Commentary by Winnie Hwo in Vancouver
The much-anticipated first federal budget from the new Liberal government was unveiled on March 22. To describe the general reactions, they would be “Wow,” “Oh,” and maybe even, “Oh no.”
I was all “Yay!” and this is why.
I am a Chinese-Canadian mother with a university-aged child. I also work for one of the most respected environmental organizations in the country, after a long career in journalism.
For someone with my kind of profile, I tend to want my country to be cleaner, greener and friendlier. I want this because it is good for my health, my child’s health, our lives and his future.
For a decade, people like me were frozen out of the federal government’s national policy equation because our previous federal government was only interested in pushing fossil fuels.
The consequences of this are known: our major trading partners like the U.S. and China have spent the last decade developing their clean-tech industry and green infrastructure. We are grossly behind in this very competitive new economy.
A struggling Canadian economy
As it turns out, our previous government was also reluctant to invest in our infrastructure, while it continued to take in more immigrants.
One thing about accepting more immigrants is that while newcomers help our country grow, they also increase demands for housing, transportation and other services.
We know many new Canadians gained acceptance to our country by paying millions of dollars for investment funds to contribute to the nation’s economy even before they landed.
One would expect that this money would be invested in areas to strengthen our economy, like in our clean-tech sectors and aging infrastructures. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Over a billion of taxpayer dollars were invested in the fossil fuel industry in the form of oil sand subsidies.
As world oil prices plunge, so does our dollar. Today, Canadians struggle in the low-dollar reality and find ourselves stuck, with little room to juggle.
While workers in the oil sands industry are losing their jobs fast, those in the manufacturing sectors are only recently seeing their job prospects improve slightly.
Long overdue attention to First Nations
The investment in our First Nations communities is also commendable.
As immigrants, we came to Canada mostly for better job opportunities, clean water, air and food security.
Unfortunately, these are not always afforded to our Aboriginal Peoples. For those who live on reserves especially, their water supply is often compromised due to irresponsible mining.
When their only source of water is contaminated, they pay with their health and lives.
For generations, our First Nations people have had to see their loved ones, often small children, suffering serious health challenges because their homes were badly built, their water supply was contaminated and hope was always too far to reach.
The $8.4 billion funding for our First Nations communities is long overdue.
Welcoming a new era
The new Liberal budget is important to me because it signifies a new direction or even the dawn of a new era, if you will.
The vision I keep seeing is a huge ocean liner called Canada changing course in the high seas, making waves and making its passengers feel bumpy, disrupted or even unsettled.
But if we take a deep breath and think about it, the reason we feel so shell-shocked by this new budget is because a lot of the big-ticket items were not even addressed by the previous government.
The move to a new and green economy is a reality. Some might even say inevitable.
It would be wonderful if Canadians were served a gradual change, of course, but the 10 years of relying on oil and closing our ears to the call for help from our First Nations people by the Harper government means our journey from here on will likely feel a little bumpier.
Yes, we will have to spend a little time to play catch up, but I know Canadians are resilient and hard working. As long as we work together and support each other, I have no doubt we will make the journey.
Winnie Hwo joined David Suzuki Foundation’s Climate Change Team in 2010 after a long and stellar career in journalism. She is passionate about Canada’s multicultural policy and healthy environment.
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by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
As the federal government prepares to table its 2016 immigration targets by March 9, Immigration Minister John McCallum has indicated that it would be more positively inclined towards international students.
Terming foreign students as “the perfect immigrants,” McCallum said the previous Conservative government took the wrong direction when it took away the 50 per cent residency time credit for them and other temporary residents when applying to become permanent residents.
He said this in a one-on-one conversation with Ratna Omidvar, Executive Director, Global Diversity Exchange, at the 2016 Cities of Migration conference in Toronto on Wednesday. The forum was held in the lead up to the 18th National Metropolis Conference that opened today.
"It was the dumbest thing to do because if there's any group who would become good Canadians, it's them. They're educated, they know this country, they speak English or French. So why punch them in the nose when we're trying to attract them here in competition with other countries?"
McCallum said the Express Entry immigration selection system, the key change to the economic immigration stream made by the previous government, was also being reviewed. The Liberal party election platform had proposed that candidates with siblings in Canada should be granted additional points under the system.
McCallum said now that his party's election promise on the Syrian refugees has been met, streamlining his department would be his new top priority.
This would include reducing the processing times for people already in the immigration system.
“We have learnt a lot from fast-tracking the Syrians in how inefficiencies can be eliminated,” the minister said. "I am ashamed that we, a country who view ourselves as being open to newcomers, should take two years to bring together husband and wife and even longer to bring in parents and grandparents."
