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Russell Wangersky: Just what is fuelling the birthright debate?

Participants in North Rustico’s boat parade were in a festive mood with many of the boats, and people, decked out in Canadian flags. The town saw a massive Canada Day celebration that began with a street parade down Main Street and also included activities and entertainment at Seawalk Park before ending with a fireworks display.
Celebrating Canada Day 2018 in North Rustico, P.E.I. The Conservative Party of Canada narrowly passed a resolution at last week’s convention in Halifax that would change the definition of who could call themselves Canadian. — SaltWire Network file photo

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 centered 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.

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.

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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