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Opinion: Why ideas and not identities should matter 

Commentary

The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy is a new policy think tank focused on Canadian civil society, democracy, and the country’s foundational ideas and values. Its first major output is an essay compilation entitled The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished—Not Cancelled. The Hub is pleased to publish weekly excerpts from the book’s essays over the coming weeks.


Ideas can change the trajectory of individuals and entire nations. From Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” which helped spread free market ideas and prosperity, to the opposite notions of Karl Marx which spurred revolutions, repression, and entrenched poverty, to religious conceptions of any variety which have anchored cultures, ideas affect how people see and govern themselves and each other. Ideas have impacts that outlast armies and empires.

Immigrants, likewise, can have a profound effect upon the culture and direction of any nation-state, given they are “carriers” of ideas and can actualize them by changing societal assumptions and, in liberal democracies, voting patterns. It is significant, for example, that early Chinese immigrants to the west coast of North America in the mid-nineteenth century came from an entrepreneurial region of China and carried a penchant for starting businesses with them to California and British Columbia. 

Given the importance of ideas and immigration, it is worthwhile to examine the flow of both.  Whether one’s ancestors arrived 20,000 years ago, or were from mainly European “stock” and arrived in the last 500 years, or came from any other part of the globe since the 1970s, the origins and changes in Canada’s demographic make-up matter, as do the reactions of other Canadians to that mix. That is because a nation-state must unite diverse people around a conception of the “good life” and must agree on a way to govern itself. Making such decisions necessitates some minimum agreement on what the “good life” and “good government” means and how it is actualized in policy. 

During the first few decades after Confederation, the overwhelming share of Canada’s foreign-born population came from the British Isles, Europe, and Scandinavia. Those regions accounted for over 88 percent of Canada’s foreign-born population in 1871. A full century later, that proportion had declined only marginally, to just under 80 per cent as of 1971. 

Starting in the early 1970s, the composition of the immigrant population changed significantly. The growth of non-European immigration source countries since 1971 has transformed the ethnic origins of the foreign-born population in Canada, as well as the overall population mix. By 2016, the traditional source of immigrant stock, i.e., mainly European and British, declined to just under 28 per cent.

As a proportion of all immigrants, those from Europe, Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, and the United States form a smaller share of all foreign-born immigrants than at any time in Canada’s history, while the proportion from Asian countries is noticeably higher. Immigrants from Asia alone accounted for over 48 per cent of Canada’s foreign-born population as of 2016. By 2036, the forecast is that Asian-born immigrants will comprise 57 per cent of Canada’s foreign-born population. Before 1971, just over 12 per cent of immigrants were a visible minority but as of 2021, 83 per cent of recent immigrants were projected to be in that cohort. 

The religious composition of immigrants has also changed. Prior to 1971, 78 percent of those who immigrated to Canada identified themselves as Christian. That proportion has declined ever since. After 2001, over 36 per cent of immigrants between the ages of 25 and 54 were of a non-Christian faith, just over 38 per cent identified as Christian, and nearly 26 per cent said they had no religious affiliation.

Immigration and integration 

The most widely recognized indicator of successful socialization is the participation of immigrants in the labour market (the proportion of that cohort working or searching for a job). The closer that level is to the overall level for a native-born population, the more successfully are immigrants integrated into the society. 

For example, in France, the labour force participation rate for the foreign-born population stood at 67 percent in 2019, a low compared with other countries. In Canada, the labour force participation rate for the foreign-born cohort was higher than in most G7 countries at just over 79 percent, 12 points higher than France.

The positive rates are also clear in higher employment rates and lower unemployment rates for foreign-born persons in Canada when compared with other G7 countries. For example, the unemployment rate for foreign-born people in Canada was 6.3 percent in 2019 compared with 5.5 percent for native-born Canadians. That is a marginal difference and can be explained by language difficulties, accreditation for skills, adjustments to a new country, and differing average education levels, among other factors. 

The difference in unemployment rates between foreign-born and native-born in Canada is small particularly when compared with Germany, where the unemployment rate for those born outside the country is more than double that for native-born Germans. 

This integration success for immigrants and visible minorities is supported by acceptance data on migrants from a 2019 poll. It found that among 145 countries, Canada ranks as the most accepting country for migrants, at about five times the acceptance rate of the least welcoming countries for immigrants worldwide. That, too, is another measure of success, of social harmony among most Canadians. 

