Europe’s Racism Problem

Photo: Robert Thivierge | People protest against racism near the Marlborough LRT station in Calgary, Alberta.

Europeans look at citizenship in terms of race and blood. Having fought each other for so long over so little territory, an“us vs. them” mentality, accompanied by the feeling that their people are superior to others,has been bred into their national sensibilities. The immigrant integration issues plaguing European societies today can be understood in the context of this racism, pure and simple.

The legacy of colonialism, and the failure to acknowledge its lasting impacts,is an endless burden for European societies and their immigrant communities.Europeans’ deepfeelings of national superiority have bred hostility towards the perceived outsiders living in their midst. Immigrants, some having lived for generations in France, Italy, the U.K, Germany, or elsewhere, are never truly considered to be, or accepted as, citizens. 

Such feelings of superiority are absent for a number of reasons in a place like Canada. Canadians have constructed a society that accountsfor differences. Here, the concept of citizenship is more post-modern and inclusive.

Let’s be clear. It is not that different kinds of people in Canada necessarily agree with one another or love or have an affinity with one another. Neither does it mean there aren’t serious challenges facing immigrant communities in my country. Rather, it is that Canadian society acts to meet the needs of all people, including the “others” that are not “us.” 

Canadian society treats all as citizens. In many European countries, the laws are designed in a way that makes it difficult for immigrants to ever gain citizenship. In a country like Germany, for example, people live for generations as temporary workers without any realistic prospect of becoming citizens. 

When I lived in France, I had a Portuguese housekeeper – a wonderful woman who had been in France for 37 years. She had a card that said she was a temporary worker. If she had done something like run her bicycle into a truck and caused an accident, she could have been deported within 24 hours. She had never voted. She effectively had no civil voice. 

Canada has been successful in large part because immigrants are brought to the country with a clear track to become citizens. That simply is not true for Europe.

When I was governor general,the Dutch ambassador to Canada told me that the reason Canada’s system works and the Dutch system doesnt is that the Netherlands deliberatelywent to the most ignorant villages to get people who didnt know left from right, who couldnt count or read in any language, much less Dutch, so that they could use them as economic units and send them home when they didnt want them anymore.

These people have now established their lives in the NetherlandsThey have children, and their children have become citizens. But they live in a country that didn’t want them in the first place.

The Canadian experience is much different. I arrived in Canada in 1942, when I was about two and a half years old  young enough that I didn’t remember any of the traumas of war I had experienced. My family took refuge in Canada from the Japanese bombardment of Hong Kong. We were welcomed here, and were given a civic voice in this country.

Canada is very much a country of people whove had to begin again. It was built by people who were illiterate, who were poor, and who nobody else wanted. These are the people Canada welcomed, and these are the people who have made Canada. We can never forget that.

But Canada should not be smug about its success. Weve had our share of shameful lapses on our way towards valuing the “other” and acting as a society to meet their needs.I believe that the heart of darkness is in every man and in every nation. We’ve seen through our world history where nationalism can lead.

Europeans must confront the racism that is preventing their immigrant communities from becoming, or even feeling like, citizens. It’s easy to find cohesion among a group of people who are familiar, and whom we like. Its much harder, but necessary, to construct a society with those we might never like.

Adrienne Clarkson was born in Hong Kong in 1939, and came to Canada as a refugee with her parents in 1942. In 1999, after a rich and distinguished career in broadcasting, journalism, the arts, and public service, Madame Clarkson became Canada’s 26th governor general. She was the first immigrant to receive this title. Since leaving the office of governor general, Adrienne Clarkson has founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), whose purpose is to help acculturate new Canadian citizens into mainstream Canadian life.

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