*Reprinted from Empty Planet: The Shock Of Global Population Decline. Copyright ©2019 By John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker. Published by Crown, An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC..
Published April 26, 2019
Everybody knows that Planet Earth is facing a Malthusian population bomb that will leave most of us with dire prospects.
Well, “everybody” is 20 years out of date. While there are good reasons to worry about the future, global population growth isn’t in the top 100. Indeed, the clear and present danger for most of the world is an abrupt transition to a shrinking population that leaves too few young people to support too many elderly. In Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, political scientist Darrell Bricker and journalist John Ibbitson explain why it’s happening — and why so many talking heads blew the forecast. As important, they convincingly outline a future in which a combination of technological change and international migration could turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. Actually, that future is more than hypothetical. In the chapter* excerpted here, they describe how their own country (Canada) is using carefully planned immigration to build a prosperous and diverse society even as it offsets the social stagnation and economic drag created by the rapid aging of the native-born. — Peter Passell
The first thing the visitor heard as he approached the cab rank outside the airport was a lively discussion in Arabic, which brought him up short. Inuvik is a town of about 3,500 souls on the delta of the Mackenzie River, 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territory.
On this June day, the sun never sets; for 30 dark winter days each year it never rises. The population is roughly 40 percent Inuit, 40 percent First Nations [native Americans identifying with specific communities], and 20 percent everyone else — with the everyone else including about 40 Arabs, some of whom drive taxis. There is even a mosque in the middle of town (the most northerly mosque in North America), which was transported from the south by barge in 2010. To the visitor’s ears, this was Canada’s most multicultural moment.
It is also typical of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan countries. People from everywhere on earth stock this northern land. Some 20 percent of Canada’s population was not born in Canada, and that percentage climbs every year. Half the population of the greater Toronto area, now North America’s fourth-largest city, is foreign-born. A country of 35.2 million — 5 percent more than there were five years earlier — brings in 300,000 people each year. And there’s a push to increase that number to 450,000, with a goal of bringing Canada’s population to 100 million by 2100. That would be the equivalent of reproducing the country’s 10th-largest city (actually, the tri-city conurbation of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, in southwestern Ontario) every year. Even at current growth rates, Canada’s population is expected to reach around 50 million by 2060.
This is extraordinary. In a century when most developed nations will see their populations decline, Canada will continue to grow robustly. In a world where populations are aging, Canada’s ages more slowly because the average age of immigrants is seven years younger than the general population. Yes, Canadians worry about the boomers growing old. Yes, health care is perpetually under stress. Yes, politicians argue furiously over whether to raise the retirement age, improve public pensions or both. But they argue less fiercely than elsewhere. And Canadians have accepted levels of immigration, year after year, decade after decade, that would flummox people in most countries, including the United States. (To equal Canada’s intake on
a per capita basis, the U.S. would need to accept about 3 million legal immigrants a year, three times the current level.)
Do these migrants sink into poverty, living in dingy gray apartment towers in high-crime neighborhoods where police fear to tread? Emphatically not. Immigrants to Canada are, on average, better educated than native-born Canadians. They contribute to, and flourish in, a peaceful, prosperous society. The half-foreign-born city of Toronto, with a population of 2.6 million (the greater Toronto area sits at 6.4 million), usually has fewer than 60 murders a year, making it the eighth-safest city on earth. Like most major Canadian cities, Toronto is a vibrant yet well-ordered mélange of people of every color, language and background, living and working together in the same offices and the same neighborhoods, making love and fusion cuisine together, complaining to each other about the subway, which is far too crowded, and enjoying life in this highly diverse city.
The message is stark. Any country that wants to stave off the economic effects of population decline — the sluggish or non-existent growth, the declining tax base and growing debt, the intergenerational resentments between old and young — must adopt the Canadian solution: an immigration level of 1 percent of population annually, or close to it. Every nation in Europe and Asia with a birth rate at or below the replacement rate has this simple choice: become like Canada, or decline. Yet that might be an impossible choice.
