Unsettling Canada: The End of Immigration as Nation Building?

A sparse but lively crowd was on hand this February 6 at the Market Hall for the annual Margaret Laurence Lecture, delivered by prominent human rights lawyer Audrey Macklin on the “the end of immigration as nation-building.”

Chair of Human Rights Law at the University of Toronto, a former member of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, and an observer for Human Rights Watch at the Guantànamo Bay military tribunals, Macklin is one of Canada’s pre-eminent legal experts on immigration, citizenship, and human rights.

Slated for 7:30pm, the talk started late, even by Peterborough time standards. (For those new to the area, our fair city exists in a temporal dimension of its own, habitually 15 minutes late.) Despite an eye-catching poster promoting the talk, promotion of the event had been lacklustre, failing to even make an appearance on social media channels. However, those who were in attendance were rewarded with a piercing dissection of Canada’s transformation from a global role model for immigration’s best practices to a country that exploits economic migrants as ‘temporary foreign workers,’ while denying them the rights and protections of citizenship.

(Before continuing, I must clarify, as Macklin does, that all ‘normative countries of immigration’ – “countries that embrace and celebrate immigration as constitutive of the nation” – have been ‘settler societies’, “built on the physical and cultural dispossession of indigenous peoples.” This remains an unresolved tension underlying Macklin’s talk and its subject matter.)
Macklin outlined three features that, historically, have been characteristic of ‘normative countries of immigration’: 1) permanent immigration as an assumed trajectory; 2) the family as a constitutive unit of immigration; and 3) the facilitation of citizenship acquisition for settled migrants. She then proceeded to demonstrate that none of these conditions remain true of current policy in Canada.

Of course, certain kinds of people have always been deemed unwanted based upon racist, ethnic, religious, linguistic or ‘cultural’ grounds. However, in the 1960s and ‘70s, Canada abandoned explicitly racist proscriptions in favour of a points system, requiring prospective immigrants to demonstrate their possession of desired skills and capital. Subsequent differentiation between ‘classes’ of prospective immigrants ensured that ‘humanitarian’ migrants and the families of existing citizens were not subject to these rigorous criteria. For those who made it here – for there were quotas – naturalization was relatively easy to obtain, and citizenship was conferred automatically to those born in Canada and born to Canadians, under the principles of jus soli (law of the soil) and jus sanguinis (law of the blood).

Canada will remain, for the foreseeable future, a country of immigration, empirically speaking. That is, we will continue to admit a large number of immigrants and a large number will eventually become permanent residents. But Macklin persuasively detailed how Canada has turned away from a regime of permanent migration, and a narrative of immigration as defining the nation, and has moved toward what can best be described as a ‘guest worker’ system on the model commonly deployed in Europe. It is no longer the presumption that those who migrate to Canada for work will stay and become citizens. In fact, our immigration system is now designed to ensure that only the most skilled, educated, and/or wealthy migrants will ever be given the option to stay here permanently.

The shift toward temporary, foreign ‘guest’ workers began in 2002, with the Low Skill Pilot Project under the then-Liberal federal government. It was under the Harper government, beginning in 2006, that the program dramatically expanded to include not just skilled workers in high demand trades and professions, but also menial labour positions that would otherwise have been filled by Canada’s own under-skilled and underemployed working class.

Foreign workers have for years now been contracted en masse, under highly precarious conditions, to fill not just temporary skilled labour shortages but also companies’ routine employment needs.

Given that the managerial class (under basic capitalist economics 101) will always seek to maximize profit by extracting more labour for fewer wages, it is no surprise that businesses in nearly every industry latched onto this opportunity to drive down wages. By 2008, the number of temporary foreign workers entering the country had surpassed the number of permanent residents accepted, and this trend continues.

The patchwork system of temporary worker permit programs introduced by the Conservatives are characterized by two common features: 1) workers’ status in Canada is temporary, precarious, and insecure; and 2) much of the power of decision-making has been privatized, residing no longer with civil servants, but rather with employers, who consequently wield virtually unchecked control over their temporary foreign workers’ resident status in Canada.

A new law has been passed – the so-called ‘four year in, four year out’ rule – that will, when it comes into effect April 1, 2015, require all temporary foreign workers who have been working in Canada for four or more years to leave the country for a period of four years, after which they will be permitted to re-enter. Because arbitrary and callous proscriptions such as these are never actually effective in practice, the effect of this law will be to make thousands of workers’ presence in this country illegal effective April 1 of next year.

Many of these workers, rather than return to the countries from which they chose to migrate, typically for very compelling reasons, will instead filter into the illegal underground economy, subject at any moment to discovery and deportation. This result is so predictable that it is reasonable to ask whether the government explicitly desires to create a large class of illegal, precarious-employed foreign workers, willing to work undocumented and unprotected by labour laws because their alternative ‘legal’ choice is worse.

The consequences of these policies are catastrophic, not only for the foreign workers exploited and endangered by these laws, but also for society as a whole. In Macklin’s own words: “It corrodes the democratic character of a nation if a significant segment of the population remains on the margins of the polity, disenfranchised and voiceless.”

Watch Audrey Macklin’s Laurence Lecture in its entirety on YouTube: 2013-2014 Margaret Laurence lecture “Unsettling Canada: The End of Immigration as Nation Building?”

About Autumn Corvus 18 Articles
Autumn has a degree in Philosophy, Cultural Studies and English from McMaster University. After toiling as a lowly academic serf (read ‘graduate student’) for a few years I decided to follow my passion and do something I'd always wanted to: a B.Sc. in Computing and Information Science and Journalism. Returning to Peterborough – my adopted home – after long cross-country wanderings, I can tell you how it ain’t like it used to be at Trent, but also how it can be much better starting now. A student of the Internet, tech enthusiast, recovering political operative, and feline connoisseur.