Sometime in September 2010, while enjoying a beer with some colleagues and professors at a bar in Uppsala, Sweden, Dr. Thomas Ohlson said something that makes me ponder further on the present social and political smoke we breathe in Canada. While taking whiffs off his cigarette, Dr. Ohlson explained to us his opinion about the Swedish government imposing tuition fees to international students as of 2011. Behind his rationale, I did not find arguments remotely related to financial crises, bankrupt economic systems, or the dangers of codependence in the European Union. He opposed this decision because he felt it threatened the principle of equality under which the free education system was founded. A few minutes later, he would finalize his ideas by saying that free education for everyone, Swedish or not, was a matter of principle.
Sadly, the great Dr. Ohlson recently passed away, and I cannot help but think about this conversation each time I reflect on the drafting of policy in Canada. It seems as though policy is no longer conceived to adhere to a set of ideas or principles that do not carry with them immediate profit, or whose benefits are immaterial and/or unquantifiable. The overhaul of Canada’s immigration system under the Harper government is a very good example of this logic.
When Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that the government would introduce legislation to limit the number of applications coming from parents and grandparents of permanent residents, he argued these changes were necessary because these applications were backlogging the system. Additionally, he believed these changes were necessary because the adaptability of older immigrants into the job market was allegedly compromised by their reduced ability to learn Canada’s official languages, among other factors.
While mathematics and linguistics help quantify and explain system backlogs and immigrants’ ability to learn a language, it is impossible for these disciplines to measure the joy of a reunified family. Each year, Canada becomes the home of roughly 250,000 new immigrants, but it is hard for anyone to envision a home without a family. It is however possible to envision how a lack of a family unit could evolve in immigrants feeling alienated in their new social context, a sense that is further aggravated by an increasing consumerist and individualist culture.
The alienation created by the unattainability of family reunification, and the emotional ensemble it brings with it, are constructs that are hard (or impossible) to measure and profit from, but this does not mean they are unworthy of being a central part of policy-making. I find the argument of Canada being a nation that puts values before profit compelling, and policy-makers should not be quick to forget that one of the cornerstones of Canadianism, universal health care, was also founded on an unprofitable principle.
Does this mean that Canada has become a country without values? Absolutely not. Canada has become a country with governments that have chosen to download the defense of these principles to the beneficiaries of these ideals: Citizens. What they did not expect was that citizens would fare well in defending these principles. It remains to be seen whether Canadians will decide to upload these responsibilities back to governments that are capable and willing to embrace the incorporeal principles that define what Canada is and could be.
I rejoice to think that two years after our conversation, Dr. Ohlson’s surviving thoughts and ideas are still present and highly applicable even if one’s intentions are not to save the world from conflict, but to make it a bit better.