The interview is not going well. A Swedish reporter doing research on Canadian immigration policy has called a Canadian journalist for background on the subject. But the two seem to be at cross-purposes — the answers coming from Ottawa don’t make sense to the interviewer in Stockholm. Eventually, they figure out the problem: they have totally different understandings of the meaning of the word “immigrant.”
Sweden has a proud tradition of admitting refugees. Thousands of Danish Jews found refuge from German extermination camps during the Second World War by fleeing to a welcoming and neutral Sweden. The breakup of Yugoslavia sent more than 100,000, mostly Bosnians, north to their new home. And when the collapse of civil order in Syria and Iraq sent people fleeing in search of safety, Sweden stepped up like no other country, taking in 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015, when the migration crisis was at its peak. For a country of only 9.5 million people, this was extraordinary.
But the strains soon began to show. So many, so soon, from such a desperate part of the world. So many of them young men. How quickly could they learn Swedish? What jobs were there for them? Homelessness increased, and unemployment and crime and resentment.
The Swedish government imposed restrictions on new arrivals, and offered those who had arrived money to leave. Anti-immigrant planks appeared in the platforms of conservative (by Swedish standards) parties. So the Swedish reporter wanted to know how Canada was able to take in so many refugees, hundreds of thousands of them, year after year, and integrate them successfully.
Except, that’s not what Canada does at all, the Canadian explained. Typically, about 10 percent of the people who are granted permanent resident status (which puts them on the path to citizenship) each year are refugees. The rest are either immigrants brought in because they will contribute to the Canadian economy or family members of economic-class immigrants.
The Swedish journalist was shocked. “Immigrants have always been accepted to Sweden for humanitarian reasons,” she observed. This is the fundamental difference between Sweden and Canada. Canada brings in immigrants for reasons that are entirely selfish, which is why immigration works better in Canada than in Sweden.
Good public policy is always based on communal self-interest. Each of us is in it for ourselves. In most cases, “ourselves” includes our immediate family and, in diminishing importance, our neighborhood, our village, town or city, our region, our country, our planet. Of course, we have empathy, of course we act for reasons of altruism. But you will only do something because it’s the right thing to do for so long, before you start asking yourself: “Why am I making this sacrifice? What’s in this for me or my family?”
Canada brings in immigrants for reasons that are entirely selfish, which is why immigration works better in Canada than in Sweden.
There are curbs on nakedly self-interested behavior: traditional codes of duty combined with the power of collective self-preservation still dictate that, in an emergency, women and children go first. But in the main, effective public policy reflects collective self-interest. It’s good for everyone and particularly for refugees and immigrants.
During the refugee crisis, Sweden took in, on a per capita basis, 1,667 immigrants per 100,000 population, which was incredibly generous. Germany took in 587 per 100,000. “We can do this,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German people, as a million asylum seekers poured across its borders. Across the European Union, each country took in an average of 260 immigrants per 100,000 population.
But very few countries were average. Hungary initially took in more refugees than any other country, almost 1,800 per 100,000 population. But almost all of these were in transit to Germany, and the number quickly fell when Hungary closed its border with Croatia. Other Eastern European countries were no more generous: Poland took in 32 refugees per 100,000 population, while Romania took in just 6. Social services, officials explained, were insufficient for the native-born population, let alone for asylum seekers. And, it must be said, many Eastern Europeans shared Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigrant sentiments. Nativist, populist, frankly racist parties emerged in countries throughout the region.
Parts of Western Europe were not much more generous. Great Britain brought in only 60 per 100,000, even as Britons voted to leave the European Union, in part over fears of uncontrolled immigration. France took in 114, half the EU average. And as we have seen, the backlash in 2016 against the influx of 2015 caused even the most generous countries to close their doors.
In Canada, the refugee crisis peaked in the middle of an election. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had been pro-immigration, increasing the annual intake above the levels of their Liberal predecessors. But the Conservatives were less welcoming of refugees, tightening the rules of entry after a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers arrived in a rusting hulk off the British Columbia coast in 2010.
