Sunday, March 22, 2009

Kenney: Right, and wrong on immigration

You'd think I'd find everything about the current immigration minister disagreeable with my values. However, Jason Kenney did say something that I do agree with, at least in principle: Potential new immigrants to Canada, especially in the regular class, should possess a working knowledge of English or French -- or both if planning to migrate to an area where bilingualism is essential, such as Ottawa or Montréal. While this is the law, it's often not enforced by immigration intake workers especially if there is a labour supply shortage in Canada.

However, I am disturbed by the implication of some of what the minister said about immigrants who are here (particularly in the refugee and family classes) who still don't have a demonstrable knowledge of either official language, or know just enough to pass the citizenship test. This is certainly not a uniquely Canadian problem, it has gone on for years. Adding fuel to the fire in a recession, however (i.e. implying such Canadians, and they are in the hundreds of thousands, should be deported), is not the way of going about it.

We should, however, as a society attempt to integrate newcomers with ESL or FSL programs, with training programs that reflect the actual language used in society (including slang) as well as intensive immersion programs where for a number of weeks one attempts to speak and read the new language only, including old and new media sources. That's what happens with some programs Anglophones and Anglophiles take when they go to language "boot camps" in places like Trois Pistoles, Québec -- where exposure to English is completely non existent, and you're constantly monitored, losing marks if you slip into English even accidentally. The idea is by the time you're done you're functionally bilingual.

I am sensitive to this issue as both my parents are immigrants -- my father as a political refugee. But both Mom and Dad made it a point to take ESL classes almost as soon as they got here, and while my father's delivery is still less than perfect it's enough to carry on a conversation. I do have to admit I am disturbed that there are some communities large enough that one can spend his or her entire life here not speaking a single word of English or French, if one just stays in the ghetto markets and goes to private schools in his or her "own" language only. The lack of pride in being Canadian even if in name only is a problem, that we need to address.

The way it is right now, migrants tend to gravitate to their own communities allowing them to continue to speak their home languages while integrating into Canada. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it goes against my idea of multiculturalism where we share in each others' diversity and share in our common future as Canadians; not pigeon hole ourselves each in our own corners, advertise only to our segmented communities, and so forth. The integration process would go faster is if they went in headlong first -- particularly on language. Of course they should have contacts with people among their group but not at the expense of using local, not home, languages. A mosaic is made up of many pieces, they cannot be isolated into their individual parts.

It also doesn't help, however, when classes and immigrant settlement programs are among the first to get sacrificed first on the altar of budget cuts -- so in effect, those who complain about the problem are the ones making it even worse. And of course, those who want to learn English or French can't often take those classes without affordable day care for their children, something else the Conservatives oppose (see where this is going)? Forcing them to learn the same way their kids are -- by watching stupid educational shows for pre-schoolers on the CBC or educational television.

In many EU states, you can't apply for naturalization (a non-native born gaining citizenship of his or her adopted country) unless you can prove you speak the national language well enough to function in the workplace. There are some exceptions to this: Germany, which does have a language requirement for most, does grant citizenship as a matter of course to some of the victims of Nazi atrocities (who were stripped of their statehood by Hitler) and their children and grandchildren.

Trudeau's vision of nation-wide bilingualism is a farce, except as a practical matter in the areas I mentioned above. Still is it really too much to ask for a little bit of English or French from newcomers, regardless of the class they are applying in? No, I don't, and asking applicants to take the TOEFL or the TCF is not an undue burden.

But I also don't appreciate people making the suggestion in threatening or menacing words, be they by connotation or denotation, that lack of knowledge should automatically be a disqualifying factor. Instead, we need to say, okay, we'll let you in on a work permit but you have such and such amount of time to learn English and / or French and pass the tests that prove it; if you can, then you'll get full immigrant status retroactive to the time of entry. The vast majority of applicants would take the offer, and there's no question they'd pass not one but both tests. The more immigrants that know three, four or more languages, the more competitive we then become as we sell our wares and services overseas.

With that, I'm off to church ... and one of my prayers this morning is that only saner and less bigoted thoughts will fill the halls of the Centre Block.

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Rural said...

Thank you for that. I agree that a basic understanding of one or other of our official languages should be part of the critera and am also bothered by insular communities within our "multicultural" Canada. You have expressed it mutch better than I could, expecting imigrants (like myself) to be part of our Canadian identity not isolated from it is not unreasonable.

