Are you inadvertently amplifying anti-immigrant racism?

Anti-immigrant racism underpins much of the conversation about immigration policy in this country. We must be able to identify the obvious and subtle ways in which it is being mobilized to divide and distract us. Three interconnected ideas circulating in the media have underlying racist motivations that even us progressives find difficult to decipher. 

Migrant workers and wages
We are told that an increase in low-wage temporary foreign workers drives down wages for all workers. This is completely unrepresentative of real world wage forces. 

Over the past 40 years, median hourly earnings in Canada have remained more or less constant while productivity has increased. That is, the wages of working people, as a percentage of profit and economic growth, have stagnated. At the same time, the super rich have seen their wealth increase massively. Canada’s richest have stashed away over $353 billion in offshore tax havens, and according to a recent Canada Revenue Agency analysis, corporations don’t pay up to 27% of their taxes. 

Wages are not lowered by any individual or group of workers, but by the employer class that profits from their labour. The Ontario government heeded powerful economic interests, like Loblaws and TD Bank, when it chose to stop the planned increase of the minimum wage from $14 to a $15 an hour. Incorrectly focusing on the wages of migrant workers—instead of ensuring permanent status and full rights—distracts from the real authors of exploitation and increases racism. 

The myth of increased immigration
All political parties in Canada talk about increasing immigration levels, some to celebrate it and others to criticize it. Newspapers are full of stories with headlines like:

  • “Canada to admit nearly 1 million immigrants over next 3 years” (CBC);
  • “Canada resettled more refugees than any other country in 2018, UN says” (The Canadian Press); and
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has greatly expanded the country’s guest worker programs, largely under the public’s radar” (Postmedia columnist Douglas Todd).

All are either devoid of fact or seriously misstate what is going on. 

Canada’s permanent resident intake as a percentage of the population has been stable for the last decade. Today, most migrants are on temporary permits, the largest grouping being “international students,” who spent an estimated $12.8 billion in Canada in 2015, and $15.5 billion in 2016.

Most international students work but have limited labour rights. In this way, they are similar to temporary foreign workers who come to Canada on employer-dependent permits that limit their ability to leave bad jobs or speak out when facing exploitative bosses. Likewise, though much is made of Canada being a welcoming country for refugees, nearly half of the world’s refugees are hosted in just 10 countries and Canada is not one of them. 

Misrepresented or incorrect numbers in the media about Canadian immigration heighten the violent anxieties of a “demographic threat” that in part impelled the actions of the Quebec City and New Zealand mosque shooters, as well as the El Paso murderer. These myths also make it easy for politicians to frame themselves as anti-racist even as they ignore urgently necessary changes to immigration and labour policies. 

The “bad immigrant” myth
One of the dominant ideas circulating as rational debate is the distinction between “good” immigrants and “rule breakers.” The recent political and media focus on “illegal border crossers” offers a good example.

Crossing the border on foot to apply for refugee status is legal, even under Canada’s very exclusionary laws. There is no “queue” to jump, but pitting migrants against others has proven to be a successful tactic of distraction and division. Canada actually has an obligation to asylum seekers because of this country’s complicity—through law, policy and profit—in the economic crises, wars, and climate change-related disruptions that are forcing people, painfully and reluctantly, away from their homes. 

While migrants are being incorrectly framed as rule breakers, people who break the rules at large-scale public cost face few consequences. Loblaws, one of the country’s most profitable corporations, was caught illegally fixing the price of bread over 14 years and continues to receive government handouts. It was also just let off the hook for the Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh, in which 1,130 people were killed and 2,520 injured while producing clothes for Loblaws and other companies. 

Understanding racism and uniting against it
A recent poll showed that 72% of people in Canada are anxious about jobs, climate and quality of life. This very real anxiety is being exploited in the election, with an easy villain—the immigrant—pushed into the spotlight. 

We must reject the politics of scarcity and austerity and focus instead on the redistribution of wealth that is necessary, urgent and possible. Rather than fighting each other for scraps, we must assert a unified set of demands for decent work, universal services, and full rights for everyone regardless of immigration status. 

We deserve a world without displacement and discrimination. This is a vision of migrant justice that lifts us all up. 


Syed Hussan is the co-ordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and a member of the Migrant Rights Network. Readers can take a pledge to #UniteAgainstRacism at www.MigrantRights.ca, and get tools to identify and push back against anti-immigrant racism during the elections.

This article is a preview from our forthcoming election-focused issue of the Monitor. To learn how you can get the Monitor delivered to your door, click here.

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