Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Persisting Prejudices: A Few Points on Immigration

By Julien Vernet

at The McGill Daily 2006

Though modern immigration policies seem fair and equitable, critics say that Immigration Canada's point-based system remains discriminatory

Immigration is once again changing the face of Canadian society. According to 2001 census data, Canada has the world’s second highest percentage of foreign-born residents living within its borders. A surge in immigration over the past decade has created a pool of newcomers now forming nearly one fifth of the Canadian population. This wave of new arrivals hearkens back to Canada’s massive influx of immigrants of the 1920s and 1930s, a wave of immigration that ultimately redefined Canada.

On the surface it seems like a lot has changed, immigration-wise, since the early 20th century. While a 1911 amendment to the Immigration Act banned “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race,” modern immigration now champions the ideal of a multicultural Canada. In 1903, Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a 500 dollar head tax at their port of entry; in the past decade, Chinese and South Asian immigrants have made up the majority of new Canadians.

But despite the apparent improvements, critics of Canadian immigration policy argue that immigration policies, while perhaps not overtly racist, still unfairly favour certain groups. Policies continue to support European and British candidates through surreptitious measures that undervalue non-European educational achievements. Canadian policy also penalizes immigrants who cannot immigrate directly into Canada, but must first stop in the US. All in all, the deck is stacked against immigrants of colour. How much has Canadian immigration policy really advanced?

Immigration Canada’s friendly new face?

With the social reforms of the sixties came a revamping of the Canadian immigration system. The 1967 amendment to Canada’s Immigration Act represented a shift in admittance criteria away from race toward a merit-based qualification system. This new immigration procedure included a point system that judges applicants according to selection standards including language proficiency, education, and job experience. Applicants earn points in each category by meeting various requirements, and if an applicant’s points add up to 75 out of a possible 100, he or she is eligible for immigration.

But critics of the system believe that the point system is biased, favouring European, particularly British, immigrants. James Yap, a volunteer with Student Worker Solidarity (SWS), says the point system only recognises credentials from certain countries. “A lot of weight is given to education in the point system, and there are a number of factors which have the effect of favouring immigration from more developed countries,” Yap notes. “For each of Canada’s professions, there is a list of educational institutions whose credentials are acceptable. This list is geared to institutions in developed countries.”

But Jack Jedwab, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, sees the current point system as being more flexible than the previous system. “I don’t think that the policy is becoming Eurocentric. The system is moving away from specific education qualifications toward generic skills,” Jedwab says.

He also emphasises that immigration statistics discredit claims that the current policy is Eurocentric. “The fact is that over the past decade, most immigrants have been non-European,” says Jedwab. “Asia and South Asia represent the most significant sources of immigration right now.”

An Immigration Report Card

Morton Weinfeld, McGill sociology professor and Chair of the National Board of Canadian Ethnic Studies Association, emphasises the relative health of Canada’s immigration system. “Canada’s immigration policy compares well to other countries today as well as Canada’s own past record. Since the post-war period, the composition of immigrants has gone from mostly European to a much more diverse demographic,” Weinfeld says.

Although immigration policy has greatly improved since the beginning of the 20th century, Weinfeld admits that it is by no means perfect. “There are still racist biases within immigration policies,” he attests.

“In general, American and European applicants – especially those from the U.K. – score higher on the evaluations than people from Asia and Africa. Credentials tend to be more readily accepted for those coming from Europe and the United States. There are attempts to establish equivalencies, but inevitably, there is a bias.”

Even when accepted into Canada, the accreditation problem often becomes a status problem. “Many people come to Canada as middle class or well-to-do people, but find their situation very different when they arrive,” said Yap. “Often their status will change over the course of their journey here, and when they arrive they will have to take the jobs at the lowest rung of the social ladder.”

Canada has also recently come under fire for its refugee policies, including the Safe Third Country Act (STC). The act, which is a multilateral agreement with the United States, stipulates that people accepted as refugees in countries considered “safe,” such as the United States and Canada, would automatically be denied if they applied for refugee status in other safe countries. For example, someone accepted as a refugee in the US would be rejected if they attempted to claim refugee status in Canada.

This act affects many of those who come up to Canada through the United States from Latin America and those who cannot afford a direct flight. Yap, a critic of the act, says it resembles early 20th century legislation aimed at keeping out Indian immigrants. “This act is reminiscent of a time when Canada was more open to the British Commonwealth,” said Yap. “The Canadian authorities had problems with the influx of Indians so they passed a law that required immigrants to come directly to Canada from their point of departure. The problem was that there were very few direct ships at that point.”

At Street Level

Samuel, a French born cabbie of Moroccan descent, was trained as a mechanical engineer before coming to Canada. He admits that if he had wanted to pursue an engineering career in Canada he would have had to get another degree, a financial burden unthinkable in the early years after his arrival. “At the work level, there are people that are qualified, but once they come over with their diplomas they mean nothing,” he says. “If I had wanted to do mechanical engineering, I would have had to get another degree.”

The debate on the relative merits of Canada’s points-based immigration policy rages on. While it seems the terms of the argument have changed little since the early 20th century, it is impossible to deny that Canada has become a more multicultural society. Yet obvious flaws in the immigration system persist – flaws that reduce former specialists in their fields to menial labourers simply because Canada refuses to recognise their credentials, or invest the necessary resources to investigate their accreditation. Immigration law in Canada has much, much further to go.

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