New Canadian Media
Thursday, 13 April 2017 10:20

Thanks, Hérouxville

by George Abraham in Ottawa

I come not to bury André Drouin’s legacy, but rather to praise him. In his way, he made a singular contribution to the debate about immigration in Canada.

Drouin, a former city councillor in the Quebec town of Hérouxville, passed away at age 70 earlier this month. He was famous, after a fashion, for having been the co-author in 2007 of a peculiar (and highly controversial) ‘code of conduct’ for new immigrants that made his community a lightning rod in the debate over immigration and the so-called “reasonable accomodation” of minority cultures.

You remember this one. Hérouxville is a little town with a population that is predominantly white, francophone and Catholic. Still, for reasons of its own, it adopted a code of conduct for new immigrants reminding them that women in the community must be allowed to show their faces, drive cars and write cheques — and that they’re not to be killed in public beatings, or burned alive.

The reaction of the wider world ranged from mockery to outrage — and Hérouxville quickly became a symbol for everything wrong with the Canadian conversation on immigration. Drouin did not coin the phrase “reasonable accommodation”, but he gave it its political currency in Quebec.

As an immigrant who had been in Canada barely five years when the Hérouxville controversy first surfaced, I felt profoundly offended. Where did this guy — who’d probably never met an immigrant or a person of colour — get the right to “prescribe” the outer limits of a society’s welcome? It built up my notion of Quebec as the least friendly of provinces for newcomers.

If the world today recognizes “Canadian exceptionalism” in the area of immigrant integration and citizenship, it’s partly because ordinary folks like Drouin — who had only a small-town bully pulpit — articulated in a democratic fashion fears that a lot of Canadians share, but are loath to voice for fear of ostracism.

Today, I think of Drouin differently. In fact, it was the non sequitur of Hérouxville’s immigration stance that inspired me to launch New Canadian Media.

I now believe Drouin did us a favour by articulating a sentiment that rarely gets aired in mainstream media: the notion that immigrants have obligations, too. Assimilation, integration or tolerance — whatever semantic approach you take to the process by which a nation accepts and weaves together newcomers, it is indeed a two-way street.

If the world today recognizes “Canadian exceptionalism” in the area of immigrant integration and citizenship, it’s partly because ordinary folks like Drouin — who had only a small-town bully pulpit — articulated in a democratic fashion fears that a lot of Canadians share, but are loath to voice for fear of ostracism.

I’d prefer Drouin any day to a lurking xenophobe who doesn’t quite know why he “fears the Other” – only that he does. He had the decency to speak his fears aloud, giving his society a chance to confront them.

In fact, I think it’s because of public officials and civic leaders like Drouin that Canada has not produced a Marine Le Pen, a Geert Wilders, a Heinz-Christian Strache or even a Viktor Orban. We largely have a mature discourse on the defining issue of our era — an issue that has proved to be extremely divisive and explosive in every other nation that has confronted it.

This was no accident. Every country that has a high immigrant population needs public forums and institutions where opponents of laissez-faire immigration can have their say, within democratic norms. Coun. Drouin used one of those forums to the hilt.

Today, I think of Drouin differently. In fact, it was the non sequitur of Hérouxville’s immigration stance that inspired me to launch New Canadian Media.

He wasn’t whistling in the wind, either. Like it or not, Quebec is Canada’s crucible on immigration policy. Recent controversies around finding a burial ground for Muslims, the carnage at the mosque in Quebec City and the earlier firestorm over one builder’s bid to have a condo complex just for people of a particular faith show that Quebec represents the bleeding edge of the immigration debate.

One doesn’t have to drive too far south from the town of Hérouxville to witness first-hand what an alternative to a reasoned, national discourse looks like. There’s a daily drumbeat of executive orders from the Trump White House, but the most dramatic ones — the ones that get reported and dissected endlessly — have had to do with immigration and visas. Why?

I believe it’s because Americans have been uncomfortable with their immigration policy for a long, long time, but have found few in Washington or elsewhere who would voice their fears. This has led to an untenable situation where you have as many as 12 million “illegals” in the country. Clearly, this is a policy that went off the rails decades ago.