Harper had been in power for a decade, and was probably going to lose the election no matter what happened. But once people learned that the family of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean, had been denied entry to Canada, that was that. The Harper government’s apparent heartlessness drove voters to the Liberals and their young and charismatic leader, Justin Trudeau, who promised to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the year if elected.
One of Trudeau’s first acts as prime minister, in November 2015, was to keep that promise, or at least try to: rigorous security screening and bureaucratic logjams kept the total from reaching 25,000 until February 2016. But people were forgiving; they understood the government was working flat out.
Officials put in punishing hours, while public servants voluntarily cancelled their own Christmas vacations and pitched in. The prime minister himself greeted the first arrivals at Toronto’s Pearson Airport shortly before Christmas. “You are home,” Trudeau told them. “Welcome home.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the country. By the end of 2016, 50,000 Middle Eastern refugees had arrived in Canada, behind the intake of Germany or Sweden, but well ahead of many other countries — and especially generous since these refugees were expected to settle in Canada permanently. The United States, with almost 10 times Canada’s population, had taken in fewer than 13,000.
Did Canada admit more Syrian refugees than the United States because Canadians are nicer people? Not at all. Canadians had learned that, if handled the right way, it is in the country’s interest to bring refugees in. They had learned that lesson almost 40 years before.
In 1939, when a Canadian immigration official was asked how many Jews Canada should let in, he replied, “None is too many.”
Historically, Canada had a rather shameful record of accepting people in distress. When the steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver in 1914 filled with Sikhs in search of a new home, the Canadian government turned them away. Far worse, when the St. Louis, a steamship filled with almost 1,000 Jewish refugees, arrived in Halifax harbour in 1939, the ship was ordered to return to sea. When a Canadian immigration official was asked how many Jews Canada should let in, he replied, “None is too many.” Eventually, the St. Louis returned to Europe, where many of its passengers eventually met their deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
The infamy of the St. Louis was much on Ron Atkey’s mind when the immigration minister met his Progressive Conservative cabinet colleagues in July 1979. The United Nations had issued an urgent appeal: hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had fled their country by boat in the wake of South Vietnam’s takeover by the communists from North Vietnam. Those who hadn’t drowned or been killed by robbers were huddled in refugee camps in miserable conditions. A poll showed that most Canadians didn’t want them. Should the government listen to the poll?
As cabinet members arrived, each found a copy of None Is Too Many, Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s landmark study of the St. Louis tragedy, on the desk in front of them. “Do we want to be known as the government that said no?” Atkey demanded of his Conservative colleagues, “or as the government that saved the day?”
Cabinet voted to save the day. But it imposed a condition: Canada would accept up to 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, but it asked citizens and community organizations to privately sponsor them. The country responded magnificently, as church groups, service clubs and families or groups of families banded together to bring in new arrivals. In the end, 60,000 Vietnamese boat people came to Canada, earning the country the Nansen Refugee Award from a grateful United Nations.
Canadians learned several valuable lessons from the experience. First, refugees make great immigrants. The Vietnamese quickly integrated into society — people joked that every corner store seemed to be owned by a Vietnamese husband and wife. Two decades later, it seemed as though every top-of-the-class student in the country’s universities was the son or daughter of those grocery-store owners.
Second, private sponsorship was an excellent way to integrate refugees, who were dispersed across the country and who were well supported by the local community, preventing ghettoization. Private sponsorship became a permanent facet of Canada’s refugee program, especially during times of crisis. About half of the 50,000 Syrian refugees who came to Canada in 2015 and 2016 were privately sponsored. There were far more volunteers ready and willing to sponsor refugees than there were properly vetted candidates.
Canadians embrace refugees and immigrants, not because Canadians are particularly nice, but because they have learned it is in Canada’s own interest to welcome them. That discovery is part of Canada’s historical DNA — and the unintended consequence of an uncomfortable truth that, as nations go, Canada is pretty much a failure. That failure to gel as a nation was the secret sauce in Canada’s post-national, multicultural success.
