I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe and while in Hungary I spoke to a university audience about how Canadians view immigrants, refugees and multiculturalism. One is always on thin ice, to use a Canadian metaphor, when speaking in a country where you are a tourist and may offend sensibilities. But I believe that Canada’s experience with managing ethnic diversity might be of use to other countries. I took as my point of departure the 1950s in rural Saskatchewan. I grew up in a farming community that had been created as part of a great human migration late in the 19th and early in the 20th century when the Canadian government settled the West with farmers. My small village was diverse for its time. There were Germans, Ukrainians, French, Hungarians and others. In fact, I discovered upon rereading our local community history book that when it was created one of the names being considered for my village was Budapest. The village was eventually called St. Benedict, to recognize a religious community of Benedictine monks that had been established nearby – but Hungarians were significant in our population.
The people in my community were thrown together abruptly in a harsh new environment where there were no farms, no roads, few comforts and amenities and no local government structures. They had to create all of that and to do so they had to cooperate even though their languages, histories and customs differed. They worked together, attended the same country schools, played sports on the same teams, and in the second and subsequent generations they married across ethnic lines. That’s how it goes. Eventually immigrants assimilate.
All Canadians, with the notable exception of Aboriginal peoples, are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. This is an accident of geography and history. Immigration has served our needs and generally we hold positive views about it.
A racist policy
I did feel compelled to tell my audience, however, that for much of our history Canada’s immigration policy carefully excluded, or at the least discouraged, the arrival of Chinese, South Asians and blacks.
These de facto racial exclusions continued to exist until the 1960s when Canada moved to a “point system” that judged prospective immigrants on the basis of their education and training, knowledge of English or French and their likelihood to succeed economically in Canada.
I talked as well about refugees, who have been important to Canada’s history and destiny. They include United Empire Loyalists who flooded into the country during and after the American revolutionary war between 1775 and 1783. There were also the 40,000 Hungarian refugees who arrived in haste in 1956 following a Soviet invasion crushing Hungary’s attempt to create a more liberal form of communism. In the 1980s there were the Vietnamese boat people. The Sudanese arrived in the 1990s and people from the Congo after the turn of the century. War, genocide and famine are generating an ever-increasing number of refugees.
I mentioned to my hosts that the country generating the most refugee claimants for Canada today is not one with a raging civil war or famine but Hungary itself. In the first six months of this year, 1600 Hungarians claimed refugee status. Most are Roma who say that they are persecuted at home and risk danger if they return. Canadian immigration officers are skeptical and accepted only 2% of those claims in 2011. There was a noticeable buzz in the room when I provided this information but no questions or comments on it.
The Economist reported in August on a rally by 1,000 neo-Nazis who congregated in a small Hungarian town to threaten and intimidate Roma living there. The centre of political gravity in Hungary has moved disturbingly to the right and it is anti-immigrant. Fidesz, the ruling party, is on the right but is out-flanked by the farther right Jobbik party, which won 16% of the vote in the 2010 elections. Then there are the neo-Nazis such as the Outlaw Army, which has called for racial warfare and extermination of the Roma.
A few days prior to my appearance at the university, I had coffee with a young Canadian of Hungarian descent studying in Budapest. He told me that many people he met, including his relatives, would have little sympathy for arguments that a country is enriched by immigration and diversity. “They say Hungary is for Hungarians,” he said, “and they also hold prejudices against the Roma.”
One can be judgmental about this but at least some humility is in order. While Canadians for the most part lived in peace and prosperity during the 20th century, Hungary experienced the trauma of two wars fought on its soil. Then there was the bitter experience with communism and the Soviet invasion in 1956. Now there is a surge to the right.
I participated in two guided walking tours while in Budapest and I was told by one young guide that when communism fell many party officials simply morphed into crony capitalists. They were in a good position to get their hands on state assets that were privatized and they became the new elite at the expense of their fellow citizens. That may well be but it was some time ago. The Economist now reports that “one lot of Magyar oligarchs has been replaced by another, who are allies of Fidesz.”
The Hungarian economy is in tatters. The guide on another of my walking tours said that most Hungarians earn between $500 and $600 (Cdn) each month, barely enough to scrape by. Many people hold down at least two jobs and often do not report income for tax purposes. People are worried and they are disillusioned. According to a recent survey, almost half of young Hungarians plan to emigrate.
When I had finished with my university talk and the question period, I was approached by a young woman from the audience. Why, she asked, did Canada not have a lottery for immigrants such as the green card lottery in the U.S.? I had not heard of the lottery but asked her if she wanted to emigrate. Yes, she said, to the U.S., Canada or Australia. She said she had three children and does no trust the future in Hungary.
When the young woman left, a professor who had overheard the conversation, said, “Your talk was informative but most of these students would have liked to hear a bit more about how to get into Canada.”
I took that as either praise or a mild rebuke. The thin ice I walked on was this. I talked about policy and history but these young Hungarians are more concerned about the present, and their own future.