He said some processes are not necessary and his government would be applying risk management principles to bring in families quicker. “This is how we want to bring about ‘real change’ without increasing risks to Canadians.” But he cautioned that the changes to reduce processing delays are not going to happen overnight.
Multi-year immigration plan
Asked by Omidvar on why the federal government goes about setting annual immigration targets instead of taking a more long-term view, McCallum said he would soon present a multi-year plan.
He said the government will be announcing the 2016 immigration levels plan in Parliament next week.
“While we would need a bigger pie to accommodate all the demands, we only have a certain capacity to increase our numbers. And we need to balance the competing demands.”
He listed them as:
Last year’s immigration levels plan had made a provision for a maximum of 285,000 immigrants. That pie was to be divided among 186,700 economic immigrants, 68,000 family class immigrants and 30,200 from the humanitarian stream.
Record intake of immigrants likely
In contrast, 19,000 Syrian refugees have already been resettled in the first two months of 2016 and the Liberals have pledged to resettle another 10,000 government-assisted Syrian refugees by year end.
And if McCallum makes true his commitment to increase the intake by even 15,000, the Justin Trudeau government would be the first to admit more than 300,000 new immigrants in one year since 1913.
On whether the focus on Syrian refugees would lead to cutbacks to other refugees and immigration streams and also welfare programs, McCallum said Canada would still accept refugees at the same pace from other parts of the world, but the rush to get Syrians into the country was both warranted and the right thing to do.
“I make no apologies to anybody. The Syrian crisis was the worst such crisis the world has faced in a decade and most Canadians agree with that. And we can always do more than one thing at once.”
Although privately sponsored refugees from Syria have to start paying their own airfare now that government-organized flights out of the Middle East have ceased, McCallum said the government is now considering paying the travel costs of all refugees Canada resettles in the future.
The federal government has been providing refugees loans to help them pay for required medical exams and travelling to Canada for decades. McCallum said that cancelling the loans is one of the options the Liberals are considering ahead of their first budget on Mar. 22.
"We were covering the travel costs for privately sponsored refugees [from Nov. 4 to Feb. 29] because most of them came on planes leased by the government,” McCallum said.
Canadians who sponsored Syrian refugees who arrived before Nov. 4 have complained that the Liberal government created a two-tier system when it decided to waive the travel costs for privately sponsored refugees who arrived in Canada after the Liberals were sworn into power on that date.
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Family reunification is at the core of the Liberal government’s immigration policy. After our two-part in-depth piece on the pros and cons of the family class immigration stream, this new series takes a closer look at the process from the perspectives of major immigrant groups in Canada. What are the opinions and experiences of individuals and families who took this route or are in the process of doing so? We find out what works and what needs improvement. The following report is the second in our series and looks at the frustrations caused by painfully long wait times. Read part one here.
by Marieton Pacheco in Vancouver
Elmira Padlan-Bautista is no stranger to Canada’s family reunification program. She and her husband have been going through the process of sponsoring both their parents since 2005. But after 10 years, Elmira’s parents are now with them in Canada, while her husband Jerold’s parents are still waiting in the Philippines.
It’s a heartbreaking situation considering they tried to sponsor Jerold’s parents first.
The couple’s application to sponsor the Bautistas in 2005 was initially refused due to lack of income, but after submitting additional documents in 2006, they were given approval to complete the requirements for both sets of parents in 2008.
This included separate instructions to do medical tests in Manila and that’s where the problems started.
“There was always something in their medical tests,” says Elmira. “There was a spot in [Jerold’s] dad’s lungs the first time; he was asked to undergo medication and come back after three months. When he was cleared, they found another issue with his mom this time.”
Jerold’s mom has gone back for medical tests about 10 times already due to heart problems and complications from diabetes. It doesn’t help that she’s 73 years old. And with each exam costing around Php 3,000-5,000 (about $100-$150), it’s been quite an expensive and frustrating exercise.
“It’s been too long that I think they’ve lost interest in coming here, napagod na sa pabalik-balik kaya nawalan ng gana (it’s tiring to keep on going back [for medical reasons] and frustrating),” shares Elmira.
Despite this, they received a letter from Canada's immigration department in 2013 asking them to pay for the parents’ Right of Landing Fee. They did, and Jerold's parents were asked to submit their passports to the Canadian embassy in Manila.
But without medical clearance, their visas remain pending. It’s been so long that the parents’ have asked the embassy to just return their passports, which have been held for about a year.
Elmira says she remembered all these lessons when she applied for her own parents’ sponsorship in 2008. After receiving approval to sponsor them in early 2011, she asked Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), which is now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), to send all correspondence through her.
