Nasrallah: Where is the focus on immigrants in Ottawa’s city elections?

Listening to the mayoral candidates, there are few serious policy initiatives to address integration, diversity and multiculturalism.

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Diversity is here to stay. Immigration forever changes the landscape for Ottawa physically, culturally, socially and economically. But no mayoral candidate for the October 24 election is talking, discussing or debating this issue. Strange but true.

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For better or for worse, immigration is one of the most profound problems facing Ottawa and Canada. It is well documented that immigrants enrich Canada on most fronts. Here in Ottawa, immigrants and children of immigrants now make up 44 percent of the city’s population.

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But if you listen to the mayoral candidates, you see little or no serious policy initiatives or strategies for dealing with this influx of new Canadians and how to address integration, diversity and multiculturalism.

“The most certain prediction,” wrote American political scientist Robert D. Putnam, “we can make about almost any modern society is that it will be more diverse in a generation than it is today.” We really don’t have to wait that long. In our new Stittsville neighborhood, many streets are lined with immigrants from all corners of the globe. All appear to be middle-class and well-educated. Many have sponsored their parents who are struggling with English or French language skills and the challenge of adapting to this new landscape called Canada.

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Michael Ignatieff wrote a telling essay on immigration challenges in the Globe and Mail in 2001 entitled “The hate stops here”. He said: “A multicultural Canada is a great idea in principle, but in reality it is more of a tacit contract of mutual indifference. Communities share political and geographic space, but not necessarily religious, social or moral space. We’ve got little Hong Kongs, little Kabuls, little Jaffnas, just like we once had little Berdichevs, little Pescaras, little Lisbons. But what do we need to know about each other in order to be citizens together?”

This is the ultimate challenge for Ottawa and Canada for years to come. How do you make a whole from these different parts? How do you turn these seemingly different faces and cultures into citizens of a united Canada? David Miller argues in his book “Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration” that the nation-state has the ultimate right to demand a few basic things from immigrants. First, the need for social integration; secondly, the principle of citizens in training. Nations should try to balance the rights of immigrants with the legitimate concerns of citizens.

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Citizens in training is inherently a long process, but it is a vital one if immigration, integration and assimilation are to work in harmony. Both Canada and the US have been relatively successful in delivering on their side of the bargain. However, many immigrants still need to be convinced that it is in the best interest of them and their children to participate as citizens in training and to participate if they want to be real citizens.

As an immigrant, I know how hard it is to get to and be a part of a new country in a short period of time. An immigrant is a stranger, both in his homeland and in his chosen country. In both places he is seen as an outsider, no matter how hard he/she tries to fit in. He has changed for those around him: his home, his way of life, his loyalty. He’s always out of step. I see this with my Lebanese friends here in Ottawa. While living here, often with extended family, they discuss events, politics, even returning “home” as if they had never left.

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Italian leader Giorgia Meloni in 2022 and Donald Trump in 2016 are vivid reminders of how the political landscape can change overnight if we don’t recognize what immigration can do to a political community. The far-right movement is growing in Europe, and if Trump won in 2024, all bets in the political arena would be off.

Here in the city of Ottawa, our new city council members and the new mayor must address these issues directly or we will lose the battle for integration and citizenship.

Ottawas Elie Michael Nasrallah is author of the forthcoming book “Gates and Walls: Stories of Migration in Modern Times.”

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