Fit in, or be excluded: The root of immigrants' impulse to assimilate

Concerns about ostracism can lead some immigrants—particularly first-generation ones—to deny racial and cultural issues

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, greets new Syrian refugees Georgina Zires, centre, 16 month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, second right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian at Pearson International airport in Toronto on Friday, December 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, greets new Syrian refugees Georgina Zires, centre, 16 month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, second right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian at Pearson International airport in Toronto on Friday, December 11, 2015. (Nathan Denette/CP)

In the fall of 2015, Toronto radio station G98.7 hosted a call-in discussion against the backdrop of the newly minted Trudeau government sorting through its campaign promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. The host and station manager, Fitzroy Gordon, facilitated the discussion by letting callers leave a message for Prime Minister Trudeau with their feelings on accepting so many applicants at once.

For the most part, the callers’ tones ranged from circumspect to downright hostile. One caller commented: “I’ve lived here 40 years and I’m [disgusted] with what I see. . . He should scrap that; right now, it’s not important. My son and daughter can’t afford a house in Toronto. Where are you going to put these people?”

    Another caller dispensed with the niceties and got right to the point: “You don’t want tomorrow to come, and you’re gonna be the one who’s sorry if those people come in on a fake ID … when they start the bombing and the killing, you’re gonna say … I’m the one who killed all these Canadians.”

    What was surprising to me at the time wasn’t just the callousness—if not outright bigotry—of most of the callers. It was that most of them spoke with thick Caribbean accents. Here was a passel of immigrant voices, people who had come to Canada for a chance at a better life, calling on our Prime Minister to either tighten his refugee policy or scrap it altogether. And, most galling, they were using the stereotypes of cultural mismatch, violence and extremism to describe the dangers of allowing Syrian refugees into Canada. The very same types of pathological stereotyping they likely encountered when the Immigration Act of 1976 gave them a chance to build a life in this country.

    After sifting through the data produced by Maclean’s Canada Project survey, in partnership with Abacus Data, it’s certainly evident those callers weren’t an outlier. For almost every poll question, immigrant Canadians seemed to be the most resistant to acknowledging racialized and cultural issues, and held the most assimilationist attitudes. On the matter of whether Canada should continue to accept Syrian refugees, 30 per cent of immigrant Canadians strongly disagreed, higher than first-generation Canadians by a margin of nine points, and higher than Canadians whose families had been here for multiple generations by 11 points. On whether Islamophobia is a problem in Canada, 22 per cent of immigrant Canadians strongly disagreed, compared to 15 per cent of first-gens and 11 per cent of multi-gens.

    Does this mean there is a problem with tolerance in our immigrant community? Personally, I don’t believe so. In looking at the numbers for nearly every question centred on minority groups, immigrant Canadians hold the strongest contrarian views, followed by first-generation Canadians, then multi-generational Canadians. As a second-generation Canadian myself, I’ve seen how this dynamic plays out in immigrant communities. The elders among the migrant peer group, often hailing from Commonwealth or formerly colonized countries, are keenly aware of assimilationist pressure and often internalize it for survival’s sake. It was common among first-wave Caribbeans, for example, to discourage their children from using patois dialect in school and growing their hair beyond a certain length (even while the natural-hair movement took hold among black communities in the 1970s). Often these perspectives come from fear of being ostracized by the dominant communities, and a desire for their children to have the best opportunities possible. Those attitudes can result in views that reflect lessons hammered into their psyche over years (and even decades) of trying to blend in.

    Children of immigrants, on the other hand, who grew up as a boxed-in peer group among white students, and later white co-workers, internalized a different lesson: safety in numbers. There’s a certain comfort in switching out of the code of Eurocentric social standards, which require both effort and a high degree of tolerance for day-to-day microaggressive interactions. Think being asked, “Where are you really from?” when meeting a new white co-worker, or having a stranger’s curious, grasping fingers plunge into your hair while riding public transit. Among those first-generation Canadians who may have been born elsewhere but grew up here, the pressure to fit in takes a back seat to asserting one’s personal, cultural autonomy. For the second generation and afterwards? Don’t bother trying—we’re probably marching in the streets against assimilationist attitudes and policies.

    The Canada Project

    That said, I don’t believe it’s fair to throw our hands up and simply chalk up our elders’ attitudes to age. They vote, pay taxes and are often still in the workforce alongside us. They help shape our country’s cultural landscape. The day G98.7 held that discussion on Syrian refugees, I called in to the station and did my best to lay out the facts: that countries in Europe and the Middle East had taken in millions of refugees, that stringent screening procedures were already in place, and that Syrian refugees are fleeing from the same terror that we fear. I have no idea who may have been listening, or if I was able to change any minds, but as a matter of principle, “when they start the bombing and the killing” needed to be challenged.

    As my mother taught me, sometimes it’s necessary to talk back to your elders.

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