I came of age politically as a teenager in Germany, and a lot of my baseline political assumptions stem from that place and time. This means that I kind of inevitably spend a lot of time in this blog talking about how Canadian politics doesn't live up to some of the political-cultural ideals I embraced there. But there are also a lot of areas where the reverse is the case. And the biggest and most obvious one is something that matters a great deal to me: immigration.
While Germany has laudably liberalized its immigration laws in recent years out of a desire to attract more skilled professionals, citizenship is still based on the very outdated European "blood and soil" concept. In other words, if you came to Germany from somewhere else, then you just aren't gonna be viewed as German, no way, no how. The result? To the huge waves of immigrants who have come to the country since the postwar period, Germany may be a place of opportunity, but it isn't a second home. They can't vote, so they have no voice. Integration is difficult, leading to huge schisms between the immigrant population and the native one. Oh, and then there are the many handwringing journalists wallpapering the editorial pages with laments about the perpetual failure to raise the German birth rate--a problem that could be solved so easily simply by redefining what it means to be "German."
This is the context in which I read this wonderful speech from Canada's own John Ralston Saul, given back in the spring of 2005 on the occasion of the new Canadian embassy in Berlin. The whole thing is just terrific, but here's the part that the Germans really need to hear:
So how do you deal with high levels of immigration when what you are isn't written down, this sort of unspoken and unwritten agreements of a civilization? The solution Canadians seem to have decided upon is to create a very positive atmosphere around becoming Canadian, which then produces a desire to belong.This rings remarkably true for me. I have a pretty inherent distrust of patriotism, and so I didn't really expect to feel more like I belonged in Canada after becoming a citizen. My decision to officially apply for citizenship was really more about gaining the right to vote than anything. But the process did change me, in subtle but profound ways. I'd always been engaged in Canadian life, but citizenship strengthened that engagement. I began saying 'we' when talking about Canada, without even thinking about it. And yes, I also began to feel a responsibility to this culture and society that I hadn't felt before--a responsibility to give something back to the country that had taken me on.
In other words, we look upon the idea of immigration as an invitation which carries with it the obligation. The invitation to come to Canada is an invitation to become a citizen; and we are extremely annoyed if people don't quickly become citizens. It's sort of an insult to us if they don't want to become citizens. They can become citizens after three years. Some do it after four years, most have done it within five years.
That sense that we want them to be part of our civilization is key to creating this atmosphere of belonging.
Obviously, as soon as an immigrant arrives, they have rights. But the trick is that as soon as they become citizens, they have responsibilities and obligations. If they know that the invitation to come to our country is going to involve obligations and responsibilities within three to five years, they're going to be very eager to seize them. They're going to speak out. They're going to join political parties. You may agree or disagree with some of what they'll say, and that's fine. The point is they're going to want to show that they belong and what they realize is that the invitation is conscious and intentional, not accidental or unconscious. They are chosen.
There's an awful lot we can learn from Germany and other European countries about things like political culture and sensible environment policies, but when it comes to immigration and 21st-century population issues, there's at least as much they can learn from us.