Both her parents were also visiting Canada when the letter for their medical examination arrived. She checked with CIC and was able to have both her parents’ medical exam done here. With no hitches in their documents and medical tests, her parents were approved for permanent residency in December 2012.
It was still a four-year wait, but Elmira is grateful, especially when compared with her in-laws’ case and those of some of her other friends in the community.
“I don’t mind going through all the requirements and application ’cause it’s really worth it that they’re here,” she says. “They’ve been very helpful in babysitting the three kids. I didn’t have a bad experience with my parents’ sponsorship like we did with my husband’s parents. They’re frustrated, and we’re still frustrated...”
More efficient, fair processing needed
At the beginning of this month the IRCC began accepting parent and grandparent sponsorship applications for 2016. Many immigrants are again trying their luck to bring their families here.
Current wait times to sponsor parents and grandparents (PGP) under the Family Class vary from four to six years depending on where your visa office is located. The IRCC’s website says its offices are currently working on PGP sponsorship applications received before November 2011.
Immigration consultant Arlene Tungohan says the key is really to improve processing times for these applications.
Doubling quotas as promised by the new Liberal government from 5,000 to 10,000 may be a good thing, she explains, but it doesn’t really mean anything unless they speed up processing times for those who’ve been waiting for years.
Tungohan adds she still has live-in caregivers’ applications for family sponsorship from five to six years ago.
Their family members in the Philippines have undergone medical exams two to three times already, but their applications remain in processing. Then there are those who submitted applications in 2015 and have been given their PR already.
“We don’t know why the process is that way,” Tungohan says. “It’s not a first-in, first-out system anymore. What’s happening is last-in, first out ... I guess they want to show it’s faster now with the changes, but it’s a little bit unfair. Many caregivers are suffering because of it.”
Tungohan says family reunification has always been a priority under Canada’s immigration system, so whether it’s sponsoring parents or grandparents, or caregivers trying to bring the rest of their family members to Canada, wait times should be reasonable.
Welfare not a ‘Filipino thing’
The immigration consultant also discredits criticisms on parents and grandparents being a burden to Canada’s health-care system.
Many, if not all, of those approved to live here still want to work and contribute to the Canadian economy, she says, adding that collecting welfare is hardly a Filipino thing to do.
“You hardly hear of parents going on welfare especially in the Filipino community,” she explains. “We take pride in being able to support our parents, in showing them that ‘hey, we are successful.’”
But as long as processing times are not improved, families like the Bautistas will have to wait some more for a chance to support their parents here in Canada, or else they will continue hearing about the realities of their parents’ aging from thousands of miles away.
by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) resumed receiving sponsorship applications for parents and grandparents (PGP) of Canadian citizens and permanent residents on Monday morning.
The case processing centre in Mississauga, Ontario opened its window for receiving the applications at 8 a.m. (EST). Only 5,000 new and complete applications will be accepted this year.
By capping the applications number at the same level as in the previous two years, the new Liberal government would seem to be going back on a crucial poll promise to double the number.
Unveiling his party’s promises on the immigration file during the federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the “Liberals will reform our immigration system, and make family reunification a core priority of our government.”
Trudeau then went on to say that his government will immediately increase the number of applications under PGP to 10,000 each year and double the budget for processing family class applications to reduce the waiting time.
This pledge resonated with immigrant families who were not pleased by the previous government’s efforts to limit permanent residency offers to elderly family members or by unduly long processing times extending to 47 months.
The IRCC website currently says the department is working on applications received on or before November 4, 2011.
Michelle Rempel, the Conservative Party’s immigration critic, said it was totally irresponsible of Trudeau to promise more than his government is able to deliver.
"This is just a further example of the mismanagement of the immigration file and another item to add to the list of broken promises," Rempel, MP for Calgary Nose Hill, told New Canadian Media in an emailed response.
"While we were in government, Canada welcomed more than 70,000 parents and grandparents from 2012-2014. This number represents the highest level of parent and grandparent admissions in nearly two decades. Thanks to the Conservative government's Action Plan for Faster Family Reunification, the backlog was reduced by nearly 54 per cent," Rempel said.
"Keeping a realistic goal of 5,000 applications a year was part of our Conservative government’s initiative to be prudent managers of government."
Late this evening, Immigration Minister John McCallum offered this defence: "We are committed to reuniting families and we intend to meet the commitment to double the intake of PGP sponsorship applications from 5,000 to 10,000 per year. To achieve this I will be consulting with cabinet colleagues early in the new year."
The brief annual opening of the application window in the New Year is a recent phenomenon. It began in 2014 after the previous government had frozen the process for two years in November 2011. The stated purpose was to first clear a backlog of nearly 165,000 applications before taking in new ones.
