Just what is fu­elling the birthright de­bate?

The News (New Glasgow) - - OPINION - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

Maybe I over­re­acted.

But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s safe to play wait-and-see any more.

Last week, I wrote about the ways views are hard­en­ing against im­mi­gra­tion, in­clud­ing the way former Con­ser­va­tive MP Maxime Bernier has re­cently seized on the idea that this country may have “too much di­ver­sity,” along with the way his former Con­ser­va­tive coun­ter­parts also seem to be reach­ing out to­wards those with anti-im­mi­gra­tion views.

I’ve heard since then from sev­eral read­ers who ar­gue that class­ing that sort of dis­cus­sion as racist is un­fair. (At the same time, many of those read­ers also agreed with my ar­gu­ment that, in At­lantic Canada, we des­per­ately need im­mi­gra­tion to bol­ster sag­ging pop­u­la­tion num­bers.)

But, just as there are things that serve as dog whis­tles to cer­tain as­pects of the far-right — coded mes­sages that are meant specif­i­cally for their ears, and that oth­ers don’t eas­ily dis­cern — I think there are things that I’ve be­come hy­per-alert about, es­pe­cially when they sound like the be­gin­ning of nor­mal­iz­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion.

One of those is the ar­gu­ment that we should be able to de­bate ques­tions about im­mi­gra­tion with­out be­ing ac­cused of racism. That’s ab­so­lutely true — we should be able to de­bate them, as long as the de­bate is not be­ing used to cloak racism as some­thing it isn’t.

There’s noth­ing wrong with de­bate, if de­bate is re­ally what we’re talk­ing about. If the de­bate is re­ally “de-bait,” a way of coax­ing or con­vinc­ing a racist part of the elec­torate that you’re se­cretly on side with them, well, that’s dif­fer­ent.

If any­thing, though, a vote at the Con­ser­va­tive pol­icy con­ven­tion in Hal­i­fax makes me ques­tion if I wasn’t on the right track to some de­gree.

It was os­ten­si­bly about us­ing a large ham­mer on a small prob­lem. The Tories nar­rowly passed a res­o­lu­tion that would end the stan­dard of birthright ci­ti­zen­ship — in other words, the idea that, if you are born in Canada, you’re au­to­mat­i­cally a Cana­dian cit­i­zen.

If the Con­ser­va­tives were ac­tu­ally to en­act the pol­icy, it would mean that some­one born in Canada would only be Cana­dian if one of their par­ents was ei­ther Cana­dian or a per­ma­nent res­i­dent.

De­bate on the res­o­lu­tion cen­tred around con­trol­ling “birth tourism” — the idea be­ing that soon-to-be-par­ents might travel to Canada ex­pressly to have a child who will then have Cana­dian ci­ti­zen­ship. It’s not even clear how sig­nif­i­cant the num­ber of birth tourists there are; the B.C. hospi­tal that kept records of the largest num­ber of non-res­i­dent births last year listed 474 non-res­i­dent births.

My con­cern is that the mes­sage is some­thing else again — that, even if you’re born here, you’re not re­ally Cana­dian if your fam­ily’s not from here al­ready.

I ques­tion whether cre­at­ing two tiers of peo­ple born in Canada — one group who are cit­i­zens, another who are some­thing less — has less to do with “birth tourism” and more to do with ap­peal­ing to peo­ple who want a whiter Canada of old.

It makes me par­tic­u­larly dis­ap­pointed that the res­o­lu­tion was spon­sored by two New­found­land district as­so­ci­a­tions, St. John’s East and St. John’s South-Mount Pearl.

I think anyone who has watched the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate south of the bor­der re­al­izes that we have to stand on guard when it comes to some of the things that hide be­hind the mask of free speech.

By all means, peo­ple have the right to say them. That is the very na­ture of free speech.

I also think we have the right to call those words and their speak­ers out, es­pe­cially when those words cloak a darker in­tent.

But I agree — name call­ing, even if it’s me call­ing in­di­vid­u­als racist, isn’t enough.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 36 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@thetele­gram.com; Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

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