In 1896, Clifford Sifton confronted just about the biggest problem a politician can have. The new Dominion of Canada, barely a quarter-century old, was in danger of failing. People didn’t want to live there. Many of those who did live there wanted to leave. To the south, the American giant, recovered from its civil war, surged ahead, as millions streamed from Europe to its shores, then to the western frontier. But the Canadian frontier was empty. Too cold, too remote. In the settled portion of the new dominion, stretching along the north shore of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, then along the St. Lawrence River and in the Maritime provinces, many wondered whether it wouldn’t be easier and more profitable for Canadians to throw in their lot with the United States.
Union was both inevitable and desirable, “Canadian nationality being a lost cause,” the writer and pundit Goldwin Smith maintained. For him, “in blood and character, language, religion, institutions, laws and interests, the two portions of the Anglo-Saxon race on this continent are one people.” Canada was cold and weak and poor — the economy sputtered throughout the 1870s and 80s — and the United States to the south wasn’t. The new government had already put down, with difficulty, a Métis rebellion in the Prairies [now Canada’s western provinces], which had so few people that it risked being simply absorbed by American settlers. The odds for Canada’s future did not look good.
Canadians embrace refugees and immigrants, not because Canadians are particularly nice, but because they have learned it is in Canada’s own interest to welcome them.
But Clifford Sifton wasn’t willing to give up. The solution, simply, was to try harder. That had been the secret to his own success. A Canadian-born son of Anglo-Irish stock, Sifton moved with his parents from southern Ontario to Manitoba in the 1870s when he was a teenager, giving him a keen sense of both the English heartland and the western frontier. He had been partially deafened as a result of scarlet fever, which he overcame through iron self-discipline.
Top-of-his-class smart at law school, a skilled negotiator from a young age, energetic, meticulous, thorough, inevitably successful at everything he took on and politically ambitious, Sifton found himself minister of the interior in the cabinet of Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s first and greatest Québécois prime minister, when he was only 35. It was his job to find a way to increase immigration and fill the Prairies before the Americans got there first. His solution was, for the time, incredibly radical: aggressively recruit immigrants from Eastern Europe.
The idea was anathema to many Canadians. The country was already divided between French Quebec and the rest of Canada, a division that threatened the unity and very existence of the dominion from the moment of its birth in 1867. Diluting the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon culture in English Canada would further weaken national bonds, critics warned. The new arrivals would be Catholic or Orthodox, speaking not a word of English. They would never integrate.
But Sifton didn’t care; he needed bodies and he needed them now. Immigrant agents were stripped of their salaries and put on commission. The Canadian government flooded Scandinavia, Germany, the Balkans, Ukraine and everything in between with leaflets in every language, touting Canada as the “Last, Best West,” “the New Eldorado,” with “rich virgin lands” that were “protected by the government” and where they had “nothing to fear” — i.e., from the indigenous population.
In the 1890s, Eastern Europeans not only stocked Prairie Canada, but became integral to the Canadian mosaic. As one wag observed, without Clifford Sifton we would never have had Wayne Gretzky.
Sifton was convinced that impoverished farmers from economically and politically oppressed regions would have the strength of will — the desperation, really — needed to break the Prairie sod and endure the Prairie cold. “A stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality,” he maintained. Scandinavia and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century was firmly in what demographers call stage two of population growth — a declining death rate with a high birth rate. There was no new land left to farm, and few prospects for young men and women in the old country.
They took Sifton’s advice. Beginning in the 1890s, immigrants by the millions flooded across the Atlantic to Halifax’s Pier 21 — the Ellis Island of Canadian immigration — then headed west using the new transcontinental railroad to Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Alberta, mixing with new arrivals from America, many of them immigrants from the same parts of Europe. Sifton’s gamble paid off handsomely. Eastern Europeans not only stocked Prairie Canada, but became integral to the Canadian mosaic. As one wag observed, without Clifford Sifton we would never have had Wayne Gretzky.
