Avoiding xenophobia (in the wake of the temporary foreign workers issue)

By Tshweu Moleme

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The recent migrant worker debate in Canada has had some observers worried for one reason. Yes, there could be additional reasons, but let’s keep it at this particular one. Foremost, let us note that some citizens of our society tend to, as we’ve continually seen in many countries, for example, look for an enemy when faced with a societal issue(s) that particular group would deem a threat to “their country” or “way of life” as often uttered by those making the case against immigration. This perceived age-old, assumed threat, is color changing in nature. By this one could mean that while the colors might change, the perceived threat, the immigrant(ion), remains an enemy to some. Be it an immigrant from Europe, Africa, or Asia. Such attitudes still pervade our society, and our policymakers and the media could play a crucial role here.

Recently, the Canadian media has been awash with migrant focused stories. These are stories concerning the controversial government program, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This program, critics charge, has not worked well for Canada. Controversies surrounding the program are not recent developments either, but stretch back a year or so where, for example, the RBC found itself in hot water over allegations of removing its Canadian employees and replacing them with foreign workers. Clearly, this issue remains a major, policy, problem for Canada; a very dangerous problem. You might ask, dangerous in what way, exactly. Well, it is a fear that some observers of these issues pay close attention to and repeatedly warn on.

As the headlines hit the stands and television sets, mostly showing Asian workers at the restaurants in question, we could also say that this was also a time when the rubber also hit the road, as concerns the migrant worker issue Canada is currently dealing with. Obviously, we, Canadians, do not want to lose our jobs. No one should ever have to go through the pain of losing a job. However, policy miscalculations have led us to this disturbing state of affairs. Not only disturbing, but painful, as well, for both Canadians and the migrant worker alike. In addition to policy concerns, the media/public broadcasting of this issue has not helped either.

Thus, the xenophobe monster might have also been awakened. Immigrant communities are now on alert, fearful, and not knowing what might come of this ongoing national debate: a debate on how to “preserve” Canadian jobs. A debate on the immigrant worker and their place in Canada, etc. These communities are right to be fearful. Why? [Because] xenophobia is a dangerous scourge, particularly if and when it has reared its ugly head.

Are there any recent signs of xenophobia? If one goes by recent reports out of Brampton, Ontario, where flyers have been distributed within communities; flyers that, according to the Canadian Press “show a black and white picture of a group of Caucasians above separate photograph of a group of Sikhs with captions that read “from this…to this…”

“Is This What You Want?” the flyers are reported to be probing the targeted communities. This clearly implies deep-seated fears of the “other” whom are seen as the new player, or one assuming and occupying some positions or space within society, shifts that some within society, as seen with these flyers, will not welcome. That is, this is not a change or shift appreciated by some within our society. Hence such flyer questions with hidden, deep, connotations.

Is this the kind of immigrant treatment Canada really wants? Perhaps this is the question we should all be asking, instead: a question of dignity and equality, for all. A question to for published articles or T.V programming, a question to consider when handling serious policy issues at the national level.

First, policymakers and the concerned business community will need to communicate more effectively on these issues, instead of exchanging televised insults. Insults that will only add to the already burning, and quite possibly, anti-immigrant, fire. Clearly, there are pockets of fear growing; hence the need for a renewed/revised government strategy and awareness campaign in place. There is imminent danger here, and failure to see such will results in very unfortunate circumstances, as repeatedly seen through history.

As noted earlier, with changing colors, the perceived threat remains. Therefore, keeping watch over such anti-immigrant concerns remains crucial. Faulty perceptions are dangerous. Even centuries later, still.

Only clear policy considerations, direct consultation with concerned business interest, an anti-hate, community level strategy, can help move the nation in the direction of unity and hope, and as well as help calm the nerves of those looking for an enemy that does not exist.

Secondly, the Canadian media will also need to watch their portrayal of immigrant communities. For example, covering a story where a company and not a people, is alleged to be at fault, shall end with pictures of that company and its head dominating the news cycle, perhaps. Instead of clips or article repeats which show workers at certain work sites. The latter noted reportage might well, perhaps consequently, only serve to contribute to fermenting stereotypes (or xenophobia). Stereotypes that might eventually give birth to disturbing cases, as recently seen in Brampton.

Most notably, we are fortunate to be a strong nation. A nation not particularly battling major economic storms at, for example, the community level. Storms which tend to arouse anger. As seen in some nations, xenophobia tends to permeate, in part due to fears which result in finding an enemy where there is none. Simply because of perceived disappearing, traditional, “opportunities” and “ways.” The rising xenophobic clout shall be cut short. Be it Temporary Foreign Worker Program related or not. Many of us remain worried.

Tshweu Moleme is a Researcher, South Africa division, BRICS Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto and a Writer and Researcher with the McGill International Review

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