Friday, March 11, 2016

If You Want To Be Welcoming Stop Calling People "Come From Aways"

As Nova Scotians and Canadians we really like to see ourselves as welcoming. Welcoming to newcomers. Welcoming to visitors. It makes us feel good I guess. In Nova Scotia we can’t seem to understand why many immigrants don’t stay and instead head west. We assume it's because of larger immigrant populations in places like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. That is almost certainly part of it. By why, with some rare exceptions, haven’t those communities grown in the same way here in Nova Scotia. After all even the President of the United States recently noted how welcoming we are. But are we really?

Here’s the thing few really talk about. We’re only welcoming to a point. Nova Scotia, and to an extent the Atlantic region, is so famous for the phrase Come From Away or CFA that it even has a starring role as the title of a new musical coming soon to Broadway about the arrival of planes to Gander, Newfoundland, following the 9/11 attacks.

Here’s a thought. If we really want to be welcoming, why don’t we stop calling people Come From Aways?

Nova Scotians are welcoming of visitors to Nova Scotia, but I am not convinced we are as welcoming as we like to believe we are to people moving here. Sure, we pull out all the stops to fill an old Rona building with clothing for Syrian refugees. The volunteer firefighters and churches work overtime to welcome Kosovar refugees. The Chamber of Commerce and provincial government scream from the rooftops about needing more immigrants. But look behind the doors and you’ll see something almost seedy about how some – perhaps many – think about anyone moving here from “away”.

In Nova Scotia you can almost be a Come From Away if three generations of your family can’t trace their roots in the province. Unless of course you are caucasian, in which case unless people find out you are from Toronto or somewhere other than the Maritimes, you can get away without being known as a Come From Away for a time. But, even then you can ultimately find how you are treated is different if you can’t show family connections across the province.

There are many examples. A few years ago I was invited to speak at the Sri Lankan Independence Day celebrations. I had no idea there were so many Sri Lankans in HRM. At dinner, I was told the same story over and over. They saw themselves moving west eventually as it was impossible to be truly accepted in Nova Scotia.

More recently, some people angry about the cancellation of the Mother Canada project in Green Cove have blamed the Come From Aways and draft dodgers who moved to Cape Breton as being responsible for killing the project. In fact one Facebook group was trying to figure out which people on a petition against the project actually had long term roots in Cape Breton. It was appalling.

In metro I very recently spoke to the wife of an industrial worker who tells stories about his workplace being ripe with Trump-like comments about immigrants on the shop floor, and how they go out of their way to tease and play pranks on immigrants who end up working at the facility. Immigrants who often have more experience and yet are working to meet apprenticeship requirements in this country.

Recently a successful Dartmouth business person, Saeed El-Darahali, wrote a piece for CBC about the issue. He grew up in Dartmouth. He noted the Ivany Report even called out the “negative attitudes and even racism when it comes to welcoming new people”. His comments echoed much of what I hear. He didn’t blame Nova Scotians. Yet, some of the comments on the story were shocking (to me anyhow) in that they actually proved his point. Some went so far as to justify the exclusion of immigrants in comments like this:

“...jobs are hard to come by for native Nova Scotians. Our young people leave in droves to find an (sic) opportunities that just are not here in Nova Scotia. It is NOT about wanting our "friends" at work so we have a commonality in conversation. It is NOT about not wanting to appear to be rubes. It is so we can keep our loved ones, i.e. family, in the same communities instead being spread across the country.”

Or my favourite type of comment like this which suggest immigrants and refugees are all rich and driving around in expensive cars, thus insulting Nova Scotians:

“It seems that a lot of immigrants do not TRY to fit in. How many of the locals are driving around in Mercedes SUVs? If I emigrated to Guatamala and drove around in a Cadillac, what kind of connection would I make with the average person?”

“Average person”. What exactly is an “average person”? I guess someone with the right skin colour, right last name, and a pedigree that you can trace at least as far as the Expulsion of the Acadians (boy we were so welcoming of the Acadians back then too weren’t we?).

I know it will make some people angry when I say this. Some people will become indignant I am sure. But here it is...

Nova Scotia still has a racism problem. I’m a white guy. I don’t experience it directly. I only know what people tell me. What I hear over and over again. I know what I’ve seen. I know Nova Scotians want to be welcoming. We are, I believe, a generally kind province. We reach out and want to help. But there is a difference between donating food, clothing, and money, and making people feel like they are an equal part of our community rather than a little different. There is a difference between rolling out the welcome mat for tourists and visitors, and making people who immigrate to the province feel like they are truly part of it. Our words and actions create two classes of people. Those from here and the Come From Aways.

There are many things we need to do to change underlying attitudes, but maybe a good start would be to stop calling people Come From Aways. After all, to some degree we are all Come From Aways, if you go back far enough, even our First Nations people (who clearly have the strongest case for not being considered CFAs) migrated to this part of the world.