Human smuggling, immigration anxieties, and the Canadian way

Today’s announcement of the new Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act (when will the revolt against Overly Wordy and Politically Contrived Names for Acts commence?) is bound to be interpreted, naturally enough, as a bid by the government to crack down on human traffickers who prey on the dreams and desperation of people determined to come to Canada whatever it takes.

But I suspect that the prime motivation behind the Conservative government’s rush to draft the bill, after a rusty boatload of Tamil refugees arrived in Vancouver last summer, was not to find practical ways to crack down on the snakeheads. Prime Minister Stephen Harper signaled the real aim more accurately this week when he said,  “A failure to act and act strongly will inevitably lead to a massive collapse in public support for our immigration system.”

That takes us closer to the heart of the matter—assuaging the worries and anger of Canadians about immigration abuses. It’s a worthwhile goal. There can be no doubt that many North Americans and Europeans these days are increasingly anxiety ridden about undocumented refugees and economic migrants. The anti-immigrant bent of some in the Tea Party movement is a nasty turn in American politics; in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel declares that multiculturalism has “utterly failed.”

In light of all this, the Harper government’s signal of its determination to make Canada’s immigration system as lawful and orderly as possible is a sound defensive move against the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, even if the actual measures in the new act, like mandatory minimum penalties for human smuggling, are more symbolic than substantial.

For the same reason, this would be a good time to push back against those who sniff that Canada’s version of multiculturalism is an overrated artifact of Sixties silliness. I don’t just mean by making the most of upbeat news like the surprise election of Naheed Nenshi as Calgary’s mayor this week. I also mean arguing against the dismissive view that multiculturalism is merely a fairly recent frill tacked onto the Canadian way.

There’s a growing body of well-researched evidence for far deeper roots to the concept of different cultural communities combining without disappearing in this country. John Ralston Saul’s new biography Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin expands on his case for how the pre-Confederation reformist leaders laid the foundations for, among many other things, bilingualism and the notion that French and English could get along in one state quite nicely.

And then there’s historian Alan Taylor’s new book The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies, praised in the New York Review of Books’ current issue. The NYRB describes Taylor’s view of the Upper Canada as the Americans tried to conquer in 1812, its population of 75,000 largely created by two waves of Loyalists, not only Brits who had fled the U.S. after the revolution, but also “humble Quakers and pietistic Germans” who came a bit later:

As ethnic and cultural minorities, they had felt threatened by the American republicanism that promoted majoritarian conformity. By contrast, the British officials of Upper Canada imagined a society in traditional and prenational terms, as a mix of quasi-corporate communities. “Upper Canada,” writes Taylor, “was an ethnic and religious mosaic rather than a melting pot.”

Of course, setting Canada’s mosaic against the U.S.A’s melting pot is a too-familiar element in the often tedious Canadian boasting about our more easygoing attitude to identity. But the idea means more when we consider it as a foundational aspect of Canada’s peculiar political culture, rather than a recent add-on. It makes finding ways to not fear immigrants seem more a matter of maintaining continuity, preserving our essence.