Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


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laws in recent years out of a desire to attract more skilled professionals, citizenship is still based on the very outdated European "blood and soil" concept.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.

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.
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.

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.


Steve V said...

A friend of mine went to Germany from Rwanda, during the genocide. He spent 6 years in the country, before he moved to Canada. It is really interesting to hear him compare the situation in Canada for immigrations as it compares to Germany- the bottomline in his mind, there is no comparison. Canada is a utopia to this man, he raves about our country in a way that makes you proud. He always felt like an alien in Germany, racism was overt and there was little "mixing". It's just one commentary, but it might be relevant to your post.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Oh, yeah, I absolutely think it's relevant. Despite all the immigrants, Germany has a lot of trouble thinking of itself as a "country of immigration." And they're only shooting themselves in the foot with that attitude, because it means the best and the brightest who want to emigrate go elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of this is a result of Canada being part of an empire - the British empire that had to redefined Britishness (and Canadians as a result, Canadianness) to deal with the contradictions what it means to be British post empire. This dynamic seemed strong even amongst the Scottish nationalist movement - when I lived in Edinburgh, I saw many, many references to "new Scots" (immigrants to Scotland) as the lifeblood of a re-emerging nation.

Germany never was an empire in the age of colonialism (though not for want of trying, as I understand it). And indeed, Germany united in the wake of being part of other European empires, asserting a smaller identity in contrast to a cosmopolitan imperical identity.

I recall an article on nationalism that deals with three models of citizen and national identity: "exclusionist" for Germany, "assimilationist" for France (an understanding of which makes Jacques Chirac's assessment that the Polynesians are French actually make sense in a bizarre sort of way), and "inclusionist" for Great Britain. You can probably guess the nationality of the author by their choice in titles for these models. Not surprisingly, I'm partial to the last, even if it came out of something quite malevolent (the British empire).

However, I'm still reluctant to make too much of these differences. Britain and Canada may extend citizenship to far more people and demand far less for it. (Indeed, in Great Britain, resident citizens of other Commonwealth countries can vote in elections, which was a surprise to me when I was mailed a ballot for a referendum on congestion charges!) But, as our history vis-a-vis the First Nations (which was the inspiration for South African apartied, another colony whose Britishness is often conveniently forgotten) shows, we're hardly above assigning differing levels of citizenship by blood and (stolen) soil.

Anonymous said...

hi IP - thanks for your post. just a little techincal thing though, Germany made some big changes to their citizenship laws in 1999 such that it is now possible to "become" German. Of course that takes nothing away from your points about the different ways people view immigrants and treat them. indeed, it adds to your observations - changing a law only goes so far if the culture or people don't change too.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Actually, as I understand it, the new legislation seems to only alter the law to the extent that it is now possible to acquire German citizenship as the result of being born in Germany, not as the result of coming there as an immigrant and deciding to make one's life there. Or do I read it incorrectly?

Anonymous said...

Hi IP,

I have a lot of relatives in Germany, who moved there from Afghanistan. Many have lived in Germany for over 10 years but only a few have their citizenships. Some have not decided to become citizens due to language barriers (don't ask) while others have a had a hard time even getting permanent residence status.

I visited Germany last April and one thing that stood out for me was the very definite segregation of the native Germans and the immigrant communities. This experience just made it even more clear to me what it means when we say Canada is a "cultural mosaic".

My family members there feel that, though they may have settled in Germany for life, they are still treated as outsiders and it seems that is not going to change any time soon. The more I spoke about the contrast between Canada and Germany to them the more they felt they should have come to Canada.

Germany is a beautiful country with lots of positives but it has some ways to go to become a comfortable home for foreign born Germans.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Thanks for your comments. Germany was the obvious choice for me, too, once I'd decided I didn't want to stay in the U.S. I speak the language more or less natively, I've traveled the country more than most Germans, and I've even spent enough of my life there that there's a part of me that feels German on top of everything else that I am. But the whole "they may be something terrific in their own right, but they just don't fit in here" attitude that I found toward any non-German who didn't blend in absolutely seamlessly was enough of a turnoff that after a while I started looking elsewhere. (Good thing, too!) Canada isn't perfect, but its ideals at least are almost 100% consistent with my own. That's something I wasn't sure I'd ever find.

West End Bob said...

Canadian citizenship is our ultimate goal after negotiating the maize of gaining Permanent Resident status.

One hurdle at a time is about all I can handle . . . :)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

west end bound,

That's okay--the citizenship process'll still be here when you get here! *grin*