Migration – Then and Now

Anthropologists date the settlement of the globe from 60,000 years ago (58,000BC). At that time a small group of people migrated from Africa to begin colonizing the world, first to the shoreline of Asia and Australia, then about 40,000 years ago to the Middle East, India and China, then west to Europe and east to Siberia, and finally across the land bridge of Beringia to North, Central and South America about 12,000 years ago. Timing and location is based on DNA and genetic research findings that reveal the essential similar make-up of persons throughout the globe. Current research by the National Geographic Society in which individuals can participate documents these movements by tracing the presence of genes – see the genographic project at https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/lan/en/index.html

Today, we are all either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. This is especially true of countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, but also of the other more than 180 countries in the world today. The immigration issues that are discussed today are the contemporary versions of issues that have been present as long as people have moved from one place to another where others are already living. A difference today is that the world is divided into nation states with borders which governments attempt to control what passes across them by way of trade, investment, ideas and people.

The continuity of issues is illustrated for the US in Jeffrey Kaye’s excellent new book Moving Millions, How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley 2010). He recounts how the long-time residents of Hazelton, Pennsylvania are reacting today to the arrival of Hispanics in exactly the same way that in earlier times residents of neighbouring coal mining communities responded to the arrival of Slavic, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Italian, and Lithuanian miners from around 1875 to 1910. Their descendants have responded to the Hispanic invasion with the passage in 2006 of “one of the nation’s strictest anti-illegal immigration laws.”

Similar examples could be found in the Canadian experience. My forefathers emigrated from France to Scotland and England around 1066. I emigrated to Canada from the UK in the 1950s. Two children were born in Canada, one of whom has migrated to Asia, married a Thai, and we now have two Canadian-Thai grandsons who have Canadian passports. They may or may not return to live in Canada and become in a sense new Canadians. Many Canadian families have a similar mix of ethnicities and religions.

This long term view of immigration focuses on a set of factors which differs from what is served up on a daily basis in the media. Typical of today’s concerns in Canada and other countries who receive immigrants are:
• High levels of immigration at times of high unemployment
• Immigration as a way to address the demographic deficit of an ageing population and low birth rate in many countries
• The costs of integrating immigrants into Canadian society – government funding of immigrants versus tax revenues collected.
• The difficulty of comparing foreign to Canadian credentials and of getting foreign credentials recognized in Canada
• The contribution of immigrant entrepreneurs to the economy
• The humanitarian responsibilities of Canada to accept asylum seekers
• The importation of foreign conflicts to Canada via the diasporas resident here
• The presence of illegal migrants in Canada
• The passage of mainly illegal immigrants from Canada to the US and from the US to Canada, associated at times with the drug and arms trade. This can lead to a thickening of the Canada-US border with adverse implications for all forms of trade and investment.
• The operation of religious based court systems for certain groups
• Public support for religious based schools

All of the above and more are the daily diet of public discourse in Canada. More immediate examples of edgy issues that receive attention in the daily press include:
• The treatment of Muslim women by their families such as the case of the father and son who murdered the daughter (sister) who did not conform to Muslim practices.
• Female circumcision especially when it takes place in Canada, but not male circumcision
• Clothing issues such as wearing the burqua and nijab by women in public places and headgear worn by Sikh Mounties
• Tamil and Sinhalese protests in Canada regarding conflicts in Sri Lanka
• The operation of ethnic gangs in Canadian cities, for example Chinese in Vancouver, Tamil in Toronto and Somali in Ottawa.

These examples mirror those that took place at earlier times with Irish Canadians protesting British treatment of Ireland, Italian Canadians involved in criminal gang activities linked to the Mafia abroad, the treatment of Chinese and Japanese Canadians during WWII, restrictions on acceptance of Jews during the war, and protests conducted by the Doukhobors and other ethnic and religious groups in Canada. As well, the underlying characteristic of Canada has always been the French-English divide illustrated today by the Bloc Quebecois, a federal political party supported by Canadian taxpayers and with a mandate to dismantle the Canadian federation.

There is no shortage of examples past and present that reflect the multi-ethnic make-up of the country. Most commentators seem to think that Canada has done a reasonable job of addressing these fault lines through compromise and negotiation. Individuals have contributed through common schooling and intermarriage so that second and third generation Canadians and their families are less tied to their roots.

One difference today than say 20 years ago is that immigrants can come to Canada and more readily retain ties to their homelands. Transportation and communication costs have fallen making linkages easier to maintain. Allowance for dual citizenship has weakened the ties to any one country so that immigrants are invited to make their home in Canada but support a second home and ties abroad. Hong Kong Chinese came to Canada before the colony was returned to China in 1997, bought homes here, left their children to attend Canadian schools while the parents returned to carry on their businesses in Hong Kong.

In sum, the issues we place under the microscope on a daily basis are different, not necessarily more or less relevant, than those looked at through a telescope to the past. Today’s global distribution of peoples would not exist if our forebears had not continually engaged in a process of migration from one place to another driven by forces of need, ambition, exploration, greed and physical violence. All Canadians are immigrants of some generation, even aboriginal peoples who travelled across the land bridge from Siberia. How we look at today’s issues often depends on where we sit.


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