Imagine the Other: John Ralston Saul

July 22nd, 2011

John Ralston Saul, the International President of PEN International and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, invites us to re-think immigration policy as “citizenship policy.”

Photo Credit: Don Denton

Imagine the other. Most philosophy can be boiled down to those three words. The capacity to think beyond ourselves to the reality of others – their emotional state, their needs, their demons, their strengths – that is what takes a group of people to the status of civilization.

When I read most mainstream commentaries about immigrants and new Canadians, I am amazed by how much it is all about those of us born here. About us, not about the other. Of course we do need to talk about ourselves. We are the majority. More to the point, we are also each other’s other. And we have spent a lot of time putting this civilization together; centuries in fact. And we have produced a very unusual sort of democracy – non-monolithic – which suggests we have always had to embrace this idea of the other.

Yet even when the message at the heart of our commentaries is friendly to newcomers, there is an underlying concern that our carefully woven particularity might come apart. This isn’t surprising. Journalism is like the rest of society. It is dominated by the majority. So is academia. So are politics and the civil service. You could call this stability or social conservatism. And it isn’t particularly shocking so long as it isn’t driven by fear or populism, which are more or less the same thing.

But this concern with our possible fragility is odd in a society which invites the equivalent of one percent of [the Canadian] population to join us every year . This one percent puts us on the international cutting edge of social creativity. And eighty-five percent of those immigrants become citizens within five years.

These two facts put us in a very different frame of mind from our neighbours and our allies. The US figure is around forty percent. The Europeans are roiling with anxiety over single digit numbers.

So we really are out on the cutting edge when it comes to social construction, which is very exciting. We need to think of ourselves accurately as doing something exciting; a society creating new concepts of human fellowship.

I’ll give you a simple example of this. When we are looking around the world for that one percent we aren’t really looking for immigrants, we’re looking for citizens, for the simple reason that one becomes the other. Our immigration policy is really a citizen policy. Landed immigrant status is like getting engaged to get married. This is a philosophy – a national state of mind – which shapes all the rest.

Other countries are looking for migrants not immigrants, for workers who can be sent away; or they are endlessly debating the status of the outsider. Or they are looking for immigrants, but in a limited way, and they are doing so without fully embracing the citizenship half of the equation. Often, they think of the legalistic concept of nationality, rather than citizenship. Nationality is about getting the status which gives access to rights. This is a passive idea. Citizenship is supposed to be about an obligation to participate. It is active, not passive.

Citizenship means that the newcomer will be deeply changed. But so will the established citizen. Everyone will be faced with the need to deal with difference. That need to deal with the other obliges all of us to open up, to be more imaginative and hopefully more generous as humans.

But here is the point: this process has been with us for almost half a millennium. The first immigrants – largely from France and Scotland – were deeply changed by the dominant peoples here – the First Nations. The whole approach we have to immigration and citizenship has its roots in the aboriginal idea of being adopted into the circle. This is quite different from the Euro-US idea of the melting pot designed to produce a monolithic people.

Francophone society is fascinating in this context because it is probably the part of Canadian society most changed and shaped by the aboriginal point of view. And then it was changed by the Germans, Scots and Irish in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, just as those three were even more profoundly changed by the francophones. So the irony is that the part of Canadian society most often presented today as being nervous about that sort of change brought about by new Canadians is actually the part of society that invented our model of change. And so I would have to get that it is not nervous in any profound way.

Of course everyone must be vigilant about the place of French, just as we are about democracy and women’s rights and so on. But that has to do with the obligations of all citizens, not immigration. Historically, the threats to democracy and women’s rights have come more often from within than from newcomers.

So let me go back to the question of imagining the other. First, what do we expect from ourselves as citizens? Conscious engagement, courage, a sense of the needs of others. In this context, what can we say of the newcomers we have invited here to become citizens? For a start we know that they have chosen to change countries, to build new lives. They have done this for a variety of reasons. But surely this reality of making a choice demonstrates a remarkable level of consciousness and courage, a willingness to engage, an understanding that they will have to learn to live with the other – those already here.

What about those of us born here? Have we ever had to prove these qualities of citizenship? Rarely. Few of us have been faced with such daunting, radical changes in our lives. And so when we first try to imagine the other we may at first see complex cultural differences. But beneath these lies the far more fundamental characteristics of courage and consciousness, which represent a great contribution to our civilization.

John Ralston Saul’s most recent book is Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, in Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series. John Ralston Saul is the International President of PEN International and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

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