it began to rise, steadily, over a period of almost two decades (leveling off in the past few years).

I think there is still a lot of interesting research to be done, to determine precisely what happened during the 1990s. In the meantime, a large number of explanations have been proposed for the relative success of Canada’s immigration policies, many of which are rather unpersuasive. Some are completely non-explanatory – such as attributing it to “tolerance,” or to “government policy” or to the fact that multiculturalism is “part of national identity.” These are all question-begging. For instance, most states that accept immigrants have some sort of government policy aimed at promoting integration and acceptance, the question is why these policies have been more successful in Canada than elsewhere.

Canadians, on the other hand, are tempted by the “we’re just great” explanation. I want to propose a less self-congratulatory account, but also to identify a few items that are familiar to us “insiders” but are often missed by non-Canadians.

Also, on a slightly pedantic note, I should mention that I am not trying to suggest that everything is awesome in Canada or that there are no problems. I just think that it is important to identify why things have been going better here than in other countries, so that we do not inadvertently dismantle things that work in our attempts to further improve the situation.

Preliminary clarification

Before getting into the details, it is important to lay down one important conceptual distinction, which structures the academic discussion of these questions. Commentators used to talk about the “paradox” of Canadian multiculturalism, which is that Canada promises immigrants some kind of a mosaic, but that it winds up with more of a melting pot, whereas the U.S. promises a melting pot, but it winds up with more of a mosaic. (One very small statistic to illustrate: the out-group marriage rate among Black Canadians is around 40%, whereas in the United States it is below 10%.)

More generally, what Canada has been very successful at doing is integrating immigrants into the basic institutional structure of society. This involves much more than just achieving law-abidingness and labour-market integration, it includes active or elective participation in areas ranging from acquiring citizenship, to participating in political parties, to success in higher education.

The key to dissolving the “paradox” in Canada is to distinguish between integration to a set of institutions (joining in and playing by the rules) and assimilation to a culture (adopting the religion, taste in music, sports, entertainment, folkways, family structures, or food, of others). The central goal of the multiculturalism policy – as Will Kymlicka observed long ago – has been to facilitate the integration of immigrants, by modifying institutions as necessary in order to ensure that this integration can be achieved without cultural assimilation. (Otherwise put, it works to ensure that cultural differences do not pose unreasonable barriers to full participation in the basic institutional structure of society.)

The best example of this (again from Kymlicka), is the modification of the RCMP uniform in order to permit Sikh officers to wear turbans (a policy that was carried out, in the early 1990s, in the name of multiculturalism). The important point is that Sikhs in Canada wanted to join the national police force. Compare that to, say, the Mohawks of Akwesasne, who want nothing at all to do with the RCMP, and who formed their own police force to patrol the reserve. This demand has exactly the opposite valence – it is an anti-integrationist demand. Far from wanting to join the RCMP, they want nothing at all to do with the RCMP. They are entitled to this, because they constitute a national group within Canada. If Sikhs were to make a comparable demand (e.g. demanding that existing police forces withdraw from parts of Brampton or Burnaby, to be replaced by an all-Sikh police force), then that would be cause for alarm, and could reasonably be construed as a failure of multiculturalism. The fact that they want to join the existing police force, by contrast, is a strong sign of successful integration.

In any case, by promoting pluralism with respect to culture, Canada has wound up (perhaps inadvertently) achieving greater integration into the shared institutions of the society. This is what underlies much of the support for immigration in Canada – it is the actual success of our society at integrating immigrants. Immigration in Canada has not produced a marginalized, disenfranchised, alienated underclass of low-wage workers. Opposition to immigration in other countries, particularly in Europe, is partly driven by the failure of their policies in this regard. This is true, to a certain extent, in U.S. as well.

In other words, I think that it is relatively easy, as a Canadian, to support immigration and multiculturalism, because we live in a society in which these policies have been largely successful. This is a luxury that we enjoy. In other countries, supporting these same policies is more difficult, precisely because they have failed, if not completely, then at least in more obvious ways.

