Multiculturalism Isn’t A Monolith

Estimated reading time: 9 Minutes
MPP student Zain Jinnah reflects on the differing experiences of immigrants in their host countries...

I was born and raised in Calgary, a medium-sized city nestled at the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Some call Calgary a redneck city due to it having a “Wild West” type of culture, but I disagree. Growing up here I’ve experienced nothing but hospitality from my fellow citizens. I went to school and work with other Calgarians, both Caucasian and non-white, without ever having been marginalized or excluded for the brown color of my skin. Things got even better in 2010 when Calgary elected a new mayor – an erudite Muslim of Indian origin – whose accent alone is so Canadian that it was inconceivable he didn’t fit into the city he had called home for four decades.

All of this took place in what is allegedly Canada’s most conservative city. The rest of Canada, then, is just as accepting if not more of the country’s demographic diversity. Canadians work and serve in every arm of Canadian society and in every province and territory of this vast country. A Muslim friend of mine who just commemorated his family’s 20-year anniversary of immigrating to Canada regularly boasts about his brother’s successful career in the Canadian armed forces, and members of our House of Commons have become accustomed to seeing bright-colored turbans paired with the conservative suits of Sikh MPs during parliamentary sessions. Immigrants, by and large, are accepted and well-integrated into Canadian society. This is not to say that class divisions and racism don’t exist – many immigrants still perform low-skilled and low-paying jobs, and racism surely hasn’t been eliminated. The horrendous treatment of Canada’s First Nations population and the continuous cultural battle between Anglophones and Francophones confirm that Canada is far from being a harmonious utopia. But on the whole, the latent prejudice and xenophobia that seem to mar the social fabrics of many other Western states is largely absent in this country.

Other countries aren’t so fortunate. Having experienced a great upbringing in Canada, I naively assumed that most immigrants and their children in other countries experienced similar conditions to what I had. That changed a year ago, when I moved to the United Kingdom. Though the UK is arguably one of the world’s most diverse states (London, especially, is a microcosm of all the cultures of the world packed into one city), the differences from Canada were apparent. While millions of immigrants do indeed live peacefully, and are both tolerated and accepted by many, attitudes (especially to particular groups) are markedly different here. The first words spoken to me after I landed in the UK (a white British man yelled “fucking Islam” at me) as I walked through a major city showed me that this country wasn’t the same as the one I had grown up in, where for over two decades I hadn’t experienced a single instance of racism. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that this wasn’t an isolated incident.

I put the matter to a group of friends of mine at Oxford University – all second-generation Britons, whose parents were born outside the UK but who themselves had been born and raised in England. This group of Oxford students, all of whom were training to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, or politicians, were arguably at the top echelon of British society by virtue of their attending one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Upon asking these friends how accepted they felt in British society, I was surprised to learn they unanimously felt that some prejudice existed against them. Despite every single one of them being on a path to academic and professional success, they all explained to me that they felt as if their race (all were South Asian) or religion (all were also Muslim) might prove an impediment should they seek a senior position in business or government. Though they have all lived in the UK since birth they still feel as if they aren’t able to fully partake in every facet of society, including the pursuit of their high ambitions, without encountering some opposition. This shocked me, for I have never felt that my race or religion would ever impede me from achieving any measure of success where I grew up.

None of this is to say that immigrants don’t on the whole live peacefully in Britain, nor that they aren’t reasonably well-integrated. And certainly, the degree of tolerance for immigrants in the UK is greater than that in other Western European states like Germany. But there are marked differences between Canada and Western Europe that lead to conditions far more conducive to acceptance and full integration in the former. I highlight a few of them below:

History – There’s a clear difference between settlement experiences in North America and those in Western Europe. In Canada and the United States, outside settlers have largely arrived within the past three centuries. In the United Kingdom or France, by contrast, residents can often trace back their ancestry beyond a millennium. This long history of settlement enables white Europeans to feel justified in feeling that they belong in their respective country while immigrants are a relatively new addition. Racism certainly exists in Canada, but if somebody tells me in Calgary to “go home” because I don’t belong there, I could conceivably point out that that person’s three- or four-generation ancestry in the country meant that he or she was a relatively recent arrival too. The continued presence of an indigenous population in these countries (as well as in Australia and New Zealand) also serves as a continuous reminder that European settlement is indeed a recent phenomenon, and that even the white majority populations can’t fully lay claim to these countries.

Geography – Glance at a map of the world and you’ll quickly see that Canada isn’t like the rest of the world. Despite having the second largest territory of any country, and therefore a huge border to protect, Canada is uniquely secure by virtue of the absence of predatory neighbors. Protected by vast oceans on its east and west, an inhospitable and unpopulated Arctic to its north, and the world’s military superpower (also its biggest trading partner) to the south, Canada is uniquely insulated from any military or geographical threats. Compare that with the Romantic countries (France, Italy, and Spain), for instance, which share a wide southern coast easily accessible to refugees and illegal immigrants fleeing from poor North African states. The geographical proximity of these migrant populations means that there is a greater threat that their political, cultural, and religious influence will continue to grow and encroach upon the stability of the host country. This phenomenon extends beyond Western Europe – take a look at attitudes in Russia towards migrants from bordering Central Asian republics and you’ll notice a similar phenomenon. The separation of Canadian immigrants from their homelands by thousands of kilometers means that immigrants are more likely to adopt a Canadian identity and call that country their home. It also means that other Canadians will feel more at ease about immigrants, knowing that they don’t have to worry about such a geographical threat.