Lesson learned. Immigrants boosted the Canadian economy, filling the empty vastness of the land. Yes, they were alien; no, they would never join the Anglican Church. With the French and English already estranged from each other, there was no pot for these new arrivals to melt into. And so they kept many of their traditional ways, even as they adapted to life in a new land that was increasingly independent of Great Britain.
More millions arrived from Europe after the First World War, and millions more after the Second, many of them displaced by the traumas of destruction and invasion. In the 1950s, Italy replaced Great Britain as the number-one source of immigrants. But even as people flooded in, editorialists lamented the lack of a strong national identity. Canada used to be French and British. Now it was French and British and — a lot of other things. But what single thing made it Canadian? “Well, at least we’re not Americans,” people concluded. It wasn’t much to hang a nationalist hat on.
There were still deep biases: policies and even legislation kept Chinese and other Asian immigrants from coming into Canada. That began to change in the 1960s, when a new points system admitted potential immigrants based on education, job skills, proficiency in English or French, and ties to Canada. The points system ensured that anyone from anywhere could gain entry. Unlike the United States, which absorbed millions of Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, and Europe, which sourced its immigrants from nearby North Africa and the Middle East, Canada welcomed the whole world — but with the stipulation that new arrivals had the skills and education needed to find work quickly.
Always, first and foremost, immigration was an economic policy, designed to ease labor shortages and buttress the population. In the 1990s, as the consequences of a chronically low birth rate begin to sink in, Ottawa opened the floodgates, inviting 250,000 immigrants a year to come to Canada. Between then and now, Canada has brought in the equivalent of three new Torontos with new arrivals from China, India, Philippines and other nations from around the world supplanting the British and continental Europeans who had come before. Some people warned that these new Asian immigrants were too alien, would never fit in. But they fit in just fine in a country that was less a melting pot than a multicultural quilt. (There was luck in all of it, too: being surrounded by three oceans, and sharing your only land border with the United States, is a highly effective form of perimeter control.)
People from every part of the world and from every walk of life can come to Canada, typically settle in one of its large cities, and then set to work making a new life in a welcoming new land.
By now, Canada’s failure as a nation was complete. To be a Canadian was something much fuzzier and ill-defined than to be a Norwegian or a Pole, or even an American or Australian — two settler cultures that succeeded in creating a single national identity. Canada had become a multicultural mélange: French, English, Scottish, Irish, German, Polish, Ukrainian, Icelandic, Hungarian, Italian, Greek, Portuguese — then Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Haitian, Honduran, Sri Lankan, Algerian, Jamaican, Moroccan, Guyanese — and on and on, each community preserving its distinct cultural ties, each community sharing a municipality, a province, a country. It’s a pretty loosey-goosey way to run things, and it almost came a cropper when Quebecers voted in a 1995 referendum to remain in Canada by the very narrowest of margins.
But if nationalism helps hold a country together, it also, by definition, excludes. In defining what binds you to others in your nation — your language, your religion, your genes, your shared cultural assumptions (one kiss on the cheek; no, one kiss on each cheek; no, three kisses, starting with the left cheek; no … ) you are distinguishing your group from every other group. This makes it harder for you to understand, much less join, other groups, and harder still for other groups to understand or join you. Danes are Danes, Japanese are Japanese, and that’s all there is to it. Even settler countries, such as the United States and New Zealand, have such a strong national ethos that newcomers know they must either embrace that ethos or go somewhere else.
Canada, not so much. Canadians seek to accommodate each other. For critics, this “culture of accommodation” makes the place formless, purposeless, ultimately meaningless — “the greatest hotel on earth,” the Canadian writer Yann Martel called it. He said it in praise, but others used the phrase to disparage a country with clean towels but no identity.
But the very inability of Canada to gel as a nation is the secret to its success as a post-national state.