Generally, a citizen or permanent resident is allowed to sponsor parents and grandparents to become permanent residents under the Family Class immigration stream. Family reunification is one of the three pillars of IRCC’s immigration program, the other two being economic classes and protected persons (refugees).
The moratorium on PGP applications was expected to reduce the backlog to about 50,000. In the meantime, the quota for actual admissions into the country under the program was increased by 60 per cent to 25,000 a year to help clear the backlog.
Before lifting the freeze, the Harper government had also introduced major changes to Family Class immigration in May 2013. They were designed to align entry under this category with economic outcomes.
The overarching narrative spoke of reducing the burden imposed on tax payers by the entry of parents, grandparents and dependent children 18 years and above.
Announcing the new criteria for sponsoring parents and grandparents, Jason Kenney, the then Citizenship and Immigration Minister, said they were aimed at ensuring elderly immigrants didn't end up on welfare or in social housing.
Kenney also said that older immigrants are a burden on the health-care system and other social safety nets. A set of grandparents could cost the system as much as $400,000, he said.
The new set of rules included the minimum necessary income level of sponsors going up by 30 per cent, proof of income threshold for a minimum of three years (in place of one year), only Canada Revenue Agency notices of assessment to be accepted as proof of income, sponsorship commitment period doubled to 20 years, and the maximum age of dependents was set at 18 instead of 21.
Predictably, the changes were not received well by immigration civic actors and newcomer groups adversely affected by them.
The NDP, the then official opposition party, slammed the changes. It said they will make it harder and more expensive for families to reunite. "The Conservatives think family reunification should be a luxury only for those who can afford it," its deputy immigration critic Sadia Groguhé said in a statement at the time.
Family Class sponsorship is not the only program through which parents and grandparents can enter Canada. Qualified applicants can also apply for temporary admission to Canada. They can also apply for extended, multiple-entry super visas.
The super visa was introduced in 2011 as an interim measure to circumvent the long wait times under the PGP program. A 10-year super visa allows entry periods lasting up to two years, but without any welfare benefits from the state, including health care. This visa program was made permanent in 2013.
Publisher's Note: An earlier version of this report did not include the government's response.
by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
Arif Virani’s résumé is long and impressive. And nobody would say the newly appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship is just not ready for the job.
Considered a star in Justin Trudeau’s firmament, the Parkdale–High Park MP’s name had figured in several speculative cabinet lists trotted out by the media.
One even named him as a possible Minister for Justice and Attorney General based on his legal career, which includes prosecuting genocide cases at the United Nations International Criminal Tribune for Rwanda and work on the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
But given the wealth of talent Trudeau could pick from to form his cabinet, it was inevitable that many eligible Liberal MPs would be left out. Virani was one of them.
“I am happy, honoured and privileged to be appointed as parliament secretary in a field I would 100 per cent want to be involved in given my background,” says Virani in a phone interview with New Canadian Media. “It is important that we get the refugee and immigration file right.”
Paying it forward
The background he is referring to was not just his work and education. It includes the lived experience of his family that began at a Montreal YMCA in 1972 on a cold October day.
Virani, who was only 10 months old then, and sister Shakufe, older by three years, came with their parents Sul and Lou as refugees ordered to leave Uganda with little notice by dictator Idi Amin.
Because of the friendship between the Aga Khan and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal government of the day accepted 7,000 of his Ismaili Muslim followers into Canada. It marked the first such refugee arrival from a non-European country.
“My parents recall their dangerous 40-odd kilometre drive to the airport from Kampala city. They were allowed to board the plane with only two suitcases and were told the rest of their baggage would follow them later,” Virani shares. “But they never showed up.”
However, Canadian immigration officials showed up on-board the aircraft en route to process their papers and generally help them.
“By the time they landed, my mother already had two job offers and was persuaded to opt for Montreal over Edmonton as the Quebec city was more cosmopolitan then and hence a better place for newcomers.
“All this meant a lot to my parents,” Virani adds. “At a time when they were full of trepidation, Canada stepped up to the plate.”
It is this display of generosity shown to his family and himself that he seems keen to pay forward.
Creating change from within
So what prompted him to get into politics despite all the cynicism that surrounds it?
“Justin Trudeau on the positive side and Stephen Harper on the negative side,” states Virani. “I felt disenfranchised for the past nine years. And early on I had realized that it was easier to bring change from within the government than from outside.”
That realization came to him after the loops he went through to secure permanent annual funding for the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario that he co-founded and on whose board he served as a director for nearly eight years.
On some of the negativity generated by the current operation to bring in Syrian refugees, Virani feels the positive comments make up for it.
“The overall response of Canadians has been much more comforting. But that doesn’t mean we would ignore legitimate criticism.”
He dismisses the notion that Canada need not do anything for the refugees, as it had no role in creating the crisis.
