Immigrants don’t need to justify their existence

Don Cherry’s xenophobic rant and Quebec’s botched immigration reforms were met with the usual response: immigrants across the country explaining their value.

The Quebec government’s botched attempts at immigration reforms raised the ire of many folks and have been the subject of countless headlines, both locally and internationally.

While Premier François Legault’s sudden decision late last Friday afternoon to suspend reforms to the Quebec Experience Program (QEP) and go back to the drawing board had many Quebecers breathing a huge sigh of relief, those directly affected have little to celebrate. Their future here remains uncertain and depends on the whims of a government that seem to continuously enjoy flip-flopping.

Over the weekend, two French-language columns were widely shared. Rima Elkouri, the daughter of Lebanese and Syrian immigrant parents, and Boucar Diouf, himself an immigrant from Senegal, shared their personal stories of family immigration and their thoughts on why and how immigration is a quid pro quo system, benefitting both the people arriving and the people already here.

While I enjoyed reading them, this time I found myself feeling frustrated. Once again, immigrants or the children of immigrants had been compelled to gently explain or justify their value and humanity to a government and its electoral base that sees them as a problem to be solved.

Once again, they were obliged to shine light on their personal backstories, to provide proof of their attachment to their new home so readers could see immigrants as more than just numbers, but real people with lives, skills and dreams. It, oddly, reminded me of how abuse victims are often forced to repeatedly lay bare their deeply personal (and painful) moments of trauma so people questioning their truth can finally concede that maybe they don’t know what they don’t know.

I thought of all the televised images of QEP international students last week, wiping away tears, in shock and visibly worried about their futures. There were countless interviews given, with their audibly shaking voices explaining the consequences of a decision that had been taken callously and with so little foresight, empathy and consultation. Premier Legault stated that they couldn’t just let in “n’importe qui” and former Finance Minister Carlos Leitao (the son of immigrants) wondered out loud if Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette even knew any immigrants at all.

Why are immigrants and children of immigrants always put in a position where they must convince nativists suspicious of the “other” of their value? Is it not enough to simply look around us and see these reminders everywhere? Do we not see the value of immigration in the doctor that treats us, the teacher or educator who takes care of our children, the person behind the fast-food counter who serves us our food, the janitor who cleans our office floor, the orderly who treats our elderly mother with care, the scientists involved in life-altering and often-life-saving research?

Why do we treat immigration as some sort of invasion, something to be suspicious and cautious of, something removed from our daily life, when immigrants and their children are our coworkers, our friends, our classmates, our neighbours; when our daily life amply benefits from their presence? And why do governments think that the people actively helping shape a province’s or a country’s future prosperity don’t deserve a say in the matter?

We keep hearing these nonsense scaremongering stories of mass immigration and open borders and bogus asylum seekers, but the truth is we have major labour shortages and positions to fill and business groups urgently requesting more skilled workers. We keep hearing warnings of immigrants “invading” and changing our culture and our way of life and the truth is — generation after generation — we keep absorbing these folks into the fold and they become us, and we become them, and that’s exactly how a vibrant, ever-evolving, welcoming, living and breathing community should behave.

Stasis is death, and homogeneity is nothing to be desired or wished for if we want to inspire innovation and progress. New blood brings new skills, new points of view, new vision. There is a reason why Montreal’s AI, music and video-production scenes are so successful. They benefit from a major influx of foreigners who want to live and study in a multicultural city. With the proper integration tools, they stay and build roots here, creating a win-win situation for everyone involved.  

The more the Quebec government continues to see immigration as a threat to Quebec’s identity, the less it’s able to imagine new immigrants as part of its continuous evolution. The more it forces competent, motivated and skilled people to justify their worth, the less inclined they will be to come here or remain here permanently. Considering the historic labour shortages Quebec is currently experiencing, I’m not sure it’s a gamble and approach that will serve us well in the long run.

The weekend ended with Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster, perpetual Quebec-basher and all-around misogynistic xenophobe Don Cherry going on a bizarre televised racist rant about how immigrants refuse to wear Remembrance Day poppies and honour the military.

“You people… you come here, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for a poppy,” he said on air, while co-host Ron MacLean silently nodded and gave the thumbs up in agreement.

“You people…”

I’ve seen immigrants serve as convenient scapegoats for everything ailing xenophobes, but this was the first time I saw immigrants being blamed and demonized for slow poppy sales. Not only was Cherry dividing Canadians into “us” and “them,” he was also baselessly attributing a lack of loyalty and patriotism to those not born here. It was deeply insulting, divisive and completely unwarranted.

Immigrants and second-generation kids were “othered” and presented as the undeserving and unwashed masses who should be grateful to “real Canadians” and their military sacrifices. Cherry had succeeded in draping himself in the memory of Canadian veterans and instrumentalizing Remembrance Day symbolism in the service of xenophobia and fake patriotism, which, I suspect, would have been the last thing fallen soldiers fighting white supremacy and hate would have ever wanted.

Once again, immigrants or children of immigrants (starting with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh) flooded social media with their personal stories and photos of family members who had contributed to war efforts against the Nazi occupation. Once again, they felt compelled to show pictures of themselves (immigrants, people of colour) wearing poppies and engaging in some perverse version of performative patriotism as deflection for undeserved criticism, which should have never required a response in the first place. Non-visible minorities were clearly exempt from this request of proof and were given the benefit of the doubt if they failed to produce a poppy on their lapel, because this is “their country” after all — even if it’s nothing more than stolen Indigenous land.

This time around, the public outrage was so extensive that Cherry was fired. While it’s somewhat satisfying to see that racist rhetoric can occasionally have real consequences, it’s only a reprieve until the next time. When I last checked, more than 50,000 angry people had signed a petition supporting Cherry because they don’t believe he did or said anything wrong. I expect that number will go up in the coming days.

To some people, immigrants and minorities will always be “you people” and so there’ll always be a next time when we’ll be forced to, once again, justify our worth. It’s up to the rest of us who want to work together to build something beautiful to shut that divisive rhetoric down. ■