People from every part of the world and from every walk of life can come to Canada, typically settle in one of its large cities, and then set to work making a new life in a welcoming new land. It has made Canada the most diverse yet peaceful and harmonious country on earth. In recent years, nativist and populist anger has risen in the United States, Britain and continental Europe, leaving Canada something of an outpost of openness. “Irredeemably dull by reputation, less brash and bellicose than America, Canada has long seemed to outsiders to be a citadel of decency, tolerance and good sense,” observed The Economist. But with former allies building walls against each other, “today, in its lonely defence of liberal values, Canada seems downright heroic.”
When Rolling Stone put Canada’s prime minister on its cover in 2017, imploring in the headline, “Why can’t Justin Trudeau be our president?” it was really asking, why can’t the United States be more like Canada? For Americans on the left, at least, that seems to be the feeling these days. But before we burst into song, let’s admit some uncomfortable truths: not everything about Canada’s attitude to immigrants is as halcyon as it seems.
Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 spurred fears of deportation among foreigners living in the United States. Hundreds of them, mostly Somalis, trekked through the ice and snow from Minneapolis to the Manitoba border seeking asylum in Canada. When summer arrived, thousands of others, mostly Haitians, crossed into Quebec — almost 6,000 in August alone. Polls showed that Canadians were not happy with these claimants from a country that does not normally send Canada refugees.
One poll showed that two-thirds of Canadians did not consider the asylum seekers legitimate refugees. The chaos at the border — at one point, the army had to be called in to provide temporary accommodation — undermined confidence in Canada’s immigration system.
Keith Banting teaches public policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. For years, he and his graduate students have tracked the evolution of Canadian attitudes toward immigration and multiculturalism. Canadians, he observes, aren’t quite as tolerant as they like to think they are. “The population could roughly be divided three ways,” he argues. “One-third of Canadians really don’t support multiculturalism. One-third are enthusiastic multiculturalists. And one-third are what you could call ‘soft multiculturalists’: they support the current policies, but with reservations. And that support could change.”
Many defenders of laïcité also defend the historical ties to Catholicism. So hijabs on the street are an abomination, but the crucifix in the National Assembly is perfectly reasonable.
In fact, Canadians living outside Quebec aren’t very different from Americans in their attitudes toward immigration and integration. About 6 in 10 Americans and Canadians oppose allowing religious headgear for police officers and members of the military. About 4 in 10 oppose requiring employers to make a special effort to hire minorities and immigrants, while about 2 in 10 oppose allowing women to wear a hijab, the Muslim head scarf, in public.
And as for inside Quebec? The uncomfortable truth is that Quebecers are far less tolerant of multicultural accommodation than their counterparts in the rest of Canada. Part of this has to do with the policy of laïcité, the French devotion to secularism that was itself a reaction to the authority of the Catholic Church. Yet many defenders of laïcité also defend the historical ties to Catholicism. So hijabs on the street are an abomination, but the crucifix in the National Assembly is perfectly reasonable.
Such reasoning led a sovereigntist government, in 2013, to introduce legislation banning the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols, such as a niqab or kippah, by workers in the public service. The government was defeated in an election before the bill could be passed. But in 2017, the Liberal government passed a watered-down version of the previous bill. Many intellectuals and politicians — including Justin Trudeau — refer to “interculturalism” in Quebec: the effort to integrate other cultures into the majority francophone culture while continuing to respect differences.
Multiculturalism “is a non-starter in Quebec because everybody knows there is a majority culture in Quebec,” said Gérard Bouchard, a sociologist who co-chaired a government commission into the accommodation of minorities. “It is the francophone culture. Any model to manage diversity in Quebec must take into account this major fact.” Though Canada has never cohered as a single nation, Quebecers are proudly nationalist. The Canadian Parliament recognized as much when
it passed a motion in 2006 recognizing that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”
Quebecers work hard to preserve their national identity, with laws restricting the use of English and requirements that immigrant children attend French-language schools. Because the ability to speak French advantages immigrants coming into Quebec, the province has a different mix of newcomers than in the rest of Canada. While the top-three source countries for Canada these days are the Philippines, India and China, the top source countries for Quebec are France, Algeria and China. Other major source countries for Quebec, but not for the rest of Canada, include Haiti and Morocco.