Civic leaders like Drouin act as a ‘pressure valve’, staving off an immigrant-baiting political groundswell like the one we’re seeing in the U.S. We’d be far worse off without them.


George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media. Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca

Published in Commentary
Saturday, 04 February 2017 13:56

Privileging Diversity in Canadian Newsrooms

Commentary by George Abraham in Ottawa

IN the summer of 2015, a roomful of Ottawa folks got together at the National Arts Centre, eager to gain insights into the question, “What Stories Swing Votes?” The next federal election – the one that eventually ended Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decade in power – were just around the corner, and up on the stage at this Canadian Journalism Foundation event were some of Canada’s best political pundits – Susan Delacourt, Frank Graves, Adam Radwanski, David Herle and Tom Clark.

I don’t recall much of what was said, except one particular expression Radwanski used. It has stayed with me ever since. He spoke of a “subterranean campaign” that would be waged in immigrant communities across Canada – presumably in foreign languages and in a vernacular that would be very different from appeals to the rest of Canada. He was predicting a different playbook in select ridings – a playbook that Radwanski assumed would be beyond his understanding.

Looking back, I suspect he was right: there indeed was a playbook that enabled the Liberals to win immigrant-rich ridings. It is widely believed that part of the Liberals’ victory in October 2015 came from immigrant communities switching their votes away from the Conservatives. The Liberals won the so-called “ethnic vote.”

However, Radwanski’s choice of expression has intrigued me ever since. The respected columnist writes for the Globe and Mail – a paper that I have consistently read ever since I set foot in Canada in 2002.

I know the paper to be resourceful, financially well-endowed and world class. As a reader, I see that it invests in its journalists, giving them generous travel budgets to report at great length from hotspots on every continent, but also giving its columnists lots of latitude. It is a great Canadian institution.

And so I was fascinated by the concept that a campaign could be “subterranean” when it dealt with massive, well-established communities, served by hundreds of ethnic media publications. Why did the Globe not already have a cadre of journalistic talent that would have helped it cover these “subterranean” communities just as it did all the other ridings in Canada? Why not use translators, when necessary, to make inroads into these sorts of communities?

Radwanski’s telling observation begged a larger question: Why is our journalism not as multicultural as the rest of society?

In the period since the October 2015 election, I have reframed my question to ask, Why are our journalists not as representative as our federal cabinet?

I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Prime Minister-Elect Justin Trudeau shared with the head of his transition team, Peter Harder, his thoughts on how he wanted to go about selecting cabinet ministers. Together they produced a masterpiece of Canadian diversity. How did they get it so right, without really inviting a backlash from those who have got so used to a monochromatic hegemony in all the levers of power?

More than one year on, I still have trouble reconciling to the fact that a turbaned Sikh immigrant is Canada’s Defence Minister.

I am not the first journalist in Canada to shine a light on the lack of diversity in Canadian journalism. A few years after I set up New Canadian Media, I had the honour of meeting John Miller, a former chair of Ryerson’s journalism school, somebody who made it his life’s mission to make newsrooms more representative, more reflective of their readership and viewership. Miller has researched the issue and written extensively on the topic, to little avail.

There are still spaces in Canada that media don’t understand and have made barely an effort to try to understand. The less charitable side of me thinks they’d simply label these spaces as “ghettos” and be done with them. I suspect there are newsroom managers who argue that these newcomer enclaves don’t see themselves as Canadian.

It is incumbent on our media to do better: our journalism must enable all Canadians to feel equally included.

Given that one in five Canadians born in another country and an equal number are the children of first-generation Canadians, the “immigrant” ethos is writ large. We’ve been adding 1 million new Canadians every four years. And, generally speaking, their ethnic profile tends to be different from that of earlier settlers – for the last three decades, the majority of our newcomers have come from Asia, nations such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Canada is changing right before our eyes.

