Canada needs vigilance on anti-immigration sentiments


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I’m back in Berlin after a weeklong, whirlwind tour of German cities. It was an MRI scan of a country facing and coping with major issues arising from the surge of nearly a million refugees who are settling in after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border response to the humanitarian crisis.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/09/2016 (2269 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I’m back in Berlin after a weeklong, whirlwind tour of German cities. It was an MRI scan of a country facing and coping with major issues arising from the surge of nearly a million refugees who are settling in after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-border response to the humanitarian crisis.

I am continuing my participation with the Robert Bosch Academy’s flagship program, the Richard von Weizsacker Fellowship, to examine the issue of global refugee migration. Let me highlight a few redeeming and not-so-redeeming moments of the tour. I should say at the outset there were more inspiring responses than dispiriting ones.

There was the optimistic, “can-do” attitude of several German mayors in large cities and smaller communities who were handling the local refugee settlement with aplomb and effectiveness. The warmth of many volunteers from church groups such as Caritas, the Catholic agency, who were reaching out to help the newcomers get a toehold in a new society, and the neighbourhood sports officials running a soccer camp for Syrian refugee kids, was heartwarming, showing good people come to the fore in a time of need.

KAY NIETFELD / DPA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Syrian refugees learn how to reconstruct houses at the education centre of the pioneer troop of the German military in Ingolstadt, Germany.

Vision is an apt descriptor for the family-owned high-tech firm Lapp Grupe in Stuttgart, which showed us around a training centre where young refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Iran and Cameroon were learning a trade in the expanding world of information technology. The downside, ruefully expressed by Lapp Grupe’s president, was only 20 other firms in the Stuttgart area, which generates 30 per cent of the economic drive of Germany, were following suit.

This private-sector initiative of one of Germany’s high-tech leaders ran counter to the stiff, inflexible attitude of senior representatives of both the public and private sectors at the federal level, who saw no need to adapt or change their way of doing business as a way of opening pathways to integration and employment for the newcomers. For the thousands of other enterprises, “too much paperwork” was the explanation for their lassitude. As a result, German industry is missing out on an opportunity to involve new workers.

More disturbing, there was a pervasive underlying worry the federal elections in the next year will be fought on the fears that have been generated by the efforts of small but vociferous extreme right-wing politicians suggesting Merkel’s humanitarian and responsible decision will pose a threat to German culture. Germany is in need of a strong, well-established immigration system to meet those fears. Canada can help by transferring parts of our well-honed immigration system.

At least, that’s what I thought until I had a chance to catch up on the news from home.

To my surprise and despair, I saw the media and pundits had picked up on the proposal by Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch advocating that whoever comes into Canada must be vetted on the basis of their adherence to Canadian values. This is an unmistakable appeal to the politics of hatred and fear calculated to divide us as a nation.

It now strikes me the purpose of my mission in Germany is no longer only to relate the benefits of the Canadian model but to use the experience of Germany to give a warning to Canadians.

We cannot let the ambitions and cynicism of Leitch and others like her kick-start a political “identity” war in Canada.

This is not an unwarranted concern. Germany has seen in the last months the rise of new anti-immigration parties that base their political perch on a diatribe against newcomers coming to their shore. As sociologist Zygman Bauman said recently in the New York Times: “Refugees end up all too often cast in the role of a threat to the human rights of established native populations, instead of being defined and treated as a vulnerable part of humanity in search of the restoration of those same rights of which they have been violently robbed.”

It’s good to see Leitch has been met with condemnation, especially by members of her own party. And it’s important to recall that in the waning days of the last federal election, efforts by then-prime minister Stephen Harper to begin playing the identity card were rebuffed by Canadian voters.

The lesson from Germany is to be aware of the threat posed by the virus of anti-immigrationists to the values that are the basis of our stability, unity, prosperity and success as a democratic society, and to confront the threat openly.

Our prime minister has it right when he says diversity, respect for differences, an acceptance of the rule of law, openness and tolerance are what the world needs now, which the Canadian model represents. Attempts by Leitch to undermine that model for the sake of garnering votes at a convention is a reprehensible act and should be treated as such.


Lloyd Axworthy is a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and is currently chairman of the CUSO board as well as fundraising to raise funds for inner-city kids at the University of Winnipeg Rec-Plex.



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