The patterns of colonialism dictate that many Quebec immigrants come from French West Africa. Many of these immigrants are Muslim. They also tend to be less well educated than immigrants coming into the rest of Canada. So there are tensions, both economic and social. And it probably is no coincidence that Quebec takes in a smaller share of immigrants than its population warrants. In 2015, Quebec accounted for 18 percent of immigrants despite having 23 percent of Canada’s population.
Quebec, in other words, grapples with the challenges of preserving its identity while also bringing in sufficient numbers of immigrants to offset its low fertility rate, even as the rest of Canada absorbs wave after wave of new
arrivals with relatively little social upheaval. But even in the rest of Canada, a significant minority of the population is uncomfortable with those new arrivals and the efforts to
accommodate them within a multicultural context. Canadian politicians of all stripes must protect tolerance and diversity within the Canadian mosaic. That mosaic is a far more successful and resilient structure than nationalism, of whatever variety. For when it comes to preserving and renewing a society, nationalism can be a curse.
The xenophobic Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, calls refugees a “poison.” “Every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk,” he maintains. In fact, he has no time for immigrants of any variety. “Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future,” he declared in 2016. Really? A nation of just under 10 million, Hungary is losing more than 30,000 people a year, and aging rapidly.
But Hungary is as Hungarian as Japan is Japanese. Ninety percent of the population is ethnically Hungarian, or Magyar. The Hungarian language, by the way, is one of the hardest in the world to learn. Its origins are Uralic rather than Indo-European, and so it has nothing in common with most European languages. There are 35 different cases, 14 vowels, definite and indefinite verb forms, and a plethora of idioms that make sense only to Hungarians. The word for computer is számítógép. So even if Hungary did welcome immigrants, which it doesn’t, people might think twice about it for linguistic reasons alone.
If a nation with a distinct history and culture, a distinct language, even distinct physical features (think fair-haired Scandinavians), a particular set of social norms, a certain form of government, and a common religion brings in large numbers of people who speak a different language, have a different history, culture and set of social norms and worship a different god, integration can be difficult. The majority culture will expect the newcomers, who may look physically distinct from them, to become, as much as possible, just like them.
But just like them isn’t possible. So the new arrivals cluster in ghettoes and banlieues, never really feeling that they belong, and never really being allowed to. Worse, as the numbers of new arrivals grow, the native-born may lash out in a nationalist reaction.
This can even happen in a settler culture like the United States. Latinos are actually integrating into the larger American culture quite well, but not well enough to keep angry nativists from electing Donald Trump. And as we’ve discussed, efforts by the Quebec government to preserve the Quebec language and culture, even as it brings in large numbers of Muslim immigrants from French-speaking parts of Africa and the Caribbean, have led to tensions and misunderstanding.
Even so, those tensions are manageable, within Quebec and without. As the Syrian airlift unfolded in 2016, The New York Times wrote in wonder about “ordinary Canadians, trying to intervene in one of the worst problems on earth … book club members, hockey moms, poker buddies and grandmothers,” many with little connection to the Middle East, even as “much of the rest of the world was treating refugees with suspicion or hostility.”
The less nationalist the state, the easier the job of absorbing immigrants. The weaker the culture, the easier the task of promoting multiculturalism. The less the sense of self, the less the sense that another is The Other. That doesn’t mean anything goes: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is so robust that nations in search of precedents now use the Canadian template more than the U.S. Constitution. Canada remains a nation steeped in the democratic and parliamentary traditions of Great Britain, the free, fraternal and equal aspirations of France, the hard-won European principle of religious and social tolerance. Every Canadian who is truly Canadian cherishes these things.
But that’s why people come to Canada, and find so many of their own kind in Canada, and live happily and well, though they sigh regretfully when it becomes perfectly clear their children have no interest in learning the old language. As a cohesive, clearly defined nation, Canada may not be much to look at. As a tolerant, peaceful, multicultural post-nation, it seems to work pretty well.