Hot! Canadian multiculturalism ‘under stress’

HillTimes.com – copps-corner/politics
17 August 2012.   Sheila Copps

O Canada, what a country of contradictions!

Just last week, a call for the doubling of foreign students in Canada over the next decade was juxtaposed with a proposed Quebec secularism charter that would ban hijabs and turbans in the workplace.

Three steps forward, two steps back. The task force report entitled International Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Economic Prosperity, was lauded on all sides for proposing a series of concrete solutions to looming labour market shortages.

Chaired by Amit Chakma, the president of the University of Western Ontario, the task force proposed 14 recommendations designed to open up Canadian educational institutions to a huge influx of international students.

According to the study “the expenditure resulting from international students in 2010 was $8-billion, which translates to 86,570 jobs and $455-million in government tax revenue.”

Parenthetically, the review noted that this was the eighth largest jobs generator in Canada, ahead of aerospace and aluminum. It claimed education services are now Canada’s 11th largest export, and the single largest export to China. The spending by international students in Canada is greater than Canada’s export of unwrought aluminum, helicopters, airplanes and spacecraft.

Quite a success story that is worth building on! International students feel particularly welcome in Canada because our early embrace of multiculturalism has created a society where differences are welcomed, not melted into a single pot.

Chakma himself is an excellent example of the value of international participation in the Canadian education system. He was born in Bangladesh, and studied in Algeria before moving to Canada to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of British Columbia.

This university president is perfectly positioned to make a positive case for the recruitment of international students. However, the report treads gingerly on the issue of political jurisdiction in Canada.

Education, in all forms, remains a provincial responsibility, with every province jealously guarding competitive advantage and control over student incentives.

One of the report’s key recommendations is to pursue international scholarships in order to attract the best and the brightest in areas aligned with Canada’s economic priorities. A proposed Council on International Education and Research would manage those priorities, including representation from four federal ministries and all provincial education authorities.

Good luck! In 1998, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government established the Canada Millennium Scholarship Fund in an effort to encourage access to postsecondary education for all Canadians.

In the eight years of its existence, the fund distributed in excess of $1.5-billion in bursaries and scholarships to more than half a million students, including a merit-based component to encourage excellence.

In 2008, the Conservatives cancelled the fund and replaced it with a new organization. Student groups accused the government of spreading around the same amount of money to more students. Merit-based awards were abandoned altogether, eliminating one of only two nation-wide bursaries based on academic performance.

Investment in international students will run into the same roadblocks imposed by our bifurcated political system. In addition, the challenges of absorbing 450,000 international students within a decade would put additional pressure on cash-strapped provinces.

Post-secondary systems across the country are straining to maintain standards in the face of tight provincial budgets.

The student protesters in Quebec railed at the Jean Charest government for increasing tuition levels to align them more closely with the real cost of education. The social dynamic of doubling the international student population does not occur in a vacuum.

Just last week the race card played big in Quebec elections. When the Coalition Avenir Quebec leader mused publicly about the work ethic of Asian students versus young Quebecers more interested in the good life, he was roundly attacked.

Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois unveiled her party’s proposed charter, banning all external religious manifestations in the public service workplace. Incongruently the crucifix is exempted from the prohibition because it is deemed a heritage object, not a religious one.

A Ukrainian-born PQ candidate, parachuted from Gatineau into Trois-Rivieres, is actually running on an anti-multiculturalism platform.

The Chakma study is a thoughtful assessment of the roadmap to position Canada for future prosperity. The well-intentioned conclusion to promote the internationalization of Canadian post-secondary education makes sound economic sense. But it will surely meet resistance in the world of realpolitik.

Back in 1970, a visionary government headed by prime minister Pierre Trudeau passed the world’s first Multiculturalism Act. That law laid the groundwork for newcomers to quickly become part of the larger Canadian family.

That once-familial embrace is clearly under stress.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister.

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