By ANGELO PERSICHILLI (The Hill Times)
Oct. 10, 2016
TORONTO—Are Canadians more bigoted and racist today than they were in the past? The question pops up frequently in media reports and talk shows.
However, the contexts we are trying to compare are completely different and we risk comparing apples with oranges. If anything, I believe that Canadians are now more confused and scared than they were in the past, but definitely more open to new immigrants and refugees than they used to be. It is wrong, upsetting, and even dangerous to talk about racism every time someone expresses concern about immigration.
Unfortunately, the view that present society is less tolerant than before is spreading to a level where the debate about many important issues is frozen, positions radicalized, and the oral, for now, confrontations are replacing civilized dialogue.
Canadian immigration in the past was based on a simple principle: people coming to Canada would have to fit into an economic plan. Immigrants were welcomed because they were needed. It was a good deal for both Canada and immigrants. This was when immigration was not a social issue but strictly business.
Canadian institutions didn’t deal with refugees very much. And when they had to, most times they turned them down. In fact, when we look at the history of our country, the openness and tolerance we brag about were not always there.
Between 1832-48, we discriminated against Irish refugees and we let 5,000 of them die when we quarantined 20,000 sick people at Grosse Ile, Que., in a place that could host not more than 200. In 1906, we stopped Indian refugees in Vancouver. In 1885, we imposed a “head tax” on Chinese, Japanese, and Ukrainians immigrants, among others. During the Second World War, we interned 3,000 people (more than 90 per cent with Canadian passports) who were only guilty of being of Italian origin, and in 1939, we refused entry to hundreds of Jews trying to escape from Nazis.
Are Canadians racists? Of course not. Every action has to be considered within the context of the history and the time. It is like considering the people living in Rome today as barbarians because 2,000 years ago they watched gladiators kill each other or Christians being eaten by lions with the same spirit that we go to the Rogers Centre to watch the Blue Jays today.
Canadians are more tolerant than before, but immigration today is different than the past. Before, Canada was looking for workers to build railroads, buildings, houses, and sewers. Today we still need them for many jobs, but there are other people—refugees—coming to Canada because their life at home is in danger, they are abused, women are raped, tortured, and starved.
Modern-day Canadians are generally open and very accommodating to refugees. One of the reason why the previous Conservative government was replaced was their perceived tough approach toward refugees.
However, we have also to understand that as globalization has crushed some economic and social barriers, many people are scared, confused, concerned about their jobs and their safety. This is at the same time when terrorists are threatening our way of life.
Are the concerns of many Canadians justified? To a certain extent. The issue is not if they are right or wrong, but the reality that they are scared.
If they are wrong, we—media and politicians—have a duty to explain it to them. If they are right, we have to address their concerns. The only thing we cannot do is shut them off, calling them racists and bigots. If we do that, we are setting ourselves up for some bad surprises in the near future, like having someone like Donald Trump searching for an opportunity to become prime minister of Canada.