Recognizing the value of immigration

Daniel McCabe

It's hard not to notice the letter on Morton Weinfeld's office door. Thanks to a recent appearance on CBC Radio's Morningside and to op-ed pieces he's penned for the Globe and Mail, Weinfeld is widely known for his views that overall, immigrants contribute a great deal, culturally and economically, to Canada's well-being.

Those views don't sit well with some. The letter on the door denounces Weinfeld as a "communist shit-head" and a "scumbag" for holding those opinions. It's not the first such letter Weinfeld has received. "I used to just toss stuff like that in the garbage, but now I put them up. My students usually haven't seen anything like that. They need to know it's out there."

Hate mail or not, Weinfeld is generally optimistic about the way in which Canadians deal with the various issues surrounding immigration and cultural diversity. It is an area that is currently rife with debate, however. As a scholar, his ability to contribute to that debate has been bolstered by a pair of recent government actions.

Tomorrow, Weinfeld will be named to McGill's new Chair of Canadian Ethnic Studies, thanks to a $400,000 contribution from the Department of Canadian Heritage. Weinfeld also heads a group of about 15 McGill researchers who will be active in a new federally funded centre of excellence.

Weinfeld began McGill's Canadian Ethnic Studies program, and while the University still needs to raise additional funds for the new Chair of Canadian Ethnic Studies, its creation lends an air of permanence to McGill's involvement in that field of study.

"I think it's appropriate for McGill to have this chair. This is a particularly cosmopolitan place thanks to the diversity of our student body. The University of Toronto also has a diverse student body, but it doesn't have the large contingent of francophone students that make up an important part of our community. In many ways, McGill is a microcosm of Canada."

The new Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration, Integration and Urban Dynamics will be headquartered at Université de Montréal and will also involve researchers from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique-Urbanisation (INRS). The project will receive up to $2 million over a six-year period from a variety of government sources including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Health Canada.

The project will also involve three Quebec ministries, the City of Montreal and several non-governmental organizations such as the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, Chinese Family Services and the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Weinfeld, a sociology professor, helped develop the new centre and he's enthusiastic about the partnerships it will foster. "This project breaks down the walls that have separated McGill from Université de Montréal in the social sciences. I don't think we've ever had a collaboration on this scale." The centre will focus on six areas of study and researchers from McGill, Université de Montréal and INRS will work together in each. "It's the first time I've collaborated so closely with francophone colleagues and it's been very gratifying how well we've worked together."

McGill researchers involved in the new centre hail from a variety of disciplines, including political science, social work, history, law, anthropology, geography, medicine and education.

Weinfeld's own research interests are quite broad. With Harold Troper from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, he is looking at the special pressures Montreal police officers from visible minority communities face as members of a still overwhelmingly white police force. The pair are also studying the sensitive issue of female genital mutilation as it's practised in some cultural communities.

With McGill psychiatry professors Laurence Kirmayer and Allan Young, Weinfeld is doing research on recent immigrants to Montreal and their experiences with mental health care services in the city.

Looking at the big picture, Weinfeld says, "There is a general reappraisal going on in all Western countries right now in relation to immigration. There is a perception that, unlike in the past, new waves of immigrants aren't as economically beneficial. There is a feeling that, because the new immigrants are coming from such profoundly different cultures, the process of integration is more difficult than it used to be."

Weinfeld thinks these concerns merit examination, but is sceptical about the seriousness of these perceived "problems." Previous generations of newcomers to Canada encountered similar concerns. "Despite some failures, despite many problems, Canada is a relative success story. It sounds like apple pie rhetoric, but it's true."

He thinks this is reflected in the different sorts of debates going on in Canada and the U.S. "The Reform Party has been critical of immigration, but their official literature only calls for limiting the number of new immigrants to 150,000 a year. Compare that to the platform of a Pat Buchanan, who was a serious candidate for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. He proposed a total freeze on immigrants for five years. There is still a very different spectrum relating to what is acceptable public opinion in our two countries."