OTTAWA – President Donald Trump’s harsh travel ban reflects a global pattern: All around the world, countries are slamming the doors shut.
One great exception: Canada. It may now be the finest example of the values of the Statue of Liberty.
This isn’t just because Canadian leaders are particularly enlightened, although there’s some of that. It’s mostly because the Canadian people themselves remain astonishingly hospitable, with many groups clamoring for more Syrian refugees.
“Thank you, Canada,” Omar al-Omar, a Syrian who was shot at age 15 as the war started, said to me at a center here where refugees are getting lessons in English and in Canadian habits, such as excruciating politeness. “I’m very happy. I feel welcome.”
“I’m sad Arab countries aren’t doing enough for refugees,” Omar added. “I’m really happy Canada does what others don’t.”
President Barack Obama admitted 12,000 Syrian refugees, triggering a furor and a backlash. Meanwhile, Canada, with a far smaller population, has admitted 40,000 Syrians.
Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s immigration minister, told me that one of the criticisms he faces from ordinary Canadians is that he’s not bringing in enough Syrians. And Hussen is himself an emblem of the country’s openness: He arrived at age 16 as a refugee from Somalia and now runs the ministry that once served him.
“We want people to join the Canadian family,” he said, noting that the country is trying to figure out how to keep more foreign students from leaving after graduation. And his trajectory is not unique: Two of the last three governors general arrived as refugees, one from Haiti and the other from Hong Kong. Canada also noted last year that it had more Sikhs in its Cabinet than India did.
Let’s be clear: Canada has xenophobes, too, and indeed, six people were just killed at a mosque in Quebec. Its people are not intrinsically nicer or more tolerant than Europeans or Americans.
Historically, Canada had a “white Canada” immigration policy steeped in racism and xenophobia. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, 96 percent of immigrants were from Europe, and even Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister championed tolerance, started out his career as a racist who joined an anti-Semitic riot.
Yet over the last 50 years, Canada transformed itself – because of determined political leadership, partly by Trudeau, whose son is today prime minister and extols similar ideals. Almost one-fifth of Canadians are what people here describe as “visible minorities” – mostly ethnic Chinese or people with roots in Africa or South Asia – and Muslims constitute three times the percentage of Canadians as of Americans. By 2036, almost half of Canadians are expected to be immigrants or children of immigrants.
When I asked lily-white Canadians about their views on that, they looked puzzled and inquired, “And what’s the problem?”
Canada’s leaders nurtured multiculturalism into a sacred part of the country’s identity. As the rest of the world bangs the doors shut, Canadians celebrate their openness – and, polls show, now take more pride in multiculturalism than in hockey.
“The results in Canada have been spectacular,” Jonathan Tepperman noted in a recent book, “The Fix,” which explores government successes around the world, including Canada’s immigration policy. “They turned a small, closed, ethnically homogeneous state into a vibrant global powerhouse and one of the most open and successful multicultural nations in the world.”
It helps that Canada wasn’t beset by illegal immigration, and that economic policies limited the hollowing out of the middle class. Canada also has a brilliant system of citizen sponsorship. Five or more people can form a group to sponsor a refugee family, and even though this often involves a commitment of thousands of dollars per sponsor, there is a waiting list for getting refugees.
These volunteers integrate the newcomers into the community and help them get jobs and education. This focus on integration is one reason Canada’s immigrants have thrived and become doctors and lawyers, almost never terrorists.
The sponsors also untangle cultural clashes, noted Jessie Thomson, a sponsor of a Syrian family, as we shared a Middle Eastern feast in the family’s new home. When Thomson helped the Syrians open a bank account, she assumed it would be a joint account in the names of the husband and wife. But the family thought it should be in the name of the father, or perhaps the grandfather. In the end, everyone’s name went on the account, and each side learned something.
I asked the foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland (herself a daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant), if the Trump travel ban would help Canada poach the best of the world’s scientists and entrepreneurs for itself. “That’s exactly right!” she responded, and she noted that she had heard from CEOs that Canada was now more attractive than ever. Then she made her pitch directly, through me.
“If you’re a really smart person and you want to immigrate to a great country that will welcome you, come to Canada!” she said. “And if you’re Muslim, you’re very, very welcome here, as are people of every faith – and atheists, too.”
Nicholas Kristof can be reached at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.