“We are signatory to various human rights conventions and we have a duty as a global citizen.”
Virani also takes comfort from the way the world is again looking up to Canada when it comes to humanitarian relief.
He says the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, is seeking Canada’s advice on refugee integration. The agency has said that the Canadian programs are a practical expression of support and wants other countries to do similarly.
Germany, the current leader in accepting Syrian refugees, is constantly looking to learn from Canada on refugee integration, says Virani, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rather dim view about multiculturalism.
And amid the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric south of the border, Canada has been steadfast in going the “whole nine yards” in presenting opportunities for newcomers to succeed, he explains.
“We may not be perfect, but we get it right most times.”
A lot like his mother mistakenly referring to cranberry sauce as “red jam” at her first turkey dinner.
by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
May 2009, the civil war in Sri Lanka was grinding its way to an excruciating end.
Government forces were in a decisive push against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after more than 25 years of bitter fighting.
Caught in the crossfire were thousands of Tamil civilians, but governments around the world were stoic about human suffering despite blatant rights violations by both sides in the conflict.
The LTTE’s terror tactics had increasingly alienated them from the Tamil cause for an independent homeland.
This forced the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, by now scattered across the globe due to the war, to take to the streets to bring attention to the suffering.
With Canada being home to the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of the island nation, diaspora activism was at its peak here. They had been demonstrating since December 2008 and their protests in various cities had almost become routine by May.
But Canadians were ambivalent about a minority community protesting about a conflict happening far away from them. The display of the flag of the LTTE, by now a proscribed terrorist organization, also did not help in the battle for the hearts and minds.
So, even as the LTTE fighters were making their last ditch stand in Sri Lanka, the public relations battle in Canada was lost by the evening of May 10.
As dusk fell that Sunday night, several thousand Tamil protesters swarmed the elevated Gardiner Expressway. A crucial artery for downtown Toronto, it was effectively shut down till about midnight.
Anecdotes abound about how those caught in the traffic chaos suffered on that day. That it also happened to be Mother’s Day, and many were prevented from visiting their families, dealt the final blow in the court of public opinion.
It took the Tamil community several years to repair the damage done.
But how did a community, that began gaining critical mass in the early 1980s, start organizing themselves on such a large scale?
The answer to this question can be found in Pain, Pride, and Politics, a recently released book by Amarnath Amarasingam.
The genesis of diaspora activism specific to Sri Lankan Tamils forms the core of this book as it delves into an issue that needed scholarly scrutiny.
Until now we only had a crude understanding of this diaspora, its struggles and successes, and more importantly its links to the civil war.
A post-doctoral fellow in the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, Amarasingam weaves together a narrative that give us an insider’s view with the studied detachment of an academic.
However, the author’s lived experience as a young Tamil growing up in Toronto informs what would have otherwise become too academic. This is evident right from the introduction when he describes an encounter with the LTTE’s infamous money collectors in front of his home in the early 1990s.
‘Big egos, short fuses’
Amarasingam acknowledges that many Tamils did indeed give willingly and generously to these collectors every month. However, for others, they were an ever-present nuisance: “young men with big egos equipped with dangerously short fuses,” the author writes.
And it was not just the diaspora Tamils who grew weary and concerned by the LTTE’s presence and activity.
Soon the whole community got tainted in the eyes of mainstream Canada. Governmental and policy circles started seeing Tamils as overly radical and fundamentally corrosive to the prospects of peace in Sri Lanka.
Although some of these concerns were perhaps justified, much of the anxiety was exaggerated by misunderstandings.
This book now provides an in-depth examination of the ways in which a separatist socio-political movement has been carried forward, altered and adapted by the diaspora.
To make sense of this process, its first chapter examines the rise and fall of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka. It gives a detailed account of how ethnic grievances, political mobilisation, and events on the island led to armed conflict.
The focus then shifts to diaspora activism in Canada. The book comes into its own here as it attempts to fill two broad gaps in literature on diaspora politics.
Peace or trouble makers?
First, much of the writings examine diaspora communities as either peacemakers or troublemakers in relation to conflicts in their old countries. This black and white approach fails to acknowledge the greys of diaspora activism in its own right.
Second, in setting out to address this issue, Amarasingam cross-fertilizes his diaspora study with extensive literature on social movement theory.
It helps us better understand the street protests, the organizational dynamics and the process of identity formation in the post-civil war Tamil diaspora.
The futility of dividing the community between a “moderate majority” and a “pro LTTE bloc” is also brought forth.
Understanding future diaspora groups
Even though Pain, Pride, and Politics is the first such book-length treatment of Tamil diaspora politics in Canada, it does have self-set boundaries.
