June 26, 2014

The Forgotten Person in Today’s Immigrant

Alan Broadbent, reminds us that we must remember the immigrant’s long term contribution to the labour market and to the nation.

Most of the public discourse about immigrants these days centres on the floundering temporary foreign worker program which has cast our view of immigrants as one dimensional people filling jobs at the low end of the labour market.

This immigrant is portrayed as a simple cog in the economy, doing work that Canadians may or may not want to do (depending on who is talking). According to this portrait, they are not here for long, they are easily replaced when they leave, they are alone, and they are completely at the whim of the employer who has laid claim to them. They are a picture of economic desperation, willing to move anywhere to work at low wages under any conditions, because it is better than what they can find at home. It is a simplistic view of a human being.

It is too simplistic by a wide margin. Where in that portrait is the whole person? Where is her or his family: spouse, parents, children, siblings, cousins? Where is their community, the place where they can fall back to find support and succour? Where are their dreams of a future life? Where do they sing and dance, pray and love?

And what is the ultimate benefit to Canada? Where in this simplistic concept of the immigrant do we inspire them to become the citizen to stand with us in the building of a great country? Where do they become the neighbour that makes our community strong? Where do they become the friend on whom we can rely over the years? And where do they become the parent of the person our sons and daughters marry?

Canada was built by whole people who lived their lives in many dimensions. We can view them now as people who built the railway, grew the wheat, or made our cities. At the same time they lived in the round as Canadians, at our schools and places of worship, in our new businesses, in the concert halls and sporting arenas, in our shops and at our parks. They were in good part families, providing the support and motivation that made adjusting to life in a new country easier.

Since the start of the 20th century Canada’s immigration policy has focused on a fit with the economy of the country: in Laurier’s time it was populating the prairies with cold weather farmers; at the end of the century it was human capital that would engender success in the knowledge economy. That focus is nothing new, and has worked well.

But the policy did not forget the whole person, and worked at helping them succeed in many dimensions. It did so in good part by recognizing that families help support the individual and build the community. It did so by recognizing that humans dream of a secure and happy future for them and those they love.

We risk making immigrants the forgotten person by focusing only on their short-term contribution to the labour market, and we risk our country’s future at the same time.

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