Reasons for success

1. Very little illegal immigration

Perhaps the most important difference between Canada and the U.S. is that, south of the border, any sort of discussion of migration policy is completely dominated by the problem of illegal immigration. Indeed, I do not think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that the discussion in the U.S. is poisoned by this one issue. In Canada, by contrast, illegal immigration is much less of a problem (the unauthorized population in Canada is estimated to be between 200,000-400,000, so maybe 15-25% that of the low-end estimate of the U.S. one) This is, interestingly enough, comparable to rates in Europe before the Syrian refugee crisis, but by contrast, only 50% of Canadians view it as a concern, compared to 67% in Europe. (Canadians, it should be noted, are just as hostile to illegal immigration as Europeans, they are just less like to consider it a problem.)

Some of the reasons for this are, as is often pointed out, fortuitous. Unlike the United States, we do not have a large uncontrollable border with a country that is much poorer than our own. (Very few nations do, in fact; the situation between the United States and Mexico is geographically quite anomalous.) But it is also due to policy choices that have been made, in particular, Canada’s historically low reliance on temporary workers in favor of permanent migration. Border control in the physical sense (such as building a wall) is an issue that is of primary concern only to those with limited capacity for abstract thought. Even in the United States, half of all illegal immigrants are people who entered the country legally, but then overstayed their welcome. Temporary worker programs, in particular, are a major source of illegal immigrants.

In any case, the illegal immigration issue is one whose emotional significance is far greater than its narrow economic impact. The suspicion that people may be here illegally is extremely corrosive, and can generate enormous resentment in the native population (especially in a country where everyone gets free health care). For instance, there is currently more hostility to refugees in Canada than there is toward immigrants. Much of this is presumably based on the perception – encouraged by the Harper government – that many of these refugees are not “real,” but are instead taking advantage of an overly generous system.

I think this point about illegal immigration is important, particularly because it is disruptive of the standard left/right positions on multiculturalism and border control. Most people that I know have positions that are “soft” with respect to both issues – they want to be extremely accommodating and flexible, when it comes to cultural pluralism, while at the same time wanting far more porous borders (they also use tendentious terms such as “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrant). The standard right-wing view, by contrast, wants tough border control and domestic policies that privilege the majority culture (and are thus unaccommodating of others). My own sympathies, by contrast, lie with what is sometimes called the “coconut model,” that a country should have a hard exterior and a soft interior. Basically, it rests upon the conviction that (for essentially second-best reasons), the only way to get support for flexible internal policies, vis-a-vis cultural pluralism, is by convincing people that these policies are being driven but by a genuine choice that we are making as a society. And in order to persuade them that it is a choice, they must be convinced that the state actually has control over the process (a conviction that is undermined by large-scale illegal immigration).

2. Bringing people in from all over

Again, partly because of geography but also because of policy, Canada has an immigration policy that brings in people from all over the world, as a result of which no one group dominates within the migrant population. There is no “majority minority.” Indeed, in a typical year, no group from any particular region makes up more than 15% of the total number of immigrants coming to Canada. This is quite different from the situation in France with North Africans, Germany with Turks, or the United States and Mexicans.

The central advantage of this arrangement in Canada is that it makes each ethnic community a much smaller pole of attraction, such that it cannot form a viable subculture within the society. This dramatically limits opportunities for what, in another context, sociologists would refer to as “social deviance.” More generally, it increases the incentive to participate in the broader workforce, as well as to learn the language of the majority. The latter point is particularly important in Quebec. If immigrants don’t speak a common language amongst themselves, then they will naturally gravitate toward the language of the majority, or the language that is taught in schools, even to mediate their own relations.

As a result, Canada is able to encourage the formation of ethnic community associations and networks, with the confidence that these will facilitate immigrant integration, rather than ossifying into permanent ethnic “ghettos.” Many European countries, by contrast, as loathe to encourage the development of civil society groups within immigrant communities, much less encourage their formation, because they already see too much “clustering” within ethnic communities and fear the consequences of isolationism/marginalization.