Issues like inter-generational religious identity, the proliferation of temples and ethnic Tamil churches, debates about caste identity, refugee experiences, mental health issues affecting the community and gang violence are not touched upon.
By skimming on these diaspora issues and a fuller account of post-colonial political developments in Sri Lanka, maybe Amarasingam is setting himself up for another book in the future.
But what he gives us in the present is a periscopic view of the singular dynamics that propel diasporic communities into uncharted spaces.
With 25,000 refugees from Syria to soon settle across Canada, this treatise on a group that came here under very similar circumstances is very opportune.
The insights offered make it an essential read for understanding the struggles future diaspora groups are likely to face and maybe even for helping us mitigate or prevent some altogether.
Ranjit Bhaskar is a Toronto-based journalist and writer with a keen interest in Canadian politics and immigration and South Asia.
by Simran Singh in Vancouver
Indo-Canadian representation in Canada’s new government goes beyond the cabinet ministers Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced to the country at his swearing-in ceremony earlier this month.
In what he called “a cabinet that looks like Canada,” 15 of Trudeau’s 30 ministers are women, two are aboriginal, two have disabilities and four are Indo-Canadian Sikhs.
The Indo-Canadian representation of Trudeau’s cabinet was noted around the nation and internationally. From India’s Hindustan Times to New Zealand’s Indian Weekender, global news media showcased Canada’s newly appointed Indian cabinet ministers.
A total of 23 Indo-Canadian representatives were elected into parliament in the recent election, an astounding increase compared to the nine Indo-Canadians elected in 2011.
Moreover, 20 of the Indo-Canadian MPs speak Punjabi, making it the third most-spoken language in Canada’s House of Commons after English and French.
Punjab: A political hotbed
Although this year’s Canadian cabinet announcement appeared to draw a lot of attention to Indo-Canadians’ representation in politics, their involvement has remained steadfast in all levels of government across the nation.
Most Indo-Canadian politicians originate from the northern Indian state of Punjab, which has a rich, politically, fuelled history. Their political inclination is embedded in their cultural background and heritage.
“The first thing you have to look at is that Indo-Canadian politicians are mostly Sikhs and [they are] a small, yet highly motivated, religious sect that developed a kind of reformation movement,” explains Shinder Purewal, a professor of political science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C.
Purewal adds that the geographical positioning of Punjab in India has made it a political hotbed for centuries.
“Every invader from Alexander the Great down to the Ahmad Shah Abdali came through the Punjab,” explains Purewal. “So you are dealing with a group of people that never led any kind of comfortable lifestyle. They were constantly invaded. It moulded that spirit of trying to resist oppression and exploitation and that kind of unity created is highlighted [in the] Sikh diaspora.”
Gradual political participation in Canada
That sense of unity remained for Punjabis when they first settled in British Columbia in 1903.
In 1907, the province of B.C. disenfranchised not only Punjabis, but all of the South Asian diaspora. They were not allowed to vote in federal elections or participate in politics.
After 40 years, the voting restrictions against South Asians were lifted in 1947, but their political involvement developed slowly.
“The numbers didn’t warrant for [Indo-Canadians] to actually be successful at either provincial levels or federal levels,” says Purewal. “But they did work for the parties mostly as volunteers and also raising funds. They were doing this from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s onward.”
Although political participation was gradual, Indo-Canadians were motivated and outspoken on many issues impacting their communities.
Ujjal Dosanjh, the first Indo-Canadian provincial premier and a former Liberal federal cabinet minister, began his community activism by advocating for the wellbeing of B.C. farmworkers.
Many of these workers were South Asian and Chinese immigrants, who were being underpaid and mistreated.
Like Dosanjh, Raj Chouhan, a long-time member of legislature in B.C., explains how he was driven by advocacy for farmworkers during his early days in Canada.
“My activism started almost right away. When I came to Canada, I saw people working in the farms – they were treated so badly,” says Chouhan. In 1980, after speaking out on the issue, he became the founding president of the Canadian Farmworkers Union.
Inspiring the next generation
Both Chouhan and Dosanjh point to the political culture of India as a nation playing a large role in motivating early Indo-Canadian politicians.
“I had this sense of pride in our history and our civilization, and in the morals and values of the independence movement,” Dosanjh recalls. “There was politics all around as I was growing up.”
India’s democratic system is the largest in the world. It fosters a feeling of responsibility to get politically involved amongst Canada’s South Asian diaspora.
“[Politics in India] is part of life, it’s like a second nature,” Dosanjh says. “It is a very comfortable position for [Indians] to be in when they come to Canada – to be part of the political system.”
That political voice has grown stronger as the South Asian representation in Canada’s highest level of government serves as inspiration for the next generation of young Indo-Canadians.