In 2012, I took a tentative step toward blending my experience as a journalist in Asia into the Canadian milieu. By then, I was convinced that most newcomers and their children share a sense of dislocation, having moved to North America from regions that are racially and socio-politically very different from the origins of earlier arrivals. They have different mores, a different worldview and a different “lived experience.” They consume news differently and view the world through a different lens.

Interestingly, Canada has had a robust ethnic media sector for a very long time. Visit any grocery store in the suburbs outside the major cities and you will encounter scores of publications stacked in neat piles. A local radio station will play music from “back home,” and the newspapers will say very little about happenings in Canada.

This anecdote may be apocryphal, but a respected ethnic journalist recently told me about a Vancouver radio station that launches its broadcast with the words, “Good morning, Vancouver! The weather in Chandigarh is …”

Each of these publications covers a particular immigrant community, in a specific geographic region, often in a foreign language. Most ethnic media continue to be narrowly focused on issues concerning their communities.

They are staffed mainly by the hundreds of journalists who arrived in Canada wanting to continue in their profession, but find it hard to gain a foothold. About 200 of them have worked with New Canadian Media or participated in our training sessions. They possess experience and language skills that could perhaps help the mainstream media demystify their communities, but nobody has quite figured out a way to marry their talents with the current needs of newsrooms.

I would be the first to admit that not all journalists are created equal. Having lived in five countries, I know first hand that every nation has its own ways of doing journalism. I also know that ethnic and “mainstream” could not be further apart in their professional standards. It would be the rare ethnic journalist who has had the luxury of paying for a journalism degree in Canada.

Working for multicultural media is very different from working for, say, the Globe. The reporters often double up as advertising salespeople. Ethnic publishers roll from one financial crisis to another; scores of them go under every year, while others sprout in their place. The line between editorial and advertising is blurred.

These publications, though, remain a vibrant part of Canada’s media ecosystem and play a critical role in informing and welcoming new immigrants. They fulfill a vital democratic function – albeit an insufficient one.

We in the media need to do a better job of speaking for Canadians and being a mirror to society. This is a cliché, but readers, viewers and listeners want to see and hear themselves reflected in our newsrooms. They want to hear foreign-sounding accents and even a mangled English or French sentence once in a while.

Journalism is about reflecting the lives and times of all Canadians – in all their diversity, colour and socio-political complexity. Newcomers invariably do not fit into the preconceived notions of today’s mainstream media editors.

That’s why it is very important for newsroom managers to specifically empower journalists in our newsrooms from diverse backgrounds to speak up, not to be cowed by those who perhaps unwittingly crowd out more timid voices and offbeat perspectives. In short, let’s privilege diversity, rather than conformity.

As we imagine a new media landscape for future generations, I suggest a “third way” that enables Canada to become the first nation in the world to marry ethnic and mainstream – a true reflection of our unique demographics. Let’s recognize that our highly corporatized media organizations have lost touch and are excluding large segments of our population by continuing to hire candidates who could not possibly do justice to the worldviews or lived experiences of many communities, including immigrants.

I realize it will take more than a generation to achieve in the media what Trudeau has done with his cabinet. It will take more than resolve and window dressing. In the meanwhile, let’s find ways for the two media silos to work together, discover common ground, and, in the process, improve the coverage of communities that feel left out.

This commentary was first published in Policy Options and part of a special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.

Published in Arts & Culture
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 16:24

Surrey – the Canada of Tomorrow

Commentary by George Abraham in Surrey

Canadians from the Atlantic to the Pacific are suddenly aware that their world-famous model of multiculturalism is not working as well as it should.

People in the so-called “mainstream” want immigrants to do more to fit in – perhaps by abandoning customs and “back home” traditional mores that don’t jive with the rest of Canada.

While it is hard to pin down what exactly folks who belong to the “mainstream” would want us to do, this disconnect is evident in other ways. Take Canada’s media scene, for instance.

Mainstream media are losing ground, while ethnic media continue to thrive – with new outlets opening in new markets, adding new foreign languages to an already-saturated landscape.