3. A political system that encourages moderation

People sometimes ask why there is no equivalent to Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Jorg Haider in Canada. My response is to say that there is – his name is Preston Manning. Canada has seen the emergence of a populist, nativist political party, it’s just that it happened over 20 years ago. Now that Manning is old and grey, people tend to forget what the Reform party was like in its early years. Reform used to get huge traction out of its opposition to multiculturalism and hostility to immigration. Indeed, one of the major points of cleavage between Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party and the Reform Party was that the Mulroney supported large-scale immigration (and was clearly anti-racist). Reform, by contrast, vowed to repeal the Multiculturalism Act, and to adjust immigration policies so that they would no longer change the ethnic profile of the country (something that could only be achieved by imposing quotas on immigration from non-Western countries). The party also pandered to Western hostility to Quebec and official bilingualism. At the level of retail politics, opposition to changes in the RCMP uniform to accommodate Sikh officers mobilized a lot of people in support of Reform (some even went to far as to recommend banning Sikh veterans from legion halls, until they agreed to remove their turbans). Preston Manning was extremely successful at exploiting these fever-swamp resentments and channeling them into support for Reform.

So what happened to this radical, populist Reform Party? It immediately generated a split on the right, giving the Liberal Party an easy route to control of the federal government. Because of the structure of our political system, and in particular, the first-past-the-post voting system, this gave the right a powerful incentive to overcome this split. And so the Reformers were slowly brought around, convinced to drop the more intolerant and populist parts of their platform. The bulk of the heavy lifting in this department was done by Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, who between them have done more to contain the far right in Canada than anyone on the left could ever dream of. One can see the same process repeating itself in Alberta right now.

All of this is because our electoral system gives the moderate right a powerful incentive to control the far right. As a result, we have not seen the emergence of far right, nativist party, in the way that so many European nations have – one that has a permanent “base” of around 15% of the population, not enough to win power with, but enough to ensure a strong parliamentary presence, so that its voice will always be heard.

My inclination is to regard the absence of such a party as an important feature of the Canadian success story, because these sorts of parties have an impact on the national conversation that greatly exceeds their electoral numbers. In particular, I think that the success of these parties in gaining media attention may lead many immigrants to overestimate the level of racism, or hostility to minority groups, that exists in the general population. Or perhaps the absence of such a party, in Canada, leads immigrants to underestimate how much hostility is out there. Either way, I think the absence is good for integration, in part because it reduces the salience of race or ethnicity in everyday interaction.

4. Immigrants are part of larger nation-building project

It is important to observe that the major cleavages within Canadian society – those that threaten to tear the country apart – are between its “founding peoples,” the English, French and First Nations. Just today, in my Canada Day edition of the Globe and Mail, I see short interviews with all the provincial premiers, about their dreams and hopes for the future – all except the premier of Quebec, who refused to participate. Meanwhile, there is a “reoccupation” teepee in Ottawa, to protest the Canada 150 celebrations. And so it goes. Does anyone seriously believe that the Canada 200 celebrations will be any different? After all, we will still be standing on land stolen by the white man, Montcalm will still have been defeated on the Plains of Abraham…

Immigrants, by contrast, arrive here fresh, with none of these axes to grind – and indeed, convincing them even to take an interest in these old conflicts is a challenge. As a result, immigrants have been doing a lot more to hold the country together in the past few decades than any of the founders. It may have been impolitic for Jacques Parizeau to blame the loss of the 1995 Quebec referendum on “money and the ethnic vote,” but the allegation was certainly not false. “Allophones” in Quebec essentially voted along the same lines as anglophones – overwhelmingly in favour of staying in Canada. If they had voted like francophones, Quebec would have seceded. The fact that secession is now considered dead in Quebec is almost entirely a consequence of subsequent immigration, not any sort of change of heart on the part of francophone Quebecers. This is nation-building on a large-scale – Canada has, in effect, overcome the secession threat by changing its own internal demographics.

Or consider relations with First Nations. It is important to recognize that the entire Aboriginal population of Canada adds up to less than five years worth of immigrants at the current rate of intake. Immigration, in other words, is demographically overwhelming. Convincing these immigrants to feel any sense of responsibility for injustices committed by British colonialists is, again, a significant challenge. Telling them that Canada is a “settler” society is likely to be met with blank stares. Most immigrants, to the extent that they have thought about it, consider themselves victims of colonialism, not perpetrators. This creates an entirely new political reality, one that the “two-row wampum” model is poorly equipped to handle.