The foregoing is positive. But back to the question of how to unite people with diverse origins around a shared set of positive ideas. 

Given that Canada’s population will be increasingly ethnically dissimilar to that of the past and, depending on the assumptions of new immigrants, traditional Canadian mores could be weakened or strengthened. As economist Thomas Sowell points out, the history of humanity has been one of testing and sharing ideas over time. He notes that a critical factor in economic and other aspects of a successful cohort or country is “the cultural receptivity of different peoples” to tried, true, and successful ideas both on a grand, country-wide scale and on an individual scale.

It is critical for present and future Canadians to unite around ideas which make possible human freedom and flourishing and discard poor ones that can lead to the opposite ends. That imperative makes an implicit and positive case for all Canadians to focus not on identities that are unchangeable, but on laudable ideas that can be shared by all. 

Howard Anglin: A return to order: Canada is crumbling—And our leaders’ solutions are delusionally wrong 

Commentary

It has become common in writing about politics to regret our lack of state capacity, which means that our government no longer has the expertise to carry out complex tasks like implementing a new payroll system or running a safe and efficient transit system. Unable to do difficult but ordinary things, we cannot even contemplate truly ambitious enterprises. We could not, for example, even consider building a new Trans-Canada railway—we can barely twin an existing pipeline across one and a half provinces. But there is a related political problem that is almost as debilitating as state incapacity, and that is state impotence. Even when a problem and its solution are clear and government has the capacity, our leaders are paralysed, not unable but unwilling to act. Some combination of moral cowardice or intellectual confusion has left our governing class is afraid to use the power of the state to protect citizens and uphold civil order. And a government that is stricken with state incapacity and state impotence, that will not or cannot use the power it has, is no better than a government without power, which is no government. 

In 1956, with the British government facing malaise at home and humiliation abroad, the Daily Telegraph seized on a favourite gesture of Prime Minister Anthony Eden: “To emphasize a point, he will clench one fist to smack the open palm of the other hand—but the smack is seldom heard. Most Conservatives … are waiting to hear the smack of firm Government.” The phrase was used again in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s government was described as administering a similarly emphatic corrective when circumstances demanded it. It is time to revive the sentiment, if not the phrase. We need governments unafraid to wield power: the power to enforce the law and to pass new laws as required; the power to insist on order and, when necessary, impose it.

This is the second of two companion pieces, one focused on recent French civil unrest and the other on civil decay here in Canada, each one asking governments to shake themselves out of their political lassitude and enjoin a return to order.

A Return to Order: Canada

Even the dwindling number of partisans who still bristle at the claim that Canada is broken must admit that it sure looks and feels that way. Life in Canadian cities is noticeably coarser, uglier, and more violent than it was just a few years ago. Places once known for their civic beauty like Victoria, where I grew up, are now defaced by parks and city blocks that would be considered embarrassing in the third world. It doesn’t help that this street-level squalor has spread incongruously in the shadow of gleaming new glass and steel apartment towers, which contribute in their own way to a growing feel of social division and alienation in what was, until very recently, still mostly a city of wood, stone, and brick built on a human scale.

It’s the same story in my Calgary neighbourhood, where a drug consumption site has been a magnet for crime and delinquency since it opened in 2018.The CBC covered the opening by “reporting” that “Calgary’s first permanent, supervised consumption site is set to open downtown on Monday, offering ‘welcoming, warm, inclusive services’ for people in the community.” It’s this sort of witless credulity that tempts one to question just how vital the fourth estate really is to a flourishing society. In 2019, the new UCP government (for which I worked) promised to shut it down, but it’s still there and the neighbourhood has visibly deteriorated even as a hyaline forest of condominium towers has grown up around it. Last week I walked through Calgary’s Central Memorial Park—a gem of urban design—and every single park bench was occupied by a sleeping or unconscious derelict. The close-mowed grass was a parking lot for overflowing shopping carts and the flowerbeds were littered with discarded squares of burnt tin foil. 

