Back Page: Canada needs to reassert its identity

The Supreme Court’s 1985 Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration decision gave any foreigner who set foot in Canada all the procedural rights that the Charter grants to full-fledged Canadian citizens. In that ruling, the word “entitle” appears 24 times in relation to would-be Canadians. The word “responsibility” appears just once.



That sums up our national approach to citizenship: a one-way deal where Canadians ask what their country can do for them, not what they can do for their country. When Stéphane Dion was asked about a potential conflict between being a Canadian politician and a French citizen too, he didn’t even understand the question: “Canadian citizenship will give me my rights,” he said. “Identity is the way I feel about the country.” Twenty years after Singh, citizenship is no longer about loyalty or duty; it’s about rights and feelings.

Which is why Australia’s new approach to immigration is something Canada should take a close look at.

Like Canada, Australia is a nation of immigrants — or “settlers” as they’re called Down Under. Twenty two per cent of Australians were born abroad, even more than in Canada. Australia is very multicultural, and like Canada, its policy of multiculturalism has come under strain lately, with radical Islam posing a particular challenge.

In 2002, 88 Australians were killed at a nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia. The country’s top Muslim cleric at the time, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilali, made it clear which side he was on in the larger clash of civilizations: “Sept. 11 is God’s work against oppressors,” he said; the Holocaust was a “Zionist lie”; Australian rape victims were to blame because they were “uncovered meat” tempting young men. When these statements generated a backlash, Hilali doubled down, telling Australians that immigrants like him had more right to be there than “descendants of convicts.”

This was unsettling for a country that takes pride in the concept of “mateness” — the Crocodile Dundee-style approach to friendliness. But instead of calling for more “dialogue” and visiting Hilali’s mosque — the U.S. approach after Sept. 11, 2001 — the Australian government did the opposite. It started a national reassertion of Australian values, values so basic they seemed too obvious to vocalize: the equality of men and women; the secular nature of Australian laws; the unacceptability of violence.

This wasn’t a dialogue, it was a monologue, designed to teach new immigrants what Australia was truly about, and to remind native-born Australians, too. Last month, Australia’s immigration department crystallized the message in a 42-page booklet called Becoming an Australian citizen. All would-be Australians must pass a quiz based on the booklet before obtaining citizenship. Most countries have handbooks and tests for would-be citizens. Canada’s is called A Look at Canada, a big-print booklet with lots of pictures.

On the very first page of “Becoming an Australian citizen,” would-be settlers are told that, while immigrants have come from 200 countries, they are “joining a distinct national community,” and that they’ll be “asked to pledge loyalty to Australia and its people,” and even “defend Australia should the need arise.” The booklet is still politically correct; it shows obsequious respect to every possible minority. But the point is clear: everyone is expected to be an Australian first.

By contrast, the word “loyalty” does not appear once in A Look at Canada and immigrants are not asked to defend anything. But the words “compost” and “recycle” are there. Two vacuous pages are spent nagging would-be Canadians to use “designated public garbage containers” and to turn off lights and taps “when they’re not being used.” This is given as much space as the section on Canadian history, if you consider history to be a sterile list of dates. The date of Confederation and the Charter of Rights are listed, and the date that the Maple Leaf became our symbol. That’s about it, not a word of the discovery and settlement of the country, or our participation in great wars, or domestic struggles like the suffragette movement. Canada is not a young country, as pundits suggest; we have 400 years of history, but you wouldn’t know it from this pamphlet.

Australia describes its history at great length, explaining how it has shaped its character. There’s even a section on how to be a “mate.” The Australian book uses words to convey meaning, describing how that country has blended “Judeo-Christian ethics” with “Irish and non-conformist attitudes” and “respect for the free-thinking individual.” It’s a bracing read. Canada’s booklet reads like bumper sticker slogans: the vacuous call to “eliminate discrimination and injustice” is listed as one “responsibility.” “Care for and protect our heritage” might have been more meaningful if the booklet actually described what our heritage is, though how one can “care for” a heritage is not clear.

Of course, reading Becoming an Australian citizen won’t turn someone like Hilali into a western liberal. But it’s not about Hilali; it’s about Australia, reasserting its own identity, something Canada should try.

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