This somewhat rosy picture of integration is a lived experience of many immigrants to Canada (true for my large Bosnian family) where they get integrated into the mainstream society much more successfully as a result of a deliberate public policy. What are the elements of this policy and how does it work?
First, Canadian public narrative views migrants as essential to its history, economy, culture and politics – it is migrants who made Canada what it is today. According to the Citizenship and Immigration Ministry, the government is committed to reaching out to Canadians and newcomers and is developing lasting relationships with its ethnic and religious communities. These principles are enshrined in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988). It encourages them to participate fully in society by enhancing their level of economic, social, and cultural integration.
Secondly, unlike in the UK, there is still an uncompromised belief in and political support for laws protecting human rights which are enshrined in the constitution. Canadian politicians are not calling for a limitation of human rights protection for migrants. Indeed it is the government’s (unofficial) policy to allow all residents to have access to education and health care whether they are documented or not.
Thirdly, the government’s strategic vision and stated values encompass positive and self-reinforcing attitudes that encourage, rather than demand, active citizenship. It speaks of migrants as contributing to economic growth, innovation, entrepreneurship, and competitiveness rather than as posing a drain on public resources. The positive cycle looks something like this: The way their immigration system works demonstrates Canada’s social and humanitarian commitments. Positive approach to migrants who are treated by a competent and efficient immigration system practically demonstrates these values. As a result, the system is trusted and valued, which in turn reinforces trust in the state and citizenship. This positive loop is self–reinforcing and delivers in the long term. It is not about filling short-term labour gaps but about nation building and nurturing active citizens.
Fourthly, although both Canada and the UK have a restrictive immigration rules, their strategic approaches differ fundamentally. Whereas Canada has reinforced its long term commitment to the integration of migrants underpinning it with funds and for example, sophisticated policies for accessing the labour market, the UK has moved in the opposite direction. This in turn produces different integration systems. The Canadian one is generously funded, more centralised and aligned at a national, provincial and local level leaving very little space for migrants to fall through the cracks. The belief is that frontloading funds and support, although initially more expensive, generates far greater returns by producing tax-paying, English speaking, well educated and included active citizens. The system is self correcting and capable of producing targeted interventions.
In Ontario, for example, support for accessing the labour market goes beyond securing just any job, to securing one that matches individual skills and education. For example, the government and the business sector jointly developed Ontario’s professional certification program (Bridge Training Project) and created new and innovative ways to recognise professional skills. According to one Ministry official a ‘personalized service is the single most important lesson we have learned about getting newcomers into skilled jobs’. In comparison, the Forum’s foreign dentist support website the Dentist StudyBuddy is the only social enterprise in the UK that aids dentist certification.
In terms of nurturing active citizenship, the Canadian government makes concerted efforts to engage citizens by offering volunteering opportunities for every age group, starting in primary schools, and publicly rewarding them. Young people are involved in leadership programmes and rewards are offered on top of the general system requiring all graduates to volunteer 40 hours a year as a requirement for graduation. For those who missed the school system, there are community colleges that offer courses in Active Citizenship for individuals on a path to citizenship. The business sector actively supports and rewards community volunteering.
This lesson has been adopted in the UK where the new National Citizens Service currently focuses on a much smaller sample of youth from disadvantaged and minority background, some of whom are deemed to have failed to positively contribute to society after the August 2011 riots. Although the NCS has yet to met its ambitions in terms of youth recruitment, the government is committed to rolling it out more widely. For a young person to be associated with a program linked to poverty and anti-social behaviour may not be attractive. Repackaging it might give it more appeal.
This brings us to the public discourse on migration. In Canada, the discourse is positive. Politicians from all parties are largely well disposed to migrants and this is reflected in other spheres of life. Positive stories and images of migrants are abundant in both national and local newspapers. Free info magazines, such as Canadian Immigrant, contain job ads and stories on a wide range of issues relevant to newcomers. Visible public life – from politics to TV – is populated with people from different races and backgrounds – all of which contributes to the overall positive outlook on migrants, inclusion and a sense of belonging.
Canada’ immigration policy is a subject to criticism like any other. Canada restrictive immigration policy is said to favour only well educated and skilled migrants and has in the past favoured white European over other immigrants. Its recent legal changes are aimed at strengthening the state prerogative to control its borders and choose who to welcome in. For example, a new bill against human trafficking made illegal border crossing subject to a long period of detention. Others call for overhauling the immigration system. Canada Immigration Watch aims at reduction of immigration rates to 20% of the current rates while citing the inability of local governments to cope with the influx of migrant and ill effects it has on the native culture. The most recent speech of the Conservative Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, describing a new ‘transformational change’ in immigration policy, was criticised for its unimaginative tone calling for future immigrants to be ‘flexible human capital, high levels of language proficiency and a pre-arranged set for success.’ Still, the public debate on immigration in Canada has not lead to the questioning of its fundamental principles such as its commitment to human rights. It is far from the vilification migrants and asylum seekers are subjected to in the UK media, which is currently under the Leveson Inquiry for its illegal and damaging practices.
In conclusion, the national narrative and government’s strategic vision are difficult to replicate from one country to another. Their importance, however, is clear as they underpin the nature of the policy, the system and its outcomes. In Canada, public policy and discourse, active citizenship and public trust in the system constitutes a positive and reinforcing cycle in integrating newcomers. In the UK, negative political and public discourse and attitudes, restrictive public policy and mistrust in the immigration system reinforce the negative cycle and lack of integration.