In Vancouver | Pilcrow | July 2017

This is what it took for me to secure temporary residence and the right to work in Canada: I applied for a visa; a few weeks later my visa was approved; a few months after that, I arrived in Vancouver, the city I am now, tentatively, beginning to call home.

And that’s about it – the sum total of a process otherwise known for its impersonal bureaucratic drudgery. There was no intrusive background check, no last minute border interrogation, no attempt, at any stage, by the Canadian authorities to discourage me from moving to a country that I had never previously set foot in.

The experience was, in fact, vaguely romantic. My girlfriend and I transferred flights at Toronto. It was Valentine’s Day. The airport was dark and banked with snow. The immigration officer smiled and joked with us about his Scottish antecedents. And in we walked. Newly Canadian.

Since the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015, Canada has sought to rebuild its reputation as an international standard-bearer for progressive values. That reputation was shredded during the Harper administration, which – in addition to peddling insane racist myths about Islam and trying to muzzle climate scientists – tightened the rules governing the Canadian immigration system, making it harder for foreigners to settle here.

Superficially, at least, Trudeau has reversed course. He has positioned Canada as a moderate alternative to the forces of Trumpism and Brexit and cast himself in the distinctive, even semi-heroic, role of the liberal anti-Trump; the ideological antithesis of everything the current occupant of the White House belligerently stands for.

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war,” the prime minister tweeted in response to Trump’s botched effort to ban Muslims from travelling to America six months ago, “Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

Viewed from afar, this exercise in national rebranding has been a huge success. Under Trudeau, the negative associations of the Harper years have gone, and the quaint, cartoon elements of Canadian iconography – the mounties and the maple syrup and the Great White North – are giving way to a more modern, multicultural, and pleasingly chaotic urban landscape.

For Europeans – particularly those millennials drained by a decade of debt and austerity – Canada’s appeal is vast, and that appeal is only going to grow as the essential coordinates of Canadian identity continue to shift: from the east coast to the west, from starchy British Atlanticism to the Asian Pacific, and from right to left, from Stephen Harper, a dour Protestant reactionary, to Justin Trudeau.

The problem, of course, with the glossy new vision of Canada Trudeau represents is that it doesn’t really exist, and those parts of it that do exist are, at best, only narrowly accessible.

The relative ease with which I was able to emigrate here, and to integrate after I arrived, reflects the social and professional advantages I enjoy as a white, university-educated Scot.

Every year, as a matter of policy, Canada grants thousands of work permits to UK and Irish citizens. I was lucky enough to get one. Moreover, thanks to some Scots-Canadian friends of mine in Edinburgh, there was a small army of contacts waiting for me in Vancouver as soon as I stepped-off the plane.

But for many people, Canada can be a profoundly alienating and unaccommodating place.

When it comes to the humanitarian crises currently unfolding in Syria and Iraq, for instance, Trudeau likes to present himself as a ‘global leader.’ Yet, in 2016, his government accepted far fewer refugees and asylum seekers than Germany, the US, Sweden, and a host of other western states. It also capped the number of new private sponsorships for displaced Syrian and Iraqi families at a prohibitively low rate for the duration of this year.

Worse still, Trudeau refuses to ditch the Third Safe Country Agreement, a toxic and controversial deal that allows Canada to turn asylum claimants away at the US border on the grounds that America is, somehow, even under the deranged xenophobic presidency of Donald Trump, a secure country for them to claim asylum in.

Life isn’t any easier for those who come here to further their economic interests, but who don’t speak English or French as a first language.

In BC (which I still cannot believe boasts the ridiculous provincial slogan, “The Best Place On Earth”), the Transit Police frequently double-up as deportation agents, reporting passengers they suspect of being illegal immigrants to the CBSA.

This practice highlights a broader racial dimension to Canada’s deportation procedures. Between 2012 and 2016, the federal government sent more people (nearly 7000 in total) back to Hungary than to any other single country, including the US and Mexico. Why Hungary? Because a large proportion of Hungarian immigrants to Canada are Roma, one of the poorest and most persecuted ethnic minority groups in Europe, and they often struggle to meet the conditions of residence. 

These facts render the central conceit of Canadian liberalism – that Canada is the world’s first ‘post-national’ society – very hard to sustain. “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” the prime minister told The New York Times last year.

This observation isn’t even slightly true. Nationalism isn’t monolithic. It operates in a variety of political shades and ideologies. Canadians might be less patriotic than Americans, and they are certainly less insular than the Brits, but that doesn’t make them any less nationalistic. Canadian nationalism can be hard to detect because it tends to express itself in relatively benign and inoffensive terms.

A similar dynamic exists in Scotland, which is in the process of trying to work-out precisely how ‘British’ it wants to be, and where the dominant nationalist party, the SNP, advances a notion of Scottishness not at all incompatible with Trudeau’s multilayered conception of what it means to be Canadian.

My point is that being Canadian seems to mean, and must mean, something. It’s more than just a casual technicality or a simple accident of birth.

When I first got to Vancouver, I asked a friend why, 35 years after the repatriation of the constitution, Canadian bank notes still carry an image of the Queen. His answer was that Canada’s enthusiasm – however muted – for the British monarchy acts, paradoxically, as a differentiating mechanism; a way for Canadians to separate themselves out from their republican neighbours to the south.

That fear of assimilation, of being lost in America’s immense cultural shadow, strikes me as a key component of contemporary Canadian identity. And with the rise of Trump, Canada’s desire to define itself in opposition to the US however and whenever possible – including by exaggerating its progressive credentials as a safe-harbour for the globally dispossessed – has suddenly intensified.

So far, my encounter with Canada has been great.

Vancouver is an unusually welcoming and attractive city. I have friends here now and a life. Britain feels increasingly distant to me. You couldn’t pay me to go back. But then I benefit materially from my demographics. The choice, for the time being, is mine.

Exceptionalism is the chief weakness of Canadian national life. Trudeau could lose the next election, or the one after that, and all his milquetoast liberal fantasies would be shattered by a Conservative party so deeply backward, so utterly venal, that it has not yet accepted the reality of our baking planet, and that still views Canadian Muslims as undeserving guests in their own country.

If Trudeau’s Canada is ever going to live up to its own churning international hype, it needs to extend the promise of its hospitality much, much further. And then keep going.

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