My friends know that my most anticipated birthday was my 18th, because I finally would be able to cast a ballot, and did so in the municipal, provincial, and federal elections that took place in my 19th year. I first campaigned for a political party at the age of 11 (very embarrassing photographic evidence exists somewhere in my mother’s house), and I think I was the only grade 10 student in my high school whose favourite subject was Civics.
It’s strange that we’re just a few days out from a massively important vote, and I will not be participating. It’s been strange to be an observer: consuming the news and #hottakes, and watching ambivalence on Twitter shift to pleas, vitriol, sanctimony, and hate.
A few weeks ago, I was the passenger in a car driving through Skye. We were listening to a conversation about the Referendum, the EU, and immigration on BBC Scotland and I was genuinely surprised by what I heard. The public broadcaster in Canada (CBC) is moderately-to-very progressive (depending on who you ask) and I largely anticipated the same tone from the public broadcaster of a country that I believe to be quite a lot more progressive than Canada on several issues.
The outer limits of what was deemed acceptable conversation about immigration (as an issue, not the concept or experience itself) was jarring. That people would imply or explicitly say that immigration as a whole is somehow sinister, and have that go unchallenged, was jarring. I’ve heard these attitudes expressed on CBC, but they’re the identifiable outliers and there is an expectation that they will be politely pushed back against and interrogated by the radio host.
This was an experience that I’m sure many Canadians share in the UK, and in England perhaps more intensely. But as someone who concerns herself with anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and the like (not an overwhelmingly popular Canadian passtime), I think I’ve felt differently than most would.
Sidenote: The magnificent Zoe Todd knows this much more deeply than I, and the sole ‘like’ on the above tweet being from her is perhaps illustrative of how very niche this experience is.
Regardless of how very real anti-immigrant sentiment is in Canada (here, here, here), it is not a widely acceptable attitude to hold and will not be tolerated in ‘polite’ public conversation. In it’s everyday routine, it looks like a person who would never claim their prejudices, but will refer to a neighbourhood as “sketchy.” There is a certain cultural capital that privileged, white, settler Canadians maintain through performing progressiveness. I think this dynamic exists in the UK as well (as Robert J Somynne wrote about on his blog) but it’s reasons for being come from a different place.
That specific kind of performative Canadian progressiveness is not bound to holding a left-wing political ideology, but rather to Canadian identity. Canadian national mythology contends that we are peaceful, Multicultural (Canadian Multiculturalism Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. 24(4th Supp.))), and better off than the rest of the world both materially and intellectually through our supposedly enlightened values. This progressiveness believes in the dream of liberal free market meritocracy, chastises the working class and the poor while listening to Kendrick Lamar at a beach party, and always deflects criticism towards Canada by saying that America (or Britain in this case) is worse. This progressiveness does not want to talk about settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, or capitalism.
In that car on Skye, I admit that my first reaction was, “I’m so glad I would never hear this in Canada.” But I would, and I do. And I’m neither happy that that prejudice exists, nor that it is left uninterrogated, nor that my first instinct was to comfort myself with national myth. When we see undeniably appalling behaviour, Canadians really enjoy indulging in sanctimony.
Regularly, Canadians express shock and sadness over tragedy x and then gratitude for living in Canada which is much more ‘this’ and not at all ‘that’ and sure we have problems but let’s not dwell on them. People at site of tragedy x look elsewhere for alternative worlds: Scandinavia for social democracy, Canada (read: Toronto and Vancouver) for multiculturalism.
The beautiful things about immigration sit uncomfortably atop settler colonial structures in Canada. That makes the experience, imaginary, and idea of immigration very different than in Britain.
Although immigration and multiculturalism are viewed more favourably in Canada than in other parts of the world, that favourable view is not entirely noble. The desired (by myself and others) outcomes (well-being for immigrants and refugees) however unevenly distributed, are of course laudable. But Canada, as a settler colonial state, uses immigration to perpetuate itself. Battell Lowman and Barker explain the Settler Colonial trialectic as such: settler-colonizers, Indigenous Others, and exogenous Others. All three categories are meant to ultimately collapse into one (Canadian) by managing the Others out of existence; exogenous Others (newcomers) will be either excluded or will become Settlers, and Indigenous Others will be cease to exist as peoples. Thus, to quote Tuck and Yang at length,
the refugee/immigrant/migrant is invited to be a settler in some scenarios, given the appropriate investments in whiteness, or is made an illegal, criminal presence in other scenarios.[…] Indeed, even the ability to be a minority citizen in the settler nation means an option to become a brown settler. For many people of color, becoming a subordinate settler is an option even when becoming white is not.
In this way, immigrants offer a utility unique to the settler colonial context. Immigration is fundamentally different when the place of arrival is a settler colonial state.
There’s an infuriating meme that reappears every few months, which essentially conflates present-day immigration to European Settler Colonialism. Not only is it entirely devoid of self-awareness as a creation of Settlers, but it’s such an exhaustingly false comparison that I can’t bring myself to deconstruct it. Is present-day Settler Canadian society, or indeed British society, being colonized by ‘foreigners’? Of course not.
Britain is clearly at a breaking point – significant parts of the population genuinely feel threatened and are expressing it through violence. In turn, bodily security is something other parts of the population can no longer take for granted, compounding what may have already been precarious existences.
Whether you look to austerity, democratic deficit, or another variable for explaination, this is uniquely British problem. Looking to as flawed and contextually divergent a place as Canada will always fall flat as a model.
Recommended reading on the Referendum+:
Alex Andreou on immigration and personal security after the murder of Jo Cox; Heather Green on residency, passports, and the franchise, and Svenja Meyerricks on the same topic from a personal perspective; Robert J Somynne on race, class, and facism; Fintan O’Toole on English nationalism and potential independence; Christine Bell and Peter Geoghegan on Northern Ireland and UK-Irish relations; Anthony Barnett at openDemocracy; Peter Geoghegan again on voter fatigue in Scotland; James Chalmers on Turkey, xenophobia, and that UKIP Brexit poster; Euan McColm on fascistic nationalism; Evan Smith and Steven Grey on Brexit and imperial nostalgia (i.e. white supremacy); Lesley Riddoch on Brexit, austerity, and class; and the brilliant folks at The Disorder of Things (Chris Beckon, Lee Jones, Toni Haastrup, Anna Juncos, Gilberto Algar-Faria, Philip Cunliffe, Catherine Goetze) from postcolonial, security, and other perspectives.