Jonathan Kay: Even in face of tragedy, there’s no substitute for a seriously considered immigration policy

A minor scandal erupted after the tragic death of when images of 2012-era anti-refugee Conservative mailouts began circulating on social media. One document purported to quiz voters on the question, “Should refugees get gold-plated dental, vision, and drug benefits?”, with an answer reading, “Yes! Give refugees better government benefits than Canadian citizens.” The plain intent was to stir up resentment at the services provided for those who have come to fleeing persecution.

The mailouts were indeed crude. On the other hand, it says a lot about Canada’s tolerant nature that a three-year-old xenophobia-lite mailout from a few scattered Tory MPs counts as scandalous.

In many European countries, whole political parties have been created with the goal of campaigning against immigration, many with supporters who betray their racist beliefs openly. In the United States, the leading Republican presidential candidate rose to the top of the polls largely on the strength of verbal attacks on Mexicans and a lunatic plan to deport 11 million undocumented migrants. Nothing remotely comparable to this exists in Canada, a country where multiculturalism is king and generous immigration policies are popular across the mainstream political spectrum.

RelatedChristie Blatchford: We should accept as many Syrians as want to come

I report all this to emphasize what is at stake in the debate over admitting Syrian refugees. Every humane Canadian heart bleeds for the families seeking to escape that country’s civil war. And it is perfectly understandable politicians and civil-society leaders are bidding up the number Canada should accept: 10,000, says the NDP; 25,000, says Justin Trudeau; 100,000 says former Tory minister Pat Carney (which would be 10 times the number proposed by Barack Obama for the United States, a country 10 times our size). But even amid the strong emotions provoked by the horrifying image of a dead boy on a Turkish beach, it is important to take the long view.

Canada remains a tolerant country precisely because we have done such an excellent job of integrating newcomers. If we accept more than our society can assimilate, a backlash inevitably will ensue — as has occurred all over Europe — and political pressure will build to make Canada less welcoming. That backlash will not only poison life for the immigrants who already have arrived, but shut the door on those we might otherwise take in the next time a war-ravaged country suffers a Syrian-scale humanitarian meltdown.

Germans are every bit as educated and civilized as Canadians. Yet in that country, right-wing extremists have attacked dozens of refugee shelters. It seems unthinkable here in Canada. But consider the epic reaction in this country every time the media report an honour killing, or a school where boys and girls are separated, or a firebrand preacher who doesn’t like Jews. Even the most scattered reports of such phenomena evoke front-page outrage and op-eds. denouncing “multiculturalism gone amok.” Multiply these episodes, and one can see how some Canadians might be whipped into a xenophobic frenzy by a sudden surge of newcomers.

The lesson from the campaign of Donald Trump, France’s National Front, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and Sweden Democrats is that the polite constraints of western liberalism only extend so far. If the flood of newcomers overwhelms a society (or even parts of it), the firebrands inevitably will mobilize. That insensitive heckler who compared Kurdi to a Canadian child drowned in a swimming pool: there are many more potential populists like him out there, ready to form their own party if the circumstances are right.

Even in the face of tragedy, there is no substitute for a seriously considered immigration policy: in the long term, we owe it to the immigrants themselves. And the creation of such a policy requires that we answer the basic question of what sort of newcomers do well in Canada.

Fortunately, the evidence suggests many of the Syrians now fleeing that country include many well-educated urbanites who would be a good fit in our society. As Doug Saunders argued convincingly in his 2012 book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, the reason Europe has had trouble integrating so many Muslim immigrants isn’t that they are Muslim, it’s because they were brought in to provide cheap labour from rural regions of South Asia and the Middle East. The Canadian example shows that educated immigrants — East Asian, South Asian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or otherwise — adapt quickly if they come with the right tools.

Moreover, by way of precedent, we should consider the Cubans who arrived in Florida after the 1959 Revolution. Because they had been victimized by a communist dictatorship, they became some of the U.S.’s most consistently vigilant anti-communists. An analogous pattern may well play out among Syrian refugees, who know better than anyone the evil, nihilistic face of the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant and other terrorist groups that purport to fight in the name of Islam.

The morally complex task of determining how many Syrians should be allowed to come to Canada must not be performed through the Tories’ usual practice of reciting jingoistic talking points and slogans. But it also cannot become a no-limit humanitarian bidding war. If we want to preserve the open and generous quality of Canadian society, we must balance our open hearts with hard heads.

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