A Lesson for the Professor
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 23, 2006

Speaking in Vancouver last week, Liberal leadership candidate and former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff said Canada should increase immigration to 350,000 people a year but a visit to any Vancouver school might have changed his mind.

In a city that attracts 18% of Canada’s annual intake of 260,000 immigrants, English second language (ESL) students may comprise 60% or more of a class. When this happens, says a new study by University of British Columbia language and literacy professor Lee Gunderson, reading growth of both Canadian born and ESL students is compromised.

Small proportions of ESL students, on the other hand, improve reading growth for everyone.

Such findings invite timely questions about whether there is an optimal level of ESL students – timely because they apply to immigration policy generally. Given widespread concern about integrating newcomers and its implications for national security, public safety and social stability, at what threshold is immigration to Canada not only sustainable but of manifest benefit to immigrant and resident alike?

Immigration advocates cite the successful integration of previous immigrant populations but times have changed since they began arriving one hundred years ago. Then, immigrants could expect full integration - the ability to speak Canada’s official languages without an accent, university degrees and entry into the professions - within three generations.

It was an evolutionary process but not so today. Resigned to making sacrifices, today’s immigrants nonetheless expect rapid integration even though the challenges facing them are greater than those facing early European immigrants. Full integration may not be possible for four generations even if they manage to overcome increasing levels of intergenerational poverty, which many are not.

They face other challenges too. Mass technologies assure mass acculturation of the most corrosive aspects of western pop and celebrity culture. Never mind consumer enticements or easy internet access to methodologies for killing, what should a Jamaican, Somali or Vietnamese girl, eager to conform, conclude from, say, Sex and the City?

Appalled, immigrant parents retreat into their religions and cultures. In the meantime, western ideals and achievements aren’t taught in schools. And whether or not ESL classes are effective, immigrant children learn the language of their new country faster than their parents whose attempts at understanding, control or discipline often fail. Immigrant fathers, if they exist, are routinely absent from media reports.

Then there’s the modern welfare state and civil rights entitlements which have revamped immigrant mobility and expectations. Lacking work, previous immigrants returned home. Now they stay, often with dire consequences.

In Germany, the children of Turkish guest workers commit crime at twice the rate of German youth. In the United States, 11 million illegal Hispanic immigrants not only demand rights, but refuse to speak English. Need I mention the Paris riots, the Dutch backlash and British bombings?

In other words, post-war mass technologies and mass immigration, along with the liberation, welfare and the civil rights movements, have in 60 years converged to produce a social sea change of tsunami proportions.

In its wake is a crisis of patriarchy and a toxic residue of failed and unrealistic expectations whose first manifestation in Canada was not the mass killings at Ecole Polytechnique or, less conspicuously but equally profound, the destruction of Quebec’s Catholic church. Rather, barely noticed at the time and still forgotten, it was suicide victims on our aboriginal reserves, early harbingers of the young alpha male whose rage turns inward as well as outward and who has become the sick canary in the mine shaft of western civilization.

So professor, increase immigration? I don’t think so.

Our young need the work and our elderly who fought in wars and paid taxes shouldn’t have to compete for health services with family class immigrants who didn’t. In any case, no society can sustain accelerating rates of change without paying a high price and Canada we now know is no exception.

That doesn’t mean we give up on immigration. Unlike Europe or the United States, we still have an opportunity to optimize the immigrant advantage and, as you rightly challenged in your speech at McGill last year, if Canada can’t make it work “…no one can. No one will.”

Which is all the more reason to get it right in the first place.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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