Opponents of Settling Syrian Refugees in Canada Are Ignoring History

On Monday, May 2nd the Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted their second of three debates in their 2015-16 Great Canadian Debates Series. This one, on the resolution  that “Mass resettlement to Canada is the best thing for [Canada] and the best thing for Syrian refugees” featured Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on the pro side and Senior Editor of The Atlantic David Frum on the con side. Judging by audience polls at the beginning and end of the debate, the audience came in sympathetic to Ms. May’s position yet by the end most people in attendance sided with Mr. Frum.  I was not one of the people siding with the negative side as, despite his excellent rhetoric, I found substantial problems with Frum’s speech. While I thought his arguments didn’t reflect the geopolitical realities in the Middle East, relying instead on broad generalizations about demographics to explain political instability in the region, I will let others with greater expertise comment on these flaws. Rather, I wish to discuss the Canadian side of the question and specifically focus on the ahistorical nature of Frum’s argument.

One of the main points Frum brought up to support the contention that mass resettlement of Syrian refugees would be bad for Canada was the supposed inability of Syrian refugees to integrate into Canadian society. According to Frum, the Syrians who would be coming to Canada were shaped by a culture that is predominately rural, patriarchal, authoritarian, and intolerant of religious or ideological difference and for Frum, these cultural differences would necessary clash with a Canadian – or western – culture that was pluralistic, democratic, secular and egalitarian. As evidence, he pointed to the rising rates of hate crimes against Jews and LGBTQ people in Europe, as well as the violent attacks in Paris and Brussels perpetrated by radicalized French and Belgian Muslims. When May rightly pointed out that these crimes were not committed by refugees but rather French and Belgian citizens, Frum argued that it was the children of Muslim refugees who came to Europe in the 1990s who were perpetrating theses crimes. Hence, current problems in France and Belgium were only a warning for all of the western world as to what was to come if the west continued to pursue a policy of mass resettlement. For Frum, these supposed cultural differences transcended generations and will create problems for decades.

The problem with Frum’s argument, which are similar to ones made by anti-immigration activists such as Nigel Farage and Mark Steyn,  is that these same points have been raised by immigration opponents in Canada for the past  century to argue against letting Chinese, Italians, Jews and Japanese people into the country. Yet, Frum and others fail to recognize that despite these arguments being proven wrong time and time again, they continue to repeat them. Fundamentally, I argue that anyone who repeats these anti-migrant discourses needs to be aware of their history and explain why in migration from Syria – or Muslim countries in general – is unique in the history of Canada. It was this burden that Frum failed to meet on Monday night.

During the 1930s many xenophobic Canadians argued that the children of Eastern European immigrants who came to Canada in the early years of the 20th century were incapable of integrating into Canadian society. In a 1931 letter from S.J. Gothard, editor of the Vancouver-based magazine The Canadian Police Gazette, to Prime Minister RB. Bennett, Gothard argued that, “[Anglo-Canadians], who rather imagine ourselves as reputable citizens, are taxed to the limit for a horde of foreigners, who never could assimilate themselves to our customs and who certainly never will make desirable immigrants.”  Gothard later goes on to describe these people as, “the riff-raff of Europe.” While the specific language has certainly changed, the idea that new immigrants will be a net drain on the social safety net and not contribute economically to the country was brought up by Frum during Monday’s debate.

Immigrants from Southern Europe were a particular target of Anglo-Canadians. In a 1937 letter to now Leader of the Opposition RB. Bennett, one of his constituents James A. Ross wrote about the supposed unsuitable nature of Southern European – read Italian, Greek and Spanish – immigrants. Ross states that, “I don’t think they are suitable and you know as well as I do that their morality is poor… Most of them are ignorant, morality is not high and a number of them are dirty.” Ross then argues that integration is impossible because “inter-marriage will not be successful.” Specifically, when Ross refers to morality, he specifically is referencing, in the language of the time, sexual morality, more specifically the alleged high libido and lack of self-restraint demonstrated by Southern European men . As we witnessed with the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Years Eve, portraying migrants as a sexual menace is a powerful and enduring discourse.

In line with portraying immigrant men as a sexual menace, another anti-immigration argument raised in various forms over the years is that group X are not suitable to become Canadians because their culture/beliefs/ideology is incompatible with democratic Canada. In the first half of the 20th-century Chinese migrants  – although in modern parlance we would call them refugees, given the levels of violence, poverty and instability throughout much of China during Inter-war years – were the subject of xenophobic attacks in  the press and even parliament. In 1907 Future Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, then the Minister of Labour in Wilfrid Laurier’s government,  wrote in a brief to the Canadian Governor General that:

In an Anglo-Saxon community like [Canada], where democratic institutions prevail, the introduction in large numbers of alien races inherently ignorant of the most elementary principles of self-government can not but by itself be inimical to the best interests of Canada.

In this quote we can see the exact same logic at work that Frum and others apply to immigrants/refugees from Muslim countries. Rather than simply coming from a country which is autocratic, their country and culture of origin makes these migrants  somehow inherently incapable of living and thriving in a democratic society. It is also particularly ironic that the Liberal government of the day argued that Chinese men (women of any colour coudn’t vote yet) were incapable of participating in a democracy when it was the very Liberal goverment who made it illegal for British subjects of Chinese ethnicity to vote. However, as Lisa Marr has demonstrated in her work Brockering Belonging, even being barred from the franchise didn’t prevent Chinese Canadians from being active participants in Canadian politics. Mackenzie King’s racist and essentializing arguments were wrong then and remain wrong now. Why then is Frum correct when he essentially paraphrases King? I argue he isn’t.

As we have seen, these discourses about Eastern and Southern European, as well as Chinese immigrants, have been proven false time and time again. The children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren of  Ukrainian, Jewish, Italian, Greek, Spanish and other Eastern and Southern European migrants have all seamlessly integrated into Canadian society; to the point that David Frum, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, can now speak as a representative of white Canada and employ the same arguments people used against his maternal grandparents against a new generation of Canadians. Furthermore, while Asian-Canadians still regularly deal with racism and accusations that they are unwilling/incapable of assimilating into Canadian society, the idea that Chinese people are incapable of being citizens in a democratic society is clearly ludicrous. So given that these racist discourses have been employed time after time by opponents to mass migration into Canada and have, time after time, been proven false, why is Mr. Frum and company right this time? What makes Syrians, or Muslims in general, so different? Until anti-immigration activists seriously confront this question their arguments cannot be taken seriously.






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