Redefined by immigration

This disconnect was at the heart of a presentation I made in Surrey last week, organized as part of the Walrus Talks series, and titled “Cities of Migration”. Surrey was surely a great location to hold this event; a laboratory of sorts.  

Like a handful of cities across Canada, Surrey is being redefined by immigration. Its demographics are startling: the latest census data shows that 41 per cent are immigrants, 14 per cent have arrived since 2001. There has been strong growth in recent years from India and the Philippines.

Markham, Richmond, Brampton and York are in the same league. This is where the Canada of tomorrow is being born.

While in Surrey, I ran into three folks who seem to understand that they are participants in a social experiment that may well determine if Canada will survive as a cohesive society. It is in places like this that we will know if multiculturalism is actually working in practice.

The first was a well-spoken cab driver, Amarinder Singh Dhillon, who's been at the wheel over three decades. But, his source of pride is being “the only Rotarian to drive a taxi”. “Only in Canada,” he exclaims. I agreed.

Stephen Dooley, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus, also gets it. He saw that this city was going to be a haven for refugees from Syria – home to half of all B.C. arrivals from that war-torn Middle East nation – and hence led a study that will inform settlement strategies. However, what struck me was not the study itself, but the fact that Prof. Dooley hired seven recent refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, Iraq and El Salvador as research assistants.

That to me suggests empathy.

The last true believer I ran into was Michael Heeney, principal at Bing Thom Architects, who spoke of creating a “third space” while conceiving the edifice that houses SFU’s Surrey campus. The architects ended up redeveloping a declining shopping centre, opening up the roof to overlay the university and integrating an office tower on it.

The local Wal-Mart and university have a shared roof.

Intersecting spaces

Dhillon, Dooley and Heeney are doing what Surrey needs to succeed: creating shared spaces, fostering conversations and melding the old with the new. I suspect they are not fans of “asymmetric” integration which holds that the onus is on immigrants to fit in.

My good friend and an authority on multiculturalism Andrew Griffith wrote this in Policy Options last month: "The integration process is asymmetric: it is more important for immigrants and new Canadians to adapt to Canadian laws, norms and values than it is for the host society to adjust to them. The meeting point is not ‘somewhere in the middle’ between the host society and the newcomers, but much closer to the host society (80/20 percent, in my view).”

My time in Canada (14 years) tells me that the meeting point is indeed in the middle. The host society must do all it can to make newcomers feel at home, while immigrants must make an equal effort to reach out.

The mainstream cannot adopt the sort of “benign neglect” that no less a Canadian than a former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson referred to in her book, Room for All of Us. [Video courtesy: Stephen Hui/Georgia Straight]

A New Conversation

My talk in Surrey dealt with creating a new Canadian conversation, beginning in the media. The two solitudes of “ethnic” and “mainstream” are as far apart as Gander and Coal Harbour.

We need to find common ground and ways to work together.

Paul Dhillon and Krystele Chavez are perhaps representative of a new breed of immigrant journalists who feel vested in Surrey’s future.

“Bringing innovative ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to the economy, it is because of immigrants that we have kept our city demographically young and culturally enriched, therefore enhancing our influence in the nation,” says Chavez, who comes from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and writes for Surrey604.

Dhillon has a longer horizon. “Surrey was largely an agricultural backwater until the Indo-Canadian builders and developers built it into subdivisions and strip malls. The impact of immigrants has been immense on the city's development and its current diversity is proof that its future will also be drastically shaped by a truly multicultural and metropolitan population,” says the editor-in-chief of the South Asian Link newspaper.

Theirs are new voices that need to be heard.

George Abraham is founder and publishing director of New Canadian Media

Published in Commentary

by George Abraham in Ottawa

I must confess that I came to Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone) and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s thesis as a skeptic. Growing up in India, everybody around me was brown – some lighter-skinned than others – but brown-ness has been a lifelong given.

Moving to Canada, I developed an appreciation for the tension between “white” and “black,” and then a little later, consciousness about indigenous people. Recently, #Blacklivesmatter and #Nativelivesmatter became popular Twitter hashtags, emblematic of a struggle for equality and justice.

