Naheed Nenshi: In Canada, there is little or no anti-immigrant discourse

I turned 50 earlier this year. I still know how old I am because I coincide with two major events in Canadian history: the Summit Series and Paul Henderson’s goal, and another moment that forever changed the fabric of this country. Perhaps for the first time, Canada reached out to refugees who looked different, who worshiped differently than most Canadians, but who needed help.

And nothing was ever the same again.

First a bit of history. At the beginning of the last century, as Europeans flocked to North America and particularly to Western Canada in search of a better future for their families, a similar migration was taking place on the other side of the world. British subjects in India, largely members of minority religious communities, were encouraged by the British to migrate to a land of opportunity and to help the British settle there. In this case, it was Africa, and thousands of men flocked to work on the railroads, start small businesses and raise their families. They moved across the continent, with many (like Gandhi himself) in South Africa, some in places like Mozambique, where their families learned Portuguese, some in Congo, where they operated in French, and many in East African countries where they continued a very English life.

(Aside. In the 1930s, two sisters boarded ships in western India, bound for Africa, to marry men they did not know. One was 12 , the other 14. One ended up in Tanzania and learned a bit of English, the other in Mozambique where she learned a bit of Portuguese. They kept in touch by letters because they all both had many children and raised them in a lot of turmoil. And that’s why my mother has cousins ​​in Lisbon today.)

In the 1960s, as these African nations gained their hard-won independence, resentment toward Asian communities grew. They were wealthier than the African communities, on the whole, and were considered pampered by the British, and life got a little tougher.

My parents, hotel workers in Tanzania, had met Canadian aid workers and had successfully immigrated to Canada in July 1971. Just before they left, my mother found out she was pregnant but they made the trip anyway. .


To this day, my sister believes that I am the first Ismaili Muslim born in Canada. I don’t know if it’s true, but I know my parents came to a country with very few Indians. No one knew what a mango was. But they found a few people with familiar-sounding names in the phone book (people under 40, ask your parents what that is) and built a little community that tried to understand this new land together. .

A few months later, the world changed. A year to the day before I was born, a mad megalomaniac called Idi Amin had come to power in Uganda. While on his way to kill between 100,000 and 500,000 of his own, he received a message from God, or so he claimed, saying he needed all Asians out. Suddenly, tens of thousands of people who had lived in Uganda for generations found themselves stateless, including one young woman in particular who was studying in England.

The Canadian government of the day, having just declared that Canada is a multicultural nation, was faced with a dilemma. Most of these asylum seekers spoke English, and they were largely professionals and entrepreneurs, but they were, well, different.

The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, convinced Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to accept these people, many of whom were Ismailis, and 6,000 of them came to Canada all at once.

My parents and their friends, who had just learned about the Canadian system, suddenly found themselves caring for thousands of others as they struggled to create new lives.

And the struggle was there, combined with sacrifice, service and ultimately success. Ugandan refugees and their families have succeeded in business, politics, academia, the arts and social services, and the media. They even read us the evening news.

This week, members of the Aga Khan family are traveling across Canada to commemorate this 50th anniversary and inaugurate a number of projects: a new Diwan, or pavilion, in the beautiful Aga Khan Gardens outside Edmonton, and an innovation in multi-generational community hubs including seniors’ housing in Toronto and Vancouver, to match the incredible Generations facility that opened in Calgary three years ago. They also sign a new agreement with the province of British Columbia focused on fighting climate change and receive a major honor from the city of Toronto.

Oh, and that stateless young woman studying in England? She officially salutes the family in her role as Lieutenant Governor, the King’s representative in Alberta.


But for me, the biggest legacy of this decision to bring Ugandans from Asia is how it changed the way we Canadians think about pluralism. A few years later, we’ve welcomed over 100,000 refugees from Vietnam (Calgary’s civic dish is bánh mì, feel free to fight me on that!) and been a place of safety and hope for people from all corners of this broken world.

We are far from perfect and we have a long way to go to create a truly anti-racist society, but it should be noted that even in our increasingly fragile public discourse there is little or no anti-immigrant rhetoric. .

In Quebec, politicians still define what is acceptable and flirt with xenophobia. Premier Francois Legault authored the sickening Bill 21, and hinted that immigration was linked to violence but then quickly called immigration a ‘source of wealth’ while promising to cap the number of immigrants.

But in the rest of the country, mainstream politicians don’t use that kind of language. Even the recent leadership contest of the Conservative Party of Canada and the United Conservative Party in Alberta, both of which saw parties swing sharply to the right, candidates avoided the kind of anti-immigrant language that similar parties have used in Europe and the United States. , despite the electoral success of such policies in places like Hungary, Sweden and Italy.

I like to think that it is because we have reached a consensus after these 50 years that a pluralist Canada is a stronger Canada, that a welcoming Canada is a better Canada. It’s not easy and we have to fight for it every day, but it’s worth the fight.

Former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi wrote this opinion column for CTV News


Back to top button