Immigrants have helped to build the Canadian nation, not just by increasing our population. One of the major differences between immigrants and old-stock Canadians is that the former tend to identify and owe allegiance to the central state, and are thus far less likely to have any sort of regional identity. When people immigrate, they think of themselves as moving to Canada, not to Western Canada, or Newfoundland, or Ontario. They identify with the national symbols.

Many young people fail to realize how weak Canadian nationalism was even one or two generations back. I’m old enough to remember singing God Save the Queen, rather than O Canada, in school. Growing up in Saskatoon in the 1970s, one saw very few Canadian flags (there was significant resentment of the maple leaf, given that none of us had ever seen a maple tree – it grows only in Eastern Canada). It was only when I moved to Toronto that I got used to seeing Canadian flags all over the place. One of the first things I noticed was how often these flags were being displayed by immigrants.

The important point is that this has not happened by accident, it is all a consequence of a plan that was adopted, during the 1970s, to strengthen the federal government by cultivating a stronger sense of national identity, focused on Ottawa, and on national symbols. It is therefore no surprise that there is a correlation between patriotism and support for immigration – immigrants have been the carrier class for much of the new patriotism that has been developing over the past three or four decades.

5. Protection of majority culture clear from the start

When it comes to immigration, Quebec is in a peculiar position. French Canadians are a national minority group within Canada, but with respect to immigrants, they form the majority group in the province of Quebec. As a minority group, both their language and culture are threatened, “externally” as it were, by the English majority. Large-scale immigration, however, threatens to further undermine their language and culture, “internally,” because immigrants might choose to learn the language of the national majority (English) rather than the local majority (French).

Thus Canada has faced the challenge of integrating immigrants, not just into the majority society, but into the society of an internal minority, in a way that is acceptable to that minority. (Compare that to a country like Germany, France, or the United States, which has a single, hegemonic language.) Because of this, the only way that it has been possible to have something resembling a national immigration policy has been to offer a set of very explicit protections for Quebec, and in particular, for the French language. These same protections, however, have been extended to the English majority as well. So, for instance, Canada is far more explicit with immigrants about the importance of language-learning than many other countries are, in part because we have an “official languages” policy that sets out very clearly the privileged status of English and French.

The result has been, I believe, much less insecurity, or “demographic anxiety” about immigration, because the protections enjoyed by the majority are laid out explicitly, in a way that they are not in many other countries. In the United States, for instance, there is enormous ambiguity about the status of Spanish – whether signs should be in Spanish, whether there should be Spanish-language public schools, when translation should be offered, and so on. This ambiguity is something that many Americans – whether irrationally or not – find quite unsettling. Those who complain about it are typically accused of racism or xenophobia, on the grounds that no one could plausibly think that the hegemony of English is in any way threatened. In Canada, by contrast, there is considerably less ambiguity, because the status of English as an official language is codified. Again, this is not because anyone thinks that English is threatened. It’s because French is threatened, and so its status needs to be codified, and if one is going to codify the status of French, then one has to do English as well. Therefore, as a somewhat indirect effect of the need to protect Quebec, Canada has wound up adopting integration policies that reduce the anxiety experienced by members of the majority language group as well.

This post is a somewhat quickly written-up version of a talk that I’ve given a few times this year. It’s already too long, and thus time-consuming, so I didn’t have time to add references. Apologies for that. Most stats, if not found in Bloemraad or Statscan, are easily googleable.


Canadian exceptionalism — 6 Comments

  1. A though-provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

    Two comments:

    I think your argument about Indigenous concerns misses the point: the goal is not to hand all the land back to the original Indigneous nations, but to together build a country in which Indigenous peoples are considered equals and treated with respect. That is certainly achievable, if not by Canada 200, then at some point in the future. More importantly, everyone, including immigrants, has a role to play to achieve that future, regardless of whether they care about the original harm done.

    Additionally, your reference to first-past-the-post as a reason for Canadian success does not account for Farage’s success in the UK. As far as electoral processes go, ranked ballots also encourage moderation by incentivizing candidates to seek 2nd and 3rd choice votes from their electorate. In fact, FPTP can encourage division by permitting electoral success with less than 50% of the vote. I would go so far as to argue FPTP
    has exacerbated Canadian regional tensions, because the West is reliably Conservative while the Maritimes and urban areas are reliably Liberal, so the parties use wedge politics to fight for the remaining ridings.

