Commentary by Marco Navarro-Genie in Halifax
When prominent Nova Scotia MP and President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison recently spoke about banning the expression “come from away” (CFA, in short) from the vocabulary of Atlantic Canadians, he drew attention to our hospitality toward immigrants.
His discussion also led me to reflect on my own origin as a newcomer to Canada, and more recently, as a new arrival in Atlantic Canada.
The precise meaning of “come from away” remains unclear to me.
It seems to refer to people who come from elsewhere, but the degree of distance varies. In some cases, to qualify as a CFA, one can be from the next county, or the next Maritime province, or the next province outside the region, or from a faraway land.
The expression has never exclusively been used to apply to immigrants from other countries.
Nova Scotians, for instance, apply the term to other Nova Scotians, as well. While in all instances it refers to someone seen as an outsider, it is not always used in pejorative ways. In some cases, it is purely descriptive, as a synonym for a stranger. Sometimes, it is used in humorous ways.
None of this should be a surprise: words have various and varying meanings. In the exact same sentence, an expression can mean more than one thing depending on who utters it, who hears it, and the tone and intention with which it is said. For that reason alone, the idea of banning a phrase from usage seems curious to me, but I am sure the minister only meant to use “ban” in a figurative sense.
As for the negative uses and connotations of the expression, the minister is correct in pointing out that attitudes need changing. In my observation and personal experience, they are changing.
When my sisters and I requested asylum in Canada in 1979, I was assigned to the École Polyvalente in St.-Henri, a neighbourhood of Montreal then well-known for its poverty and high unemployment. There, I first encountered hostility toward “les maudits immigrants,” those damned immigrants. In the minds of many of the local children in the school, immigrants represented a threat to their cultural identity and to their parents’ jobs.
Their identities seemed threatened by the presence of the many foreign languages they could not understand. Even the teachers seemed resentful at St.-Henri. At our school, they looked the other way when many of the refugee or immigrant children were pushed, shoved, threatened, and on one occasion, attacked — not with a hockey stick, but with a most un-Canadian instrument — a baseball bat.
Immigrants to Atlantic Canada and their children are not at the receiving end of physical violence. But, the extent to which immigrants may be made to feel like outsiders if someone refers to them as CFAs, it is not in the more affluent spaces such office towers and banks, stores, and shopping malls.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″][T]he extent to which immigrants may be made to feel like outsiders if someone refers to them as CFAs, it is not in the more affluent spaces such office towers and banks, stores, and shopping malls. [/quote]
In the nearly three years that I have been living in Atlantic Canada – and having already travelled through all four provinces — I have heard the expression “come from away” many times, most of them in jest, but I have never witnessed anyone being subject to it in an unwelcoming way. Nor have I been at the receiving end of any unkindness.
While the negative attitudes need changing, we need to be reminded that attitudes will change if the context in which they are born changes.
Words do not beget attitudes; rather, words describe or express them. What gives rise to words are social and economic experiences. In that sense, suppressing a word without dealing with the experiences that begot them would only send the expression underground, and create new terms that would simply be expressed code for the one suppressed.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″][S]uppressing a word without dealing with the experiences that begot them would only send the expression underground …[/quote]
After the horrible baseball bat incident at St.-Henri, many of the newcomers were shipped to other schools in Montreal. I was sent to École Sécondaire St.-Luc, still on the edge of affluent Westmount, but this time on the west side, bordering Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Hampstead.
These were neighbourhoods with higher economic profile, much lower unemployment and greater ratios of university education. Here, it was the immigrant children who were sometimes thuggish, picked fights, and were more unruly than the locals. But there was peace, and I never felt unsafe in the way that I had felt in St.-Henri.
At St.-Luc, I never felt the threat and insecurity that I experienced in St.-Henri. The attitude of the vast majority of the students and teachers at St.-Luc was much more welcoming. Having visited homes of classmates in both areas, I am quite sure that the pupils from Westmount and Hampstead didn’t leave their home for school in the morning showered with parental complaints about jobs, lack of money to eat or pay the rent, or heard epithets about immigrants who were stealing jobs from locals.
That was the great difference.
The animosity and suspicion we hear toward immigrants and newcomers, almost everywhere, has a socio-economic context, a background profile that is very similar across borders and cultures.
Atlantic Canada is no different.
Maritimers’ suspicions of “the other” will erode with more prosperity. The more prosperity, the more they will also be exposed to immigrants coming to settle here.
Atlantic economies will only improve and thrive on their own when they become less dependent on subsidies from outside the region, and when home policies foster economic growth through more efficient government and lower taxes, less cumbersome and repetitious regulatory regimes, and when our economic policies exhibit greater friendliness toward entrepreneurs and innovators.
With a better economy, fewer Atlantic Canadians will feel threatened by newcomers, whether they have arrived from the next county, or from the other end of the planet.
Marco Navarro-Genie is the President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS.ca). This comment is part of our continuing series on immigration to the Atlantic provinces.
Related reading: The Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy (Feb. 2014) – Section on “Immigration is Essential”