But Dosanjh highlights that no matter who you are, politics is about believing in yourself and your values.
“You don’t do it for glory. I did it because I believed in it […] Winning or losing isn’t the issue. In the end you have to look at yourself in the mirror and see if you have been true to yourself,” he says.
“I would say to young people, if you believe Canada can be a better place, and you want to make it better, go into politics.”
by Justin Kong in Toronto
The results of the recent federal election shows that we need a better understanding of how immigrant groups are mobilized and integrated into formal spheres of Canadian politics. This two-part series focuses on the Chinese community in metropolitan areas of Canada. Part II examines the new Chinese working class, how conditions are ripe for the development of a Chinese left and what this all means for the Canadian left.
With the devastating electoral defeat of the New Democratic Party last month in the 2015 Federal Elections, it’s clear that the Canadian left must adjust their strategy. The new strategy needs to support the development of a progressive, grassroots immigrant power to counter the presence of more conservative and moderate elements within these communities.
In the Chinese diaspora, while there are a number of strong progressive leaders at various levels of government and in the community at large, the presence of a mobilized, grassroots Chinese immigrant left has yet to be felt in recent years.
This lies partly in the fact that one group has long been unengaged: the Chinese immigrant working class.
New wave of Chinese immigrants, new attitudes towards labour
Contrary to the common trope of the rich Chinese investor immigrant, one merely has to look around the many Chinese ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto and Vancouver to see that there are actually tremendous populations of workers labouring in the ethnic economy. These workers are often engaged in the food and services industry in precarious conditions and without the full protection of employment laws and standards.
This population has long been here and has remained relatively unengaged by the mainstream left and organized labour. A small group find themselves in the progressive political spaces of community labour organizations such as the Workers Action Centre in Toronto.
What has changed in recent years, however, is the composition of this Chinese working class and the increasing maturity of the Chinese diaspora in Canada. These two conditions have important ramifications for the possibility of a progressive Chinese element and the Canadian left at large.
In the past two decades the flow of Chinese immigrants, which had previously been largely dominated by those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, has shifted to a flow that is increasingly dominated by those from mainland China.
Given that immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan have likely been here for a longer period of time it is more likely that they have attained more upward mobility with less ‘working class’ members. More importantly these groups have radically different pre-migration attitudes towards the left and labour politics than the new wave from China.
In Hong Kong, family histories of communist persecution, the infamous 1967 riots which linked trade unionism with social instability and communist insurgency, combine to stifle the possibility of broad labour politics amongst the Hong Kong populace. It should be no surprise then that Canadian labour politics will find it difficult to engage this group.
On the other hand, the new Chinese immigrant working class is largely composed of skilled professionals from mainland China who grew up in very different conditions. Growing up and living in Mainland China means this group has at the very least a basic understanding of concepts of class, capitalism and exploitation — important preconditions to any progressive and labour politics.
With the economic rise of China and the proliferation of consumer culture, leftist politics may have had little salience amongst this population when they were still living in China.
After immigrating the situation becomes different. Labouring in the deskilling, dehumanizing and precarious Canadian economy reignites in the Chinese worker the earlier internalizations of working class consciousness and left politics.
Due to these factors, this new Chinese working class, more than any previous Chinese wave, has the potential to constitute a progressive, left element within the Chinese diaspora in Canada.
Bridging the ethnic and the mainstream
As waves upon waves of Chinese immigrants have settled in Canada, the Chinese diaspora as a whole has become increasingly mature. This maturity manifests in an increasing number of potential progressive political leaders who are able to connect the mainstream with the ethnic.
These two developments together represent the fertile conditions for the development of a left grassroots counter presence in the Chinese community. In the absence of sustained engagement, this new Chinese working class may remain inactive in formal politics and quite possibly bolster the ranks of the political right and moderates.
Chinese churches, for example, appear to be making in-roads with this new Chinese working class. Grounded in the ethnic community through their ‘service’, Chinese churches in Toronto have initiated sermons and fellowship groups catered specifically to Chinese restaurant workers. For the left, such a development is illustrative of the extensive vacuum that exists.
If we look throughout Canada’s history we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.
In order for the Canadian left to establish a foothold in immigrant communities for electoral struggles or otherwise, the establishment of grassroots strength within these communities is essential. To do this the immigrant working classes and political leadership of immigrant communities must be mobilized and connected with the mainstream left.
By supporting and building the emerging immigrant left is to reverse the decades of decline of the Canadian left. The conditions for an immigrant left is ripe in the Chinese community and it may likely be the case in other immigrant communities as well. All that remains for us to do is to come together and figure out how we can make it a reality — and that, of course, is the hard part.