    • Brit here! Fptp has actually done a very good job of keeping the likes of farage out of our political scene. However we also have (had?) European elections, which are run along a system which is some kind of a cousin of proportional representation (I think, can’t remember offhand). Most in the UK treat these elections as of little importance (with the exception perhaps of the die hard anti Europe crowd) and as such they’re often an outlet for a protest voting for folk like farage, who are electorally toxic in national elections. Ukip got a great deal of their media visibility and funding from getting MEPs into the European parliament, which is a fantastically delicious irony.

      The twist here, however, is that David Cameron called his moronic referendum to try to win over ukip voters, as opposed to trying to moderate them, and Theresa May spent a while trying to turn the conservative party into ukip lite. With our political scene currently more polarised than it has been for a generation, I think it could be considered maybe half a strike against Joe’s argument.

  2. My own sympathies, by contrast, lie with what is sometimes called the “coconut model,” that a country should have a hard exterior and a soft interior.

    Given your own point 5, this is unpersuasive.

  3. I think your points are generally valid, but you are overlooking the elephant in the room.

    “I think there is still a lot of interesting research to be done, to determine precisely what happened during the 1990s”

    We haven’t had a serious recession since then, it is that simple. Next time we have one, we will see what happens.

    On a peripheral note, many recent decisions have been very close, Brexit, Trump, and Macron (24% of first round vote), so hard to read too much of a trend just because a coin toss went against the populists instead of for them. Ultimately, it will depend mostly on the economy in each case. For now, things are OK, we are coasting on a flood of central bank money and previous years investments in the oil industry, where we are simultaneously benefiting from (relatively) low prices and low investment, but that will catch up to us, probably leading in a couple of years to a repeat of what happened in 2006-2008, clueless central banks over-tightening into rising energy prices and huge debt loads and crashing the economy. Populism will lose if a country can go decades without a (serious) recession like in Canada or Australia. But if recessions are too severe, too long lasting or too close together, then you get situations like Canada in the early 90’s or the U.S. now.

  4. Brilliant!

    A terminological quibble: the use of the word “nation,” e.g. “the Canadian nation,” “French Canadians are a national minority group,” and “the national majority (English).” I think it’d be more coherent, as well as accurate, to conceive of Canada as a political community, a community of citizens, that contains a number of national communities (as well as other sorts of community) within it; to conceive of French (or, better, francophone) Canadians as a linguistic group (among which we find the Franco-Québécois nation, the Acadians [who are in between a nation and a regional-ethnic community], and other regional-ethnic communities such as the Franco-Ontarians, Franco-Manitobans, etc.); and to conceive of English (or, better, anglophone) Canadians as another linguistic group, about half of which identify with the English Canadian (or as I like to call it “Canuck”) majority nation (despite their failure to recognize it a national community).

  5. If your upbringing can be illustrative of the weakness of Canadian nationalism in the 70’s I think mine can illustrate one of the significant factors of the acceptance of refugees. I grew up in the 90’s and my family was as you say, “old stock” in the not-so-bustling metropolis of Fredericton. We were also involved in waves of private immigration sponsorship, both by families and organizations like the YMCA and churches. There was a certain historical contingency to the change in attitudes around immigrants because for the first time since the private sponsorship program began in 1979 there was a large cohort which was white. I wish I could say there was some nobler reason, but immigrants coming to Canada who were fleeing the Yugoslav War were both educated and Caucasian which eased their acceptance. And not only were they more likely to identify with the state than regions as you assert, they were also less likely to form cohesive social bonds among fellow refugees owing to the ethnic and religious divisions they brought with them. I watched my mother help these families, and I played with the children. Then, after a few years when they inevitably moved to Toronto or Montreal, the community organizations sponsored new immigrants and the city became more welcoming. Once they had been inoculated by “others” who were less other than most, particularly in terms of race, there was greater acceptance for the new life immigrants could bring in a city that was not renown for its multiculturalism.