Demographics – Canada has a points-based immigration system, meaning that its immigration process gives higher priority to applicants with higher education levels and more skills. The result is an immigrant population that, overall, is more educated than those in other countries. In Western Europe on the other hand, many immigrants arrived in the aftermath of the Second World War as cheap laborers intended to help rebuild the war-torn continent. These workers were often poor and uneducated, traits which hindered their full integration into the broader society. They often developed urban ghettos, populated heavily by one ethnic or cultural group, further reducing their need to learn the local language and to integrate. So extreme is this situation that a Pakistani friend of mine raised in Birmingham told me that “if you go to where I grew up, you won’t even recognize that you’re in the UK – rather, you’ll think that you’ve landed in Pakistan.” The corollary of such a system is that immigrant communities are generally better off in Canada than they are in Western Europe – they earn more money, face less discrimination, and are better able to adapt to local values and customs.

Economy – Economics is usually relevant to everything, and this issue is no exception. English-speaking North America – Canada and the USA – is a region of abundance. Abundant land, abundant natural resources, and even a few major oil-producing regions interspersed throughout the continent. Add thriving businesses and industries to the mix, and you have a recipe for a happy population. I’m not being naive here – many Canadians struggle to make ends meet, and many immigrants are relegated to poor, low- skilled jobs. But compare the Canadian situation to that in Spain or France, especially after the recent economic downturn, and it’s apparent that poverty and unemployment are much more prevalent in Europe. These generalizations apply to the population as a whole, but what about immigrants in particular? Higher education and skill levels among Canadian immigrants mean two things for immigrant relations: first, that immigrants are better off financially and therefore less likely to feel excluded or marginalized, and second, that non-immigrants are less likely to feel frustration as a result of economic woes and to blame immigrants for economic and social issues. Western Europe has unfortunately seen the latter effect in the past couple of years, as the European economic crisis has led to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of right-wing political parties that seek to promote English/Swiss/Dutch nationalism while blaming job loss and social ills on immigrants.

The comparisons made above are broad generalizations. As I’ve acknowledged, many immigrants in Canada face racism and other barriers to full integration – my own parents remind me of the frequent prejudice they encountered during their early years in Canada. Plenty of immigrants have succeeded in Europe, enjoying far better lives than they might have in their native countries while fully integrating into and engaging with their adopted countries. It is also true that in all of these countries, many immigrants continue to live in ethnic enclaves and to refuse to either adapt to or even appreciate the culture of their host country. The purpose of this comparison has simply been to highlight some of the differences that exist between immigrant populations in Western Europe and Canada and to note how fortunate the latter is to be exempt from many of the problems that plague immigrant relations in other Western democracies.

I have mentioned other Western countries in this article, countries which also have divergent experiences with immigrants resulting from some of the aforementioned factors. The situation in Australia and New Zealand, for example, is similar to Canada – both are settler countries bordered by oceans and well- endowed with natural resources that fuel a strong economy. Both countries do experience some racist tensions, and both are still coming to terms with their terrible treatment of indigenous populations, but on the whole these countries are thriving even as they become more diverse than ever. Other Western states – notably those of northern Europe, such as Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark – have a different experience with immigrants, shaped both by their relatively strong economies as well as their highly supportive social systems. The immigrant populations of these countries comprise far less of the overall population than in countries like Canada and Australia, however, and thus what the future holds for immigrants in northern Europe remains to be seen.

The United States also benefits from some of these features – it too has a strong economy and does not face any immediate military threats from neighbors. But, owing to its unique circumstances, it faces other conditions that shape immigrant relations within its borders. The unfortunate heritage of slavery has resulted in continued racial tensions and socioeconomic divides between African-Americans and the rest of the population. The transformative effect of large-scale immigration from Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic fuels prejudice brought on by fear of a large-scale demographic shift (a shift which is indeed occurring – the US Census predicts that the country will no longer have a white majority in three decades). Additionally, America’s geopolitical role as the world’s military superpower bears on domestic relations. Recent American foreign policy vis-a-vis the Muslim world, and acts of terrorism in response to grievances with this policy, have precipitated tensions between the United States’ Muslim minority (which includes immigrants from a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds) and the broader population.

Even though immigrant settlement in Western countries has been a common phenomenon for the past half-century, it is apparent from this brief survey that the experiences of immigrants and their host countries can diverge widely. Drawing on the example of Canada, we have seen that historical, demographic, geographical, and economic factors facilitate better integration into the mainstream in that country than in others. Though immigrants continue to settle and thrive in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as other Western European countries, the recent growth in nationalist sentiment is a worrisome barrier to full immigrant participation in these states. So while “multiculturalism” is a term thrown around widely, it can mean two entirely different things in the context of a country bordered by two oceans and in that of a heavily-populated European territory surrounded by various other countries and cultures. But immigrant contribution is crucial to continued economic success in every one of these countries, and if those that are struggling in this realm want to succeed, they will have to develop innovative solutions to overcome their obstacles. I hope that one day immigrants and their children in all of these countries can be fortunate enough to experience the same belonging that I feel in the only country I call home – Canada.

 Zain Jinnah is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.