Justin Kong studies sociology and is involved with community and labour organizing in Toronto.
by Ranjit Bhaskar in Toronto
Diversity of all kinds was pivotal for Justin Trudeau in the recent election, and on Wednesday, the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada kept one of his main campaign promises.
We now have a cabinet that looks like the rest of Canada. Diverse and gender balanced “because it’s 2015” as Trudeau put it.
That didn’t stop him from springing some surprises on the immigration and visible minority files.
The appointment of John McCallum as minister for immigration, refugees and citizenship is likely to have surprised pundits.
McCallum, who was the Liberal critic for the same portfolio while in the opposition and a veteran minister in previous Liberal cabinets, was seen as too obvious a choice likely to be overlooked in the quest for fresh blood.
It looks like the strength of his experience prevailed. McCallum, who told New Canadian Media during the campaign that he would like to see “immigrants being welcomed with a smile instead of a scowl,” now has the daunting task of bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year-end and the long-term mission of revamping the family reunification program.
There was no surprise in the selection of Navdeep Bains, a long-time Trudeau friend and adviser.
His important portfolio of innovation, science and economic development is a welcome departure from the previous cabinets where minority ministers only had token presence.
Fittingly, it was Bains who told us that “diversity would be a given in the Trudeau cabinet” because it was an organic part of the larger Liberal team.
An accountant and financial analyst and visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, he was an MP from 2004-2011 and served as parliamentary secretary to the PM and a Liberal critic for various portfolios.
Harjit Sajjan, as Minister of National Defence, was again not a surprise. His appointment marks yet another case of a minority MP getting an important position. Sajjan was the first Sikh to command a Canadian army regiment. A decorated Afghanistan veteran, he also served with the Vancouver police gang crime unit.
Sajjan is a member of Trudeau’s economic team announced during the campaign and was seen with him at various stops across the country. As reported earlier, this team has proven to be a precursor of the newly appointed cabinet, with many of its members figuring in it.
The next three minority ministers came as a surprise.
Amarjeet Sohi, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, has a backstory like no one else’s.
A three-term Edmonton city councillor, Sohi was a former bus driver. He was also wrongfully imprisoned, without charge, as a terrorist in India. He has gone on and won various awards for his efforts to promote cooperation among cultural groups.
While Sohi was at least on some speculative lists of likely ministers, Bardish Chagger, the Minister of Small Business and Tourism was on nobody’s list.
Chagger is a long-time Liberal worker from the time she was a teen and has volunteered for community organizations for the past two decades.
She also breaks the usual mould of “ethnic” MPs getting elected from ridings with large minority populations. She was elected from Waterloo-Kitchener, Ontario where not many look like her family who emigrated from India.
Like Chagger, Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, also broke new ground by getting elected from Peterborough-Kawartha, Ontario where not many share her heritage.
Monsef is now not only the first Afghan-born MP, but also the first from her ethnicity and the first Muslim to become a minister. She came to Canada with her single-mother led family as a refugee 20 years ago and went on to co-found a campaign to raise money for women and girls in Afghanistan.
It must be mentioned that Monsef is the only visible minority minister who is not a Sikh and doesn’t speak Punjabi, now the third most spoken language among the new set of MPs. [Twenty of them speak the language and appropriately, according to Statistics Canada, it is the third most common tongue in Canada after English and French.]
The absence of tokenism in the cabinet also extends to the gender diversity file.
Among the women, many have large portfolios. Jody Wilson-Raybould is the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Chrystia Freeland gets international trade, Catherine McKenna is the minister of the now-renamed Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and Dr. Jane Philpott gets health.
In addition, Carla Qualtrough, a visually impaired Paralympian, is Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities; Kirsty Duncan, a medical geographer, is Minister of Science; Dr. Carolyn Bennett, is in charge of Indigenous and Northern Affairs; and Patty Hajdu will look after the status of women portfolio.
All these women are there not merely because of their gender, but for being high achievers. And, this being Canada, there is again diversity among them.
Wilson-Raybould is from among the eight Liberal Indigenous MPs, a record in itself. She along with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, unlike in previous federal cabinets, did not get pigeonholed into ministries presumed to be natural fits.
Like a commentator said on CBC, minority and Indigenous ministers have now been “mainstreamed,” while a mainstream minister like Dr. Bennett is in charge of indigenous affairs.
All of these ministers are also members of various cabinet committees and now have a chance to bring their diverse voices to the highest decision-making table of the land.
And the calibre of the ministers selected will lay to rest the claim that diversity and merit cannot go together. It no longer is a case of window dressing to meet a certain diversity quotient.
To borrow from an infamous line in a Conservative attack advertisement against Trudeau, “the cabinet got to balance itself.”
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit