Tom Denton
Keynote address
CCR Consultation, Calgary
November 21, 2002

Missing Imperatives

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this evening.  There is no greater honour than an invitation from one's peers. There is no greater temptation to pass on a message than at one's retirement (and this is mine from your Executive), and there can be no greater occasion than the 25th anniversary of this remarkable institution. So I am both humbled and intimidated by this opportunity.  I hear that when Brian Mulroney speaks his fee is $40,000. My recompense this evening is the honour you have done me; it is more than sufficient and I am deeply grateful.

I have been around refugee work for 23 of the CCR's (Canadian Council for Refugees) 25 years.  Some of you I know have been around it longer. Like many, my first involvement was through arranging a sponsorship for Vietnamese "boat people" back in the late ‘seventies.  For the past eighteen years, the compelling nature of refugee work has consumed most of my time and energy.  I am still totally immersed in it, and  I don't really expect that to change.

It wasn't easy to think of a topic for this evening. The issues that absorb us these days are so much in the public eye, and so changing and developing, almost daily, with updates on the Internet, that it is difficult to offer a timely analysis. So I decided to go outside the usual, and offer something else.

My topic this evening is "Missing Imperatives".  I guess it's the message I feel compelled to pass on - as I pass on (A reference to my leaving the CCR Executive.  I am in perfectly good health.).

An imperative is "an essential or urgent thing". The CCR by its very nature is always reacting to imperatives, things like the Safe Third Country Issue, the people in undocumented limbo.  Every time we meet there are issues demanding attention and our earnest responses or interventions.  We do thoughtful study and we take our reasoned positions to the government, to the public, to meetings in Switzerland.  We seek to effect change or at least to modify the difficult. That is what the CCR does -   and we do it very well.  Over my years as a CCR watcher and participant, this fine institution has grown in stature and in influence, and it is today a voice to be listened to and a force to be reckoned with  -  a voice to be listened to and a force to be reckoned with - ;  I have just ended two phrases with a preposition. That's a warning that what lies ahead is not in the realm of the conventional.

I think we've been missing some imperatives, some essential or urgent things, and I want to raise three of them  for your consideration this evening.  This is in no way intended as criticism, for here at the CCR we can't do everything, and we do have to do first things first.  Let's just say I want to offer some food for thought, and to pull from the periphery to the centre of your attention, if only for a few minutes, three things you may see as "off the wall", or "outside the box".

The first imperative

What's a man worth?  What's a woman worth?  Let's start with "What's a child worth?"  The last thing that will enter your head is monetary value.  You may think of the delight of children, how they fill and fulfill our lives, how they represent the future of our family, or community, or country.  But certainly not their annual earnings. So, what's a man or a woman worth?

The all-too-pervasive tendency is to measure people by their earnings.  The raw data is readily available.  StatsCan (Statistics Canada, a Canadian government agency) has it.  Legions of statisticians and economists within academia and without, have access to it.  They can tell us the average income, the median income, the range of incomes -  by gender or geography.  They can tell us the groups that pay the taxes, who's getting hosed the most, who's getting the best ride.  With access to income and tax data, age and gender data , education, place of birth and place of  residency, all sorts of analyses can be made of the Canadian population, and conclusions can be drawn.  Of the usefulness of this research there can be no doubt.

StatsCan has been tracking immigrants for over twenty years, wedding their dates of arrival with their annual tax returns, so data analysis can tell us how well successive immigrant cohorts are doing financially relative to the general population.  And we read that more recent immigrants are not doing as well, or catching up as quickly, as earlier generations of newcomers.  Not only does this cause expressions of concern, but it adds fuel to the anti-immigration arguments of the likes of Daniel Stoffman, Diane Francis, and Martin Collacott who have been in print recently.

So I return to my question: "How much is a man or woman worth?  How much are you worth?"  I'm looking out over an audience largely composed of refugee advocates, settlement workers, members of religious orders - not a group known for high wages.  Do you for one minute consider that your value to our Canadian society is properly measured in the dollars you earn?  Your earnings may be of statistical interest, but the contribution you are making goes far beyond your income, and is expressed in the lives you touch, and help; in the kind of decent, caring and accommodating  society you are helping to build and to maintain.

