Every time the immigration question emerges in Canada, as it has this past few weeks with the Syrian refugee crisis, there is someone out there who inevitably brings up the old Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier quote of 1907.
“In the first place,” said Laurier, “we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes a Canadian and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet a Canadian, and nothing but a Canadian… There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is a Canadian, but something else also, isn’t a Canadian at all. We have room for but one flag, the Canadian flag… And we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the Canadian people.”
On the surface the quote rings all the right bells: The appeal Canadian patriotism, the mitigating statement about non-discrimination and the rhetorical flourish at the end with the intentional repetition of “one.” However, it also is fraught with troubling undertones of racism, mono-cultural tone deafness and fear of the other.
In 1907 Canada did not have near the cultural diversity we have now; so this quote is dated beyond belief. That’s for a start. But even using the word “assimilation” in today’s conceptualization has the unfortunate freight of some of the darkest chapters of 20th century history in Canada behind it.
Assimilation was the stated purpose of the Indian residential schools which continue to have lingering negative affects on First Nations peoples to this day. It was also the stated excuse as to why early Chinese settlers to Canada were not allowed full citizen rights under the law until 50 years after the first men began to arrive in Vancouver to help build the railroad; they could not be assimilated. And further, we did not want them to be for reasons that were entirely racist.
Canada has evolved since Laurier’s day, and for the better. The model of citizenship we have now allows people to keep their own cultural orientation as long as they obey the law and perform the required duties of Canadian citizenship. This new model has paved the way for true freedom of religion, freedom from oppression for individual groups and minorities under the law and a more honest way of dealing with cultural differences which have always been the stresses in the fabric of Canadian society. If the country had followed Laurier’s vision outlined above all we would be doing is sweeping cultural tensions under the rug and allowing them to fester in the dark without ever learning to deal with those who are different, or represent different views. You can’t just wave a magic wand and make those differences disappear. They are the reality of human existence in every corner of the world.
We have seen the results of such delusional, wishful, magic wand thinking in the ongoing white and black divide in the United States. We have seen it in the rising tide of intolerance and proto-facism in some countries in Europe in recent years, frighteningly harking back to the darkest days of the Great Depression and the Second World War. We have seen it again in the current Syrian refugee crisis.
Laurier was a man of his times and was typical in his thinking for a man of that era. But then again so were those politicians who imposed the Chinese Head Tax, brought in Indian residential schools and decided to put Canadian citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps during World War II. Opinions of a bygone era cannot always be applied to the circumstances of the present reality. No matter who said them.