NOTEBOOK: Elections Canada: Immigrants’ view

IT’S NOW a week after the acri-monious federal elections and the dust has settled. Is there an atmosphere of exhiliration now that the Liberal Party has been booted out of power after 12 years of over confidence? Or is there a sense of anxiety over the likelihood that social services will be massively eliminated now that the Conservatives have been voted into power?

To be sure, the Conservative electoral victory is not that decisive. Between Harper’s 124 MPs and Martin’s 103, there are 21, a margin the NDP can easily counter with its 29 MPs or the Bloc with its 51 MPs.In short, the Conservatives can only put up a shaky minority government subject to the pressures of one or two opposition parties. Depending on the parliamentary horse trading in Ottawa, we may be looking at a legislative paralysis that can trigger another election in a year or two.

But this is Canadian politics talk. We may just be mouthing the analyses of political pundits that abounded in the past week–on TV, radio and print media.

What do the results of the last election really mean to us, the immigrant population, the people of color, often described as marginalized economically and politically–which only means we watch on the sidelines while the mainstream population undertake this exercise they call democracy.

Were the major issues debated by the party leaders really the issues that matter to us? If I recall right, they talked about health care, daycare, taxes, federalism and Quebec sovereignty, corruption, accountability, same-sex marriage, abortion, federal-provincial fiscal imbalance. And, oh yes, immigration – whether to let in 50,000 or 100,000 more immigrants a year.

Come to think of it, about 20 per cent of Canada’s population does not have English or French background, meaning immigrant in the contemporary sense since both English and French early settlers in Canada were technically immigrants too. That was before they took over this country from the Aboriginal people.

Yet Canadian politicians practically ignore our concerns. Whether we remain poor and marginalized, and whether the next generation immigrants will continue to have more difficult lives than the previous ones is not an issue that excites them. As long as they continue to pay lip service to immigrant concerns, they think they can continue to get our votes. Watch these politicians bare their bleeding hearts for the immigrant population and you might even find yourself fighting back tears from your eyes. Yet elections have come and gone and power has changed hands from Conservative to Liberal and now back to Conservative, are the immigrants’ lives any better now?

Weeks before the Jan. 23 election, I found myself listening to Michael Colle, the Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration at a meeting of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada. For almost an hour he talked about the enormous pool of skills and talent in the immigrant population and how the Ontario government is spending millions of dollar to see to it that these people are given help so they can work in jobs appropriate to their skills. Their main strategy? Undertake massive and profession-related English courses so that these foreign-trained professionals may be able to practice their professions well.

A Filipino journalist in the audience questioned whether this approach to the massive deprofess-ionalization of immigrants would solve the problem at all and explained that it is the professional regulatory bodies that practically prevent the professional integration of immigrants.

The minister explained that these regulatory bodies are hundred year -old institutions and that you can’t practically touch them for what they do. When he said this, I thought, what? A government is helpless before these so-called guardians of the professions? Or are these lobby groups that politically connected, government can’t touch them?

When it was mentioned by a journalist that in Australia the government spends for the education of foreign-trained professionals so they can practice their trades, the minister strongly reacted by saying Australia does not deserve the praise because it stopped letting in immigrants. Then he resumed singing paens to his government’s efforts at serving immigrants, knowing fully well his audience was the ethnic press.

But questions kept on coming from the ethnic press people. Why this policy of increasing the yearly number of immigrant arrivals when those already in are still suffering due to lack of jobs commensurate to their education and professions? Why get more doctors, engineers, accountants, PhDs when too manyof them are already here driving cabs, flipping burgers, serving as hospital aides or worse, unemployed for years? If government is really that concerned about immigrants, why did the government ads for ethnic press dry up many years ago? The ultimate unspoken question sounded more like: Why do you import skilled immigrants and exploit them for cheap labor?

Weeks later, I got hold of NDP leader Jack Layton’s book, Speaking Out , Ideas That Work for Canadians. I was excited because at last I can get a deeper understanding of what a Canadian progressive political leader wants to achieve in Canada. A cursory reading of the book would show Layton has his heart in the right place. He always takes the position of the ordinary working families as against the big corporate interests. Health care and daycare for the poor as against privatization of these services; money for education and jobs as against helping big corporations with millions of dollars so they would not go under.

Yet when Layton talked about immigrants’ access to professions and trades, his solution would be mainly putting up Canadian schools in foreign countries so prospective Canadians will be trained even before they arrive in Canada. And also training new immigrants for employment commensurate with their skills. This sounds like a short-sighted view of the problem. No matter how trained these foreign-educated professionals are about Canadian ways, when they arrive in Canada they still would not be allowed to practice their professions. The regulatory bodies would still not recognize their education and professional practice. They still have to be subjected to the unfair evaluation of these bodies. (Most of them were assessed as Grade 13.) They still have to take numerous and expensive courses, reviews and examinations that are too prohibitive that many just opt for jobs they hate just so they can feed their families. As for the newly-arrived unregulated professionals, the prospective employers’ unreasonable require-ment for “Canadian experience” eliminates all hope for jobs these immigrants deserve.

What we need is for the immigrants to open their eyes to these realities. It is only when the immigrant communities realize that their real issues are for them to raise and not for the politicians to pay lip service to, can they begin to empower themselves. Politicians want power to implement their agenda, whatever they are, hardline right-wing, imagined left-wing or wishy-washy liberal. To gain power, however, they need the resources and the connections to sway the votes in their favor. In the process of courting the vested interests who have these resources and connections, they compromise and in most cases, they sell their souls. They take populist positions like abolishing or reducing the GST and scrapping the $975 landing tax. They avoid controversial statements especially on issues like abortion , same-sex marriage or the notwithstanding clause.

The bottom line is, who will take care of immigrant interests? The politicians of whatever shade who have had a dismal record in this issue? Or the immigrants them-selves, in their millions, whose quality of lives are at stake in this country? Do we elect MPs, MPPs, mayors and councillors from our ranks? Or do we build strong communities that can pressure a government to respond to our just demands?

(Representation will come naturally.) Isn’t this what a real democracy should be? This will practically turn Politics Canada or Elections Canada on its head.