I was struck by this last week when I arranged for a few hundred of Winnipeg's home care workers to have training workshops in the facilities of my church. As I observed them, and on occasion overheard conversations, I realized that the great majority were immigrants.  Now, home care workers in Winnipeg are not highly paid.  In fact one might say they are  poorly paid. They are dragging down the averages.  They are confirming negative stereotypes about immigrants.  But as I reflected on the great value of their service throughout our community, on the lives they touch, and help, I could not imagine how we would do without them.

There are countless examples as you well know.  Every person's work has value, every person's work has an essential quality, whether expressed as part of an economic system (developed or underdeveloped) or as part of a social system.  Every person has value, whether a part of the conventional world of work or not.  Think of the legions of children and of the retired. Canadian society is a complex construction.  There are 31 million moving parts.  They each have an interconnectedness. They each have an essential quality.

So why am I hammering away at what is obvious, at least obvious now that it has come off the wall, and to mind?

Because we are not saying it!  We are for example, letting the naysayers characterize immigrants and especially refugees in negative economic terms. They are an underclass.  They drag down the averages.  They could be a drain on the public purse. Let me hasten to say that this in no way is intended to criticize the research, academic and otherwise, that analyzes and reports on the data.  That would be like shooting the messenger.  But we are letting a spin be placed upon it that not only is highly prejudicial to our client constituency, it is in my view - infantile economics.

I find it interesting that lately I have been hearing criticism of the past techniques of data analysis as they pertain to the measuring of success of more recent immigrant arrivals.  The techniques, so I hear, need to take into account such things as the performance of the economy during the various cohort arrivals, the unemployment rate at the time and how the general population was doing, etc. etc.  All well and good.  But the point is still being missed.

Every person's work has value .  Every person's place in a human society has validity.
In a  fundamental way there is no ultimate logic in valuing people according to their earnings, as though by lopping off, say, the bottom third, one could somehow improve the economy.  In a fundamental way, you are at this very moment just as essential as the CEO of Nortel  - and just as replaceable if circumstance dictates.

The "missing imperative" is the need to express a more comprehensive and philosophical view of the worth of each person.  Let that philosophical view be religious if you like and for God's sake, say it!  Let's get beyond the mundane and the demeaning  - reflected in such expressions as "immigrants take the jobs nobody wants", or "our factories would fold if no one would work for low wages". Let's remember that all work is necessary   -  and valuable because of it. Let's advocate that all should therefore be respected.  And let's call to account those who would denigrate newcomers on a ill founded socio-economic basis.

A couple of extensions of the socio-economic put-down should be noted.  The first is the notion recently expressed, that Canada is putting too much emphasis on family reunification.  Family membership after all has no means or ability test.  Reuniting members may make no significant or immediate economic contribution, or it may drag down the averages, or be a drain, etc. etc.  I find this kind of argument to be absolutely gross.  Not only  does it fly in the face of basic principles of successful settlement for those already here, not only is it a short-sighted and simplistic view of economic consequences, but it is a denial of the most fundamental human values.  What kind of monsters would argue such a thing and seek to suppress family reunification as a tool of immigration policy?   They are an embarrassment to the human race, not to mention their own mothers.

The second extension of the socio-economic put-down is trickier, more subtle, more insidious, and relentlessly pervasive.  It is everywhere, in common speech and in immigration strategies.  Many of you may just accept it as a given.

We have heard for years that Canada's immigration policy is a "labour market strategy".  Well, let it be so.  Never mind that this reflects a very limited vision for this country, never mind that it has always been clumsily and imperfectly applied  - a blunt instrument at best  - , never mind that we still haven't come even close to working out the problems of credentials recognition and the opposition to it of vested interests, never mind that the strategy has ignored the problem of regional dispersion and retention of immigrants.  Let's just for the moment accept at least the historical truth that Canada's immigration policy for years has been primarily a labour market strategy.

