Commentary by Robin Arthur in Halifax
Nova Scotia MP and senior federal minister, Scott Brison, has opened up a debate, suggesting the phrase “come from away” should be banned from Atlantic Canadian vocabulary. He’s on a mission to change that.
The provocative label “come from away” has been slapped on people, firstly, from other parts of Canada and secondly, on newcomers from other parts of the world converging on cities in this region. I do not necessarily see that slight as a racial slur.
Instead, I think it’s the prejudice of a rural mindset. That sort of antipathy towards strangers, I would like to think, can be found in most rural communities around the world. But what makes this difficult to stomach is the fact that a rural mindset, which seeks to distance itself from socio-economic progress, will leave Atlantic Canadians in the backwaters of Canada’s economic mainstream.
That, I believe, is Minister Brison’s wake-up call.
In 2004, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson ruffled feathers when he wrote his piece: “Why Atlantic Canada remains white and poor.” At the time, he cited a Statscan study which revealed that 73 per cent of all new arrivals to Canada in the preceding five years had settled in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
In fact, immigration to Atlantic Canada at the time was so insignificant, he said, that the region was not even mentioned in the main body of the 73-page report. Halifax took in 2.1 per cent of newcomer arrivals and St. John's claimed a dismal 0.8 per cent.
In recent years, that demographic patina may have changed somewhat. The arrival count has bumped up. Nova Scotia’s immigration minister, Lena Diab told me some months ago that the number of arrivals under the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) almost doubled in 2015 rising from 700 nominations in 2014 to 1350 in 2015.
But the demographic face of the region has not changed in any spectacular way. Like the rest of Atlantic Canada, the province is distinctly homogenous.
An immigration study titled Pathways to Prosperity observes: “When we examine Nova Scotia, we see a different pattern. Although there are some concentrations of immigrants from China, India, and the Philippines, especially among economic category immigrants, we see that traditional sending countries, like Britain and the USA, still play a prominent role as the sending countries of immigrants to the region.” This pattern is in striking contrast to the demographic stats unfolding in the rest of Canada.
Resistance to change
The trend, I think, is driven by a stubborn resistance to change, a commitment to “old boy networks” and a reluctance on the part of rural Atlantic Canadians to assimilate with people who are different and have “come from away”. The trend is a dangerous one for a nation seeking a vibrant economy.
That is exactly what prompted Brian Lee Crowley, former President of AIMS ( Atlantic Institute of Market Studies) to proclaim some time ago: “How we respond to the challenges of immigration, diversity and population change will literally determine whether we as a society live or die.” A dramatic statement no doubt, but no less true for that.
“Atlantic Canadians are struggling to renew their society,” he pointed out. “Indeed, governments can make a difference, but immigration is not merely an affair of governments. That is why the key question is not ‘Why don’t they come’ but rather ‘Do we really, in our hearts, want them to come.’”
When Halifax hosted the Atlantic Mayor’s Immigration Conference in 2005, that was a ground-breaking initiative, reflecting new ideas coming out of think-tanks in the country that said cities and communities have a role in developing multicultural societies for economic growth.
It is a foregone conclusion that growing immigration is a sure sign of economic and cultural dynamism. Ottawa may set the parameters for national policy, but creating the environments and infrastructure in which diversity can thrive is a job for city planners and communities.
So, it’s not really a matter of dropping the “come from away” slight from Atlantic Canada’s vocabulary. It’s the mindset that must change. Canadians in our rural towns continue to believe that Canada’s immigration program reflects its altruism and humanitarian outlook on the world, confusing the country’s commitment to the Geneva Convention on Refugees with its immigration program that’s driven to grow the economy, drive up consumption, sustain the tax base and keep its productivity competitive and vibrant.
In other words, it’s important for rural Canadians to see in Crowley’s statement an absolute truth: “How we respond to the challenges of immigration, diversity and population change will literally determine whether we as a society live or die.”
Robin Arthur is editor of Touch BASE, a monthly tabloid with a global news perspective and a voice that addresses the challenges of diversity, human rights and social justice. He is based in Halifax.
Publisher's Note: This is the first in a series of guest commentaries NCM plans to run in the coming weeks on immigration to Atlantic Canada.