The author of this book adds another group to the list of the aggrieved, perhaps calling for a #Brownlivesmatter movement.

Picking up Brown I asked myself, why does Al-Solaylee have to harp on yet another colour distinction?

He seemed to be calling for a new consciousness, “a challenge to white and black hegemony.” What baloney, I told myself. I sensed yet another author adept at milking victimhood for all it’s worth.

I sensed yet another author adept at milking victimhood for all it’s worth.

That would have been the essence of my take but for happenstance.

I read the main sections of Brown during a visit to India, which at the time was roiled by a rather bizarre series of attacks on African nationals staying there for university studies or business. While the political class appeared to be in denial, the national media were unsparing, labelling the attacks “pigment-based discrimination” and brazen racism.

I was shocked to read an African diplomat in New Delhi quoted as saying, “I realized after a while that the taunts of ‘monkey, monkey’ were aimed at me . . .” He was recounting how a group of youth would make primate-like sounds while he was jogging at a public park.

Not just black and white

The exhaustive reporting and commentary in India around these widespread attacks told me that we “brownies” were also capable of racism.

Secondly, it opened my eyes to the possibility suggested by Al-Solaylee: “[W]e are not as privileged as whites but not as criminalized as blacks.” There might be an in-between.

There is no denying that if whites form the top-tier of the world economy, browns and blacks occupy the bottom rungs. However, there is not enough in this book by the widely-published Ryerson University journalism professor to clearly distinguish between the fates of those born brown or black, although he goes to extraordinary lengths to support his basic point that skin colour is destiny.

“[W]e are not as privileged as whites but not as criminalized as blacks.”

Brown, he says, serves as a metaphor for a distinct political experience that might include the following: a hyphenated immigrant identity (unlike the Irish and Italian, for example); suspicion at border crossings (perceived as “shifty”); a feeling of disenfranchisement and belonging to a new “global servant” class.

As an immigrant himself, Al-Solaylee pays particular attention to the internationally mobile brown folks who wish to leave the developing world, thereby “browning” the population of countries such as the U.S. and Canada.

Shades matter

The Yemen-born author is at his best when he hews close to the journalism for which he is most known. He cites data to show income disparities based on skin colour in societies such as Brazil (where browns or blacks earn 42.2 per cent less than whites), Sri Lanka and Trinidad.

This book also took him to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Qatar, the U.K. and the U.S. – all in an effort to demonstrate how being born brown inevitably means a life of modern slavery, dim economic prospects, and an endless effort to appear fairer through whitening creams and lotions.

There is, though, no effort to explain brown-on-brown discrimination in countries such as Qatar, where the Asian labour class and local Qataris share a common skin tone. Similarly, the notes from Britain most certainly discount the possibility of a Muslim brownie of Pakistani heritage being elected mayor of London.

Al-Solaylee’s observations and conclusions throughout his travels can be rather facile and foregone, and lack the rigour one expects from a stellar journalist.

The author applies the same woe-is-me-because-I’m-brown outlook to Canada. Jumping off some of the overheated rhetoric from the Conservative campaign during the October 2015 federal election, the author infers that “an anti-brown feeling has been gaining momentum, even in liberal Canada.” This, when he himself concedes that immigration to both Canada and the U.S. is predominantly brown.

Al-Solaylee’s observations and conclusions throughout his travels can be rather facile and foregone, and lack the rigour one expects from a stellar journalist. This one stuck out in particular: “Two black friends have suggested to me that the relatively light skin tones of Syrian refugees explain why Canadians have opened their wallets and homes so generously.”

I’m not sure if the author proves what he set out to demonstrate – that being brown predicts your life trajectory more than any other circumstance.

My own career has taken me to some of the very same countries that Al-Solaylee visited. I know first-hand that skin colour can be defining and shorthand for a “pigmentocracy,” in which white and fair is viewed as competent, while everybody else falls short.

I’d say Brown is a good read for those who are convinced they will never catch a break because the deck is forever stacked against them.

For everybody else, it is yet another thesis in search of a convincing argument.

George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media.

 


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

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