Shattering Canada's collective myths

TORONTO, Canada — There are moments in a country’s history when collective myths become so divorced from reality that almost everyone can hear them burst with a pop.

It happened last week in Canada, when stories in the media proclaimed the end of a national identity as peacekeepers, and the birth of one as warriors. This is no small change.

Canada practically invented the notion of international peacekeeping. In 1956, a Canadian diplomat named Lester B. Pearson — who later became prime minister — was instrumental in setting up the United Nations' first peacekeeping force, which helped end the Suez Canal crisis. Pearson won the Noble Peace Prize for his efforts.

That action solidified Canada’s international role as a middle power mediator, respected by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, and opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 because it wasn’t approved by the U.N.

This collective self-image — and the foreign policy that flowed from it — began to change when the Canadian government sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002. There was much talk about rebuilding the war-ravaged country. But when Canadian forces took command of operations in violent Kandahar province, it became clear that killing the Taliban was the main goal.

In 2006, staunch conservative Stephen Harper became prime minister. Almost overnight, Canada became more hawkish than the U.S. in its support for the Israeli government and its revulsion for Iran.

Domestically, the shift was evident in the way the government lashed out at a high-ranking diplomat who testified before a parliamentary committee last week.

Richard Colvin finished an 18-month posting in Afghanistan in October 2007. During his stay, he repeatedly warned Canada’s political and military brass that prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian soldiers faced torture. This constitutes a war crime. Yet the Canadian government did nothing until 2008, after a newspaper broke the story.

Harper’s cabinet ministers reacted to Colvin’s testimony by attacking him as a Taliban lackey. Warrior cultures, it seems, are more concerned with power than truth.

As Canadians say goodbye to the peacekeeping myth, they live with others that for years have been mere illusions, but have yet to explode.

That’s the case with one that perhaps defines the nation like no other — the idea of a country opened to immigration.

It seems a strange thing to say of a country where people born elsewhere make up 20 percent of its almost 34 million residents. Many more are the Canadian-born sons or daughters of immigrants. Yet Canada has been closing its doors for years.

Its immigration criteria is elitist. Canada accepts only applicants deemed to have high labor skills, such as doctors and engineers. The fact that many of them end up driving cabs once here, their foreign credentials rejected by the bodies that govern their professions, seems not to concern the government.

These highly skilled workers, and their families, made up 60 percent of the 247,000 immigrants allowed into Canada last year as permanent residents, which means they’re on a path to citizenship. The rest were refugees or families reunited with permanent residents already here.

The immigration criteria flatly prohibits anyone categorized as a “low-skilled” worker from coming to settle — in other words, the kinds of working class laborers who literally built the country in the past are no longer wanted. Yet the labor market desperately needs them.

The result has been an explosion in the number of “guest workers” to Canada since 2002. Last year, 192,000 people came to Canada on temporary work permits, more than half of them in jobs the government categorizes as low-skilled.

They come to drive trucks, clean hotels, pour coffee, flip burgers, pick vegetables on farms, slaughter pigs in meatpacking plants, take care of babies or the elderly and to perform a host of other jobs Canadians increasingly don’t want to do — at least not at the low wages employers pay.

They come with work permits of no more than three years. They’re let in only after they have a signed contract with an employer, and they’re expected to leave the country at the end of their work permit.

Highly skilled migrant workers can eventually apply to become permanent residents. But the federal government bars most low-skilled ones from doing so.

“The attitude is, ‘We don’t want none of them riff-raff here,’” said Yessy Byl, a lawyer with the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The guest worker program has been widely criticized as a form of cheap labor, for being poorly monitored and for leaving migrants vulnerable to abuse from employers.

An investigative series of stories I recently wrote for the Toronto Star found examples of migrant workers having their passports seized by employers while earning lower wages and working longer hours than promised in their contracts.

Migrants are often charged up to $5,000 by agents who recruit them for jobs in Canada. But when they arrive, some find they’ve paid for jobs that don’t exist.

Abused guest workers feel trapped. Their temporary work permits allow them to work solely for the employer who received government permission to bring them into the country. If they complain and get fired — or if they’re laid off due to the recession, as many have been — they can’t work for anyone else. They’re expected to leave, but the government doesn’t keep track of how many do.

Not surprisingly, Canada’s undocumented population is on the rise. Its national police force, the RCMP, estimates the number of people underground at up to 500,000. Observers believe it’s far higher. Canada is going the way of Germany and the U.S., where past guest worker programs created large, marginalized populations.

On Nov. 3, Canada’s Auditor-General Sheila Fraser released a scathing report on the guest worker program, describing it as rife with fraud and abuse. The federal government, she noted, doesn’t even try to ensure that labor laws are respected.

So this is Canada today: A country that has turned its back on its immigrant heritage. It bans people desperate for a better life from becoming permanent residents. Instead, it brings them in on a temporary basis, under a program where they’re vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

One day, this reality will burst all remnants of a myth that portrays the country as welcoming to immigration. That day, many Canadians won’t recognize what they’ve allowed the country to become.