The problem comes with the sub-text.  The labour market strategy requires "skilled immigrants". Every time you turn around you find some politician affirming that we need "skilled immigrants".  It's the way they assuage the prejudices of the uninformed and bigoted  against an aggressive immigration strategy, much in the same manner that tighter border controls are justified as a mechanism to keep out the terrorists.  "We need skilled immigrants". It has become so much the conventional wisdom through repetition, that business leaders echo it, and so does the person on the street. It's a mantra.  The corollary of course is that if you come via the refugee route or the family reunification route rather than by the independent immigration route, you won't or aren't likely to have the so-called skills, and hence are headed for the underclass.  I want to challenge this.

Well, I am not the first to challenge this.  There is a remarkable new book out, information about which I posted on the CCR listserv recently.  It's called "Thinking the Unthinkable; the Immigration Myth Exposed" by Professor Nigel Harris of the United Kingdom (Publisher: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd. In the USA and Canada distributed by St. Martin's Press 175 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10010.  ISBN 1 86064 672 7 hardback; ISBN 1 86064 671 9" paperback).  Professor Harris notes that only beginning with the 20th century have there been immigration controls.  The argument for controls stems from the belief that richer countries will be swamped by a tidal wave of migrants if you don't have them. He argues that, quite simply, this is not true.  So he argues that we should bring all barriers down, and that immigration is the lifeline of the developed world's economy.  Interestingly, he also argues that immigration may be the final safeguard against racism, nationalism and intolerance.  I think he could have added that few dictatorships could be sustained if people could vote with their feet.

It's refreshing to read this book.  We are so assailed with the protectionist arguments of people like Stoffman, Francis, and Collacott; we are so accustomed to the conventional wisdom embodied in the status quo of immigration laws, that when someone comes along who can think outside the box, it's like a breath of fresh air.  Everyone who has any interest or involvement in immigration should read this book.

As Professor Harris develops his thesis, along the way he drops some jewels.  He argues that what a service-based economy like ours needs is "unskilled workers".  He notes that words like "skilled" and "unskilled" have an arbitrary quality and reflect terminology he calls "primitive".  He says, and I quote:  "Each country's workforce is composed of a mix of skills, competencies and experience; a complex of interdependent aptitudes.  It is in a state of constant change as technology and people's demands any one moment, a large number of workers are, in one sense, "unskilled".  Yet this unskilled workforce alone makes it possible for the skilled to work.  Without it there is no economy and no high productivity."

Read the book.  It will change your thinking.  But the point I am making here is that slavish adherence to the Skilled Worker mantra may not only be an intellectually simplistic and even invalid construct, as Professor Harris argues, it tends to create a kind of class structure in terms of how society views immigrants.  It denies my "imperative" that the CCR, and all of us, should always advance the truth, not only that all persons are created equal, but that all person's are of value and make their essential contribution to Canadian society irrespective of skills or income level.

The second imperative

My second "missing imperative" is one I had the chance to introduce to a few when last we met in St. John's, and to more through the medium of an article I had published in a national church magazine in October (Presbyterian Record, October 2002).  I want to repeat it here.  And by the way, since the "faith caucus" of the CCR has no formal workshop slated for this consultation, this will be my offering in lieu.

There is a familiar story in the Book  of Acts in the Christian scriptures that has a modern parallel, a CCR parallel, a refugee advocate parallel. The story is about the Apostle Paul in Athens, upset by noticing how full of idols the city was. When he stood to speak in front of the city council he said, "I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious."  The story continues with the clever Paul observing that among their many places of worship was an altar to the "Unknown God" - the one that as a matter of fact he had come to proclaim. And he did.

I suppose there are many modern parallels, but one in particular comes to mind. We have worked for many years on behalf of refugees that are now here in Canada or still overseas. Often their claims for refugees status have yet to be determined. Tragically, many times overseas they are found not to have refugee status by Canada's officers in our posts abroad. Practically speaking, there is no appeal and hopes are dashed. I have heard of some who then committed suicide.

