A fair immigration policy

About a month ago now, I visited with Robert Nevin, who was the Green Party of Canada candidate in the 2000 election.  He is a truly wonderful man – informed, articulate and passionate.

He really liked the postcard I was handing out.  With one exception.  And he was right.

The point Dr. Nevin took issue with was the one about allowing immigrants to work in their fields.  Of course, we should allow immigrants to work in their fields.  For example, just last week I met a doctor rescued from Sarajevo at the height of the civil war there.  She was immensely grateful to Canada for providing her with a home when her own homeland was being torn apart.  She has spent the last few decades in Canada volunteering for a wide variety of organizations, giving back.  And she wishes she could practice medicine, even on a purely voluntary basis, because it’s something she knows she’s good at and because she studied medicine for so many years so that she could help people heal, without any regard for the money she might make.  It’s cruel to deny her.

But Dr. Nevin’s point was not that what I was saying was strictly wrong.  What he objected to was that the point implied that recognition of foreign credentials was the biggest problem with our immigration policy.  It strongly suggested that I think our immigration policy should continue to focus on skilled workers – bringing in the best trained and most skilled people on the planet, pilfering them often from impoverished countries where they were trained at tremendous expense in communities where their skills are desperately needed.

So I need to clarify this point.  I strongly believe that our immigration policy needs to change.  I initiated a resolution passed at the last Green Party convention in Pictou, calling for a recognition of environmental refugees and a policy to adopt some of them in Canada.  I believe that we need to make more room for refugees in general in Canada.  Immigrants coming to join their families should continue to be welcomed, perhaps even more so than they are now.  The focus on skilled workers should go.

Last year, when I completed the Sunshine Walk for Climate Justice and ended up in Ottawa, we were invited to an author’s festival to hear John Ralston Saul speak about his new book A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada.  Mr. Saul spoke about how his father came to Canada as a destitute and unskilled labourer yearning for a better life for his children.  And he argued that this is what Canada has always done best – taken the world’s weary and oppressed and polished them up and given them hope so that their children could be proud participants in this great country.

This is something I know only too well.  My mother’s family escaped from Russian-occupied Ukraine during the second world war and spent years in refugee camps before sailing to Brazil.  A dozen years later, my mom decided to pack up and relocate once again because she hoped that Canada would offer a brighter future for her kids – a future that a widowed mother couldn’t hope to provide in Brazil.  And Canada was generous enough to take in a single mom with no resources and two little dependent kids at a time when single moms were still very rare.

But Saul went on to argue that the reason Canada does this well is because our culture derives from native North American roots which are based on egalitarianism and constant cultural integration.  He argued that the spirit of taking in and nurturing the needy is just about as fundamental as anything we can call Canadian.  And, he argued, Canada’s moments of greatness have always occurred when we exhibited these fundamental aboriginal cultural traits.  By contrast, our greatest moments of national shame have occurred when we attempt to enact European-inspired ideas.

John Ralston Saul is also right.  And while I didn’t ask him what he thought about Canada’s immigration policy, I’m pretty sure that he’d agree with Dr. Nevin – the focus needs to change.  We Canadians feel good about bringing in people who have lived through unspeakable horrors and turning their children into doctors.  We don’t feel so good about robbing India and the Philippines of their best doctors, whether or not we let them practice here.

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