This problem is not unique to Canada. Cities from Los Angeles and New York to London and Paris are as bad or worse. Portland, Oregon, another historically beautiful city where I lived briefly in the early 2000s, now rivals Vancouver’s reputation as a progressive laboratory for incubating social pathologies. But a global problem cannot wait for a global solution: it is up to each city and each province to tend its own garden. Bad policies in Portland or San Francisco don’t excuse similarly bad policies in Canadian cities. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to municipal government it can also be the deadliest form of apathy. 

Optimists are quick to point out that our urban problems are still mild compared to the decay of American cities in the 1970s, when gas shortages and double-digit inflation crippled the economy, garbage piled up in the streets, left-wing radicals set off a wave of bombings, and crime was so bad that whole sections of major cities became no-go areas for residents at night. By the 1980s, water pollution, smog, and abandoned buildings had given urban landscapes a dystopian comic-book feel, and it was generally agreed that some major cities were simply ungovernable. If American cities were able to come back from that, they reason, we can recover from this.

The optimists are right about the past: things did get better, mostly as a result of economic growth and a focus on data-driven police work. But being right about the past is not a particularly difficult trick, and it doesn’t mean we should trust the optimists about the future. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of where the impetus for social regeneration will come from this time—in Canada or America. It is just as plausible that a body politic weakened by the last illness is more likely to succumb to the next. If there are such things as social antibodies to disorder, we don’t seem to have developed them. Instead, the moral resolve of our governing class has weakened to the point that it is an open question whether they believe our civilisation deserves to survive.

Volunteers Chaz Smith, right, distributes aid to a homeless man in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

One thing is certain: if we want renewal—economic, aesthetic, intellectual, or moral—the people who created the problem cannot be trusted with the solution. There is no hope for urban regeneration as long as our leaders continue to listen to the same activists and academics whose advice undermined the moral and legal foundations of our society and set us on the path to, if not yet collapse, then widespread hopelessness. Most experts only ever manage to be wrong in theory, their ideas confined to specialist journals where they can be safely ignored, but these experts were given the opportunity to experiment on real communities and real lives, and they demonstrated conclusively just how catastrophic their ideas can be in practice.

The conditions of our city streets after a generation of policy-making by our current experts should be a national scandal. But instead of responding with outrage and action, our governing class has doubled down on their failures, insisting that the right of every Canadian to squat semi-comatose in filth is such an essential component of human dignity that we cannot question it, let alone intervene. Human rights, they say, require us to supply the severely mentally ill and the addicted with the drugs to fry their brains and then abandon them to collapse alone in alleys. The reasonable desire of residents to feel safe in local streets and parks is met with impatience, as though the concerns of the law-abiding are an irritant to the lawless, and not the other way around. And all this, we are told, is the compassionate policy choice.

They are wrong, delusionally and demonstrably. A policy that perpetuates the immiseration of people who—as these same activists and academics like to remind us—are incapable of making better choices for themselves, is profoundly immoral. This incapacity, remember, is the rationale for treating homelessness and addiction as matters of health care policy rather than criminal enforcement, which is all well and good as long as the people suffering from those problems actually receive the substantial health care they need. Instead, the repudiation of law enforcement as a solution has become an excuse for doing the absolute bare minimum to keep them alive, and even less to improve the neighbourhoods around the well-funded drug sites and NGO offices. 

It is time to face the fact, now surely undeniable, that there are far too many people who should not be at large in our downtown streets. It is neither compassionate to the severely mentally ill and the drug addicted nor considerate to the people they menace to persist with the current policy of negligent indulgence. Some should be locked up for serious criminality; others (the majority) should be treated for their conditions for as long as that takes, and only let back into society when they no longer pose a threat to themselves or others. Some may be able to participate in community-based recovery programs when they are ready, but many others should be cared for outside the community, humanely and permanently. 

Providing high-quality recovery programs and institutional care would be expensive, but I expect that downtown residents and businesses would be willing to pay almost any cost to recover their neighbourhoods. The police, freed up from responding to multiple daily calls caused by the same few repeat offenders, would then have time to enforce other laws that would further improve the quality of life in our cities, stopping violent crime as well as low-grade anti-social behaviour, and clearing the clouds of pot smoke in public parks. Contrary to what we are told by our experts, restoring public order is not hard; governments have the legal tools to overcome activist objections to returning order to our streets. All it would take is the one thing our governing class lacks—the will to do it.