But here in Canada we have an elaborate process for making and hearing a refugee claim, supported usually by legal counsel and with mechanisms for review and appeal, albeit imperfect and controversial ones.  But again, people lose. Claims are rejected and deportations are ordered. Sometimes there is great public outcry when a particular case gains notoriety because natural justice or common humanity seem to be ignored.

Organizations like the CCR, or the Canadian Bar Association, or perhaps others you represent, have often been effective in bringing about modifications to the severity or inappropriateness of laws and regulations affecting refugees and refugee claimants. We have even intervened in landmark cases before the courts.

Always our arguments are founded upon things like the Canadian Charter of Rights, various international Conventions, Canadian jurisprudence derived from statutes or case law, natural justice or common sense. There are many useful and wonderful altars in the array of human rights tools.  They have served us well.

Can it be said, however, that human rights activism (as vital as it is) has taken the play away from religion, from faith.  Can it be that the faith convictions of Muslims, of Baha'is, of Hindus, or Jews, or Sikhs, or Buddhists, or yes indeed, Christians  -  and the activism this should inspire -   have been replaced or subverted by human rights agendas?

I can only pretend to any expertise about one of these faiths, but I am willing to bet that all embrace concepts of a larger justice that is centered on humanity and compassion; that welcomes the stranger; and that knows that in helping others it is we ourselves who are helped. These are not 20th or 21st century concepts.  These are concepts that are rooted in hundreds or thousands of years of the history of our faith.

Paul could observe, "I see that in every way you Canadians are very just and fair-minded."  But he would know that people of faith have a broader mandate. Their message transcends and rises above the gospel of human rights and civil liberties. It is a message of compassion, of forgiveness, of grace, of hope, of treating one's neighbour as oneself.

But when it comes to refugees, it is not a message I hear being proclaimed loudly by our national churches, mosques, temples and synagogues, where it matters, before the councils of the nation and in the courts of public opinion.  The faith witness in defense of the dispossessed, the hurting, the frightened, the desperate is too often strangely muted, perhaps compromised by fear or expediency in a secular age.  It is as though people of faith have become content to be worshipers at all the other human rights altars, and to let theirs be the Unknown  God once again.

People of faith need to become courageous exponents of a larger vision, like Paul in Athens. They need to be unashamed of taking stands that are rooted in the great tenets of their faith, to proclaim them and to give witness to their fullest meaning.  It is often the strength of our faith-based convictions that fuels our passion for this work.  So let's say it.  When the thing is wrong, let's name the wrong and the wrongdoer. Let's dust off the word "evil".

( Parenthetically, and with my tongue somewhere in the vicinity of my cheek, I recall that when Marty (Marty Dolin, Executive Director, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, Winnipeg) and I, a few years ago, made a presentation in Winnipeg to a Parliamentary Committee including Madame Robillard who was the Minister of Immigration at the time, I told her I intended to fight her evil empire to my dying day.  Everybody laughed.  I know there are many wonderful people who work for Canada Immigration, and many are my friends.  I guess I would rather have them there than be replaced by the truly awful  -  some of whom already work there.  But then, nice Ontario farmers grow tobacco).

Well, I digress.  But the point I want to leave you with is that if you have faith-based convictions that undergird your work for refugees and immigrants, don't let the failure to name them become a "missing imperative".  Use them as a launching pad for effective missiles. You might say,  "Your decision, Mr. Coderre, is an offense to my Christian principles, and it is a denial of your own!"    Try it.

The third imperative

And finally, the third "missing imperative".  Population policy.

What is becoming a hot topic these days?  The papers are full of it.  Books are being published.  The CCR list is full of it.  Debates are raging.  Immigration.  Yes or no?  How much?  What kind?  Where will we direct it?  My buddy Marty and I tried for two years to get the topic of population policy to the resolution stage at the CCR, and only succeeded with difficulty to get one passed in our Toronto meeting a year ago.  We had been trying to give our then president Francisco (Francisco Rico-Martinez) a tool so that he could at least discuss the topic with Ottawa.  Francisco wanted it.  We were all ahead of our time  - a strange thing for two old guys, and a third who is getting there.

