Ask not what Ottawa can do for you? [immigration guide]

NationalPost.com – Opinion
Posted: March 16, 2010.   Marni Soupcoff

I’m not sympathetic to critics who think the new Citizen and Immigration study guide should have included information about same-sex marriage. The less the government has to do with our intimate interpersonal relationships, the better. In Jason Kenney’s place, I’d have left it out too.

But I wouldn’t have stopped there. I’d also have cut the sections encouraging immigrants to volunteer at local food banks, preserve architectural heritage and work “hard in keeping with one’s abilities.”

Sorry, but whether a person prefers West Coast contemporary log cabins to classical revival town halls is hardly the government’s purview. Same goes for individual choices about philanthropy and degrees of energy expended in employment. As long as you’re supporting yourself, I don’t care if you’re sweating bullets or lazily coasting in a cushy desk job that’s intellectually beneath you. And neither should the government.

Forget all this lecturing about what officialdom thinks new Canadians should be like. And enough already with the stilted explanations and definitions of national taste (“Canadian football is a popular game that differs in a number of ways from American football”; “The films of Denys Arcand have been popular in Quebec and across the country.”). None of that subjective fluff should (or really can) be imparted by the government.

What new Canadians truly need to learn from an official document like the citizenship guide are the limits of government in this country.

What distinguishes Canada from so much of the non-Western world is that, human rights commissions notwithstanding, the government is restrained from interfering in personal matters of religion and thought. Canadians can say what they like, associate with whom they wish and criticize their leaders without fear of reprisals.

These basic but crucial freedoms are not the norm in many immigrants’ countries of origin. Nor are they self-evident or trivial. Wouldn’t you, therefore, want them emphasized more than, say, the inventor of the pacemaker or the iconography of the beaver?

Space-wise they are not.

The 68-page guide devotes less than half a page (roughly 14 lines) to the totality of our traditional ordered liberties, including habeas corpus. And those 14 lines are merely a list with no elaboration or examples. Since the “Popular Sports” section of the guide gets more ink and explanation than that, you can’t blame new Canadians if they come away with the impression that we care more about curling (“an ice game introduced by Scottish pioneers”) than freedom of speech — and expect them to, as well.

For comparison, I looked up the United States’ official online study material for the civics portion of their naturalization test.

I found 100 practice questions and answers dealing with specific points of history, separation of powers, enumerated rights, limits on government and constitutional amendments to those limits on government. Canada’s new guide offers three practice questions and answers (there are more questions without answers), one of which emphasizes the vague and unexplained notion of “taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family.” Another one asks about the significance of the poppy.

The United States also has a publication for new immigrants called A Citizen’s Almanac, which not only lists but explains the various ways in which the government must respect its citizens’ freedoms, including the presumption of innocence and the right to trial by jury: “Americans can make their own decisions and pursue their own interests as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others.”

By contrast, the new Canadian Citizenship and Immigration guide meekly offers: “You can question the police about their service or conduct if you feel you need to.” Wow, talk about empowerment. But at least our immigrants will know that “Alexander Graham Bell hit on the idea of the telephone at his summer house in Canada.” Which will surely serve them just as well.

The government doesn’t owe new Canadians a living or a lecture. But it does owe them a meaningful lesson in the limits on its power.

On that count, if not on any other, the citizenship study guide remains several pages too short.

National Post
msoupcoff@nationalpost.com

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