Jennifer Smith said...

My only caveat would be that elderly immigrants should be exempt. I talked a bit about this on Canada's World, pointing out that a) the older you are, the harder it is to learn a new language, and b) grandparents are an essential part of most immigrant families as they provide stability, cohesion to the extended family / social network, and, importantly, free child care.

Elderly immigrants have little use for proficiency in English or French. They aren't going to be entering the job market, and their social peers are likely to be other first generation immigrants. But their presence allows their children the freedom to go out and take ESL classes and be productive citizens.

So why would you want to discourage that?

Altavistagoogle said...

Read the article again bud. Kenney is not advocating knowledge of English or French for potential immigrants, he is advocating knowledge of English or French for potential citizens!

Under current immigration law, you can, and many do, immigrate to Canada without any knowledge of English, French or Inuktitut.

Anonymous said...

I see no problem with our system now. I think its more of an issue with refugees and not immigrants. and its not a huge problem. The second generation speaks perfectly well. I'd even say better than your average oil patch high school drop out or country bumpkin. I see this as just an attack on people who your typical isolated rural conservative just hates for no reason.

BlastFurnace said...

Rural: Appreciate the comment.

Jennifer: I think you do have a point there. It may be too much to ask to expect business level fluency from elderly immigrants, especially in the family class. But I still think they should know enough to handle day to day tasks such as grocery shopping, banking, going to the doctors and the like.

AVG: I did read the article, and what was being implied does, from what I see, extend to the immigration process. We've seen what happens when countries decide they only want certain "kinds" of people. Canada was once like that, even if it did not in those days ask for proficiency in one or the other language.

Anon: As I pointed out in my post, my father was a refugee, but he made a point of learning the language fairly quickly. Of course he was young at the time, only 25. I agree that immigrants should be encouraged to learn the language(s) as quickly as possible if they don't already have those skills. However, to cast aspersions in the way Kenney did, is a dangerous path to take.

This isn't about rednecks vs everyone else. Heck, by Jeff Foxworthy's standards, most of us ARE rednecks. It's about making the immigration system work better -- and I think Kenney needs to be reminded too that immigration is a shared field of responsibility with the provinces, who may have more than a few things to say about this.

Immigration, traditionally, is also something on which cross-party consensus is sought since one day immigrants will become citizens. A unilateral approach on this issue, as on others, is simply irresponsible in a minority situation and Kenney's comments don't do anything to foster cooperation.

WesternGrit said...

I strongly feel that we can easily develop English skills in new immigrants - without the "cut-off" Kenney is proposing. I do feel, however, that we can't require official language skills of everyone. The VERY LEAST we can do as a nation, is help foster those skills. This helps avoid bad language habits learned in old countries. This also lowers a barrier to immigration.

Should we reject a brilliant professor, just because he can't speak English? Do we think, with his/her brilliance they can't learn the language as part of their adaptation process?

We should recruit based on skills, and family reunification. I made a strong point about the grandparents (nannies/cooks/homecare) who come over with their families. They tend and teach young children, saving us millions on daycare. They teach good values and morals...This is invaluable to Canada. It is a non-realized asset that we have access to. In most immigrant communities, this is very evident - where grandparents watch over homes and children, while other adults earn a living (often 2 to 3 jobs).

Many immigrants who possess English skills still need much upgrading when they come here. My mother helped teach (on a voluntary basis) many new immigrants English. Why not offer this as part of a complete program to settle new Canadians - and "level the playing field" between immigrants of various backgrounds. I look at the successes of the Vietnamese as a great example of immigrants who had to learn English (people I know in Western Canada), and how well they succeeded. There are many others who have succeeded with little or no language skills when arriving here...

While Kenney make it SOUND like they're speaking in the interests of immigrants, what they are actually doing is appealing to their base. They can't go after certain races, so the next best limiting factor is language.

I do agree that lack of language skills is a major limiting factor in success of new arrivals, BUT, as I've said, we can teach the basics, and the new arrivals can gobble this up in months... While a new immigrant WITH language skills may score higher on a point system, there are many skills non-language speakers bring that can't be ignored.

Anonymous said...

My immigration officer during the interview said right in the first minute of the interview that if either one of us (me and the wife) did not know English or French, he was required to withhold the visas. This was 8 years ago.

And this has been confirmed by 3 other couples (we know of) who have immigrated to Canada.