While we all fight in the trenches in our day-to-day battles over Safe Third Country, Identity Documents, Algerian Deportations, Processing Backlogs, we cannot ignore the big picture.  Where is all this to take us as a nation?  Where should it take us?  Where do you want it to take us?  Are the nation's demographers and the Auditor General (Chapter 6 of the report of the Auditor General to Parliament, 1998) right, or is Diane Francis right?  Is the view from a burgeoning Toronto right, or the view from a struggling Winnipeg?  Can we hold the nation together if most everyone lives in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary while the hinterlands are depleted?  These are very big questions, and they ultimately go to the heart of what the CCR is and does.  Our future will be impacted by them.  We cannot ignore them.

I'm not going to wade into the numbers debate tonight, and the regional dispersion and retention case is getting a half-day workshop tomorrow.  I do want to make two points.

The first is that it is imperative Canada have a vision of where it is heading.  I have spoken on this before, here in Calgary. If we shlep along the way we've been going, our birth rate falling, our population aging, our immigration aiming toward the annual one percent figure, all sides to the debate seem to agree that we are going to peak at 37 million around 2040, and then begin to slide.  Who knows if we can handle the aging demographic within this numerical trend, but let's say we can through some combination of greater productivity, working longer, or migrant workers.  Who knows if we can staff our industries and prevent them from migrating to where the workers are in a free trading world, but let's say we can.  Is that what we want?  Is that all there is?

You have heard repeatedly of Prime Minister Laurier's bold statement way back in 1910 that the 20th century would belong to Canada, when he anticipated a population of 100 million by the century's end.  I was struck by this the other day when I listened to Governor General Adrienne Clarkson's luncheon address to the Queen in Rideau Hall (October 14, 2002).  I obtained a copy of her remarks.  This is part of what she said:

"The 20th century has been said to be Canada's century.  Not in hugely dramatic terms  - we will never be a dominant world power nor do we seek such a thing.  No, we offer something else.  A society that reached accommodation in its own way, having the physical space and room to let people work out how to live their own lives and live together."

An arresting paragraph.  It certainly represents a capitulation from Laurier's time. An apology for failure?  One could question how well we have "reached the accommodation" of which she spoke.  But does the essence of that paragraph represent a national consensus of where we want to be, or did we just shlep into that one too?

I don't think we have any vision of where we are going.  Maybe that's good enough.  It certainly seems to be reflected in  the current immigration policy.  But I am reminded of the old quote from the Book of Proverbs, "Where there is no vision the people perish."  Does this suggest the imperative nature of a population policy?  Well, why would it?  Let me make a suggestion as to why  -   my other point.

Look south my friends.  But before you do, for a moment take solace in the fact that Canada has the highest rate of immigration in the developed world as a percentage of its existing population.  That should assuage your worries, or so says Ms. Francis.  Piffle.  Remember the old adage that "figures don't lie but liars will figure"?  Two is a one hundred percent increase over one, but it is still only one more.  Now look south.

The great immigrant-receiving nation, the United States will continue to grow.  It currently has a birth rate of 2.1 live births per female, forty percent higher than ours.  It has an aggressive immigration policy that may be smaller than ours as a  percentage of its current population, but in absolute numbers it brings in many more than we do.  As we are projected to peak at 37 million people, the United States is projected to push toward 400 million.  A population spread between our two nations today of some 250 million will expand to at least 350 million.

Did you read a couple of weeks ago about the US journalist who wrote with tongue in cheek that perhaps the US should invade Canada to teach us a lesson? We've been annoying them lately. I found that more chilling than humourous. I am not at all comfortable living next to an increasingly militant and hegemonic colossus that may one day covet our resources of things like water, energy and space, especially here in the West where so much of our turf may be facing depopulation.

Maybe these things don't worry you at all.  It couldn't happen.  Of course if it did, it could even be like the Anschluss in 1938 when many Austrians welcomed their annexation by Germany.  But whichever side you come down on, my point remains: the discussion of population policy is an imperative currently missing in CCR debates.

There you have it, from off the wall or outside the box, three topics for consideration:

We may have missed these imperatives thus far, but they'll be around for awhile.

There's still time to get on board.