Building a Path to Active Citizenship for Canadian Newcomers: Opportunities, Challenges, Solutions

Speech

Speaking Notes - Hon. Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions

Toronto, ON, June 9th, 2017

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Good morning.

I want to begin today by acknowledging that the land we are on has been home to the peoples of Turtle Island. This land has been a gathering place for Indigenous people for generations, and we must honour and respect both the history and the ongoing contributions of Indigenous people in Canada.  

I’d like to thank Samara Canada, North York Community House, and the Agincourt Community Services Association for inviting me to speak with you today. It is truly inspiring to be among people who do the work that you do; going out into your communities and demonstrating that welcoming spirit that Canadians are well known for. I appreciate having the opportunity to speak with you, and to hear about your experiences and your ideas.

Canada’s remarkable ability to welcome so many newcomers is renowned around the globe. In April of this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees commended Canada for its efforts to resettle over 46,000 refugees.  Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the Commissioner’s representative in Canada said the following: “This is a tremendous achievement which reflects Canada’s longstanding tradition of welcoming refugees and assisting them with their integration into Canadian society.”

This doesn’t happen by accident; it takes organizations like yours, and Canadians like you, to help us all achieve these crucial goals.

Your work is essential in assisting newcomers. The North York Community House serves thousands of newcomers annually. You help them find jobs, learn English, take part in community activities, and importantly, develop a political voice.

And the Agincourt Community Services Association has made a huge difference in Scarborough. Your Newcomers’ Centre is a great example of what our government can do by funding a top-notch, grass-roots organization.

And Samara -- you’re doing the vital work to connect people, and especially new Canadians and youth, to politics. This is important. We are fortunate to have a strong democracy here in Canada, but too many Canadians assume that democracy and its institutions are inevitable.

I’d like to begin my reflection with a personal story.  I was born in Canada.  My mom came here from Germany when she was 19 years old and my dad was born to Czech parents who came to Canada following World War II, fleeing war and persecution.  Shortly after the election, I was sitting having coffee with my grandmother, who marvelled to think we came here with $20 almost 60 years ago, and now her granddaughter is a Member of Parliament.

She talked about the fact that when she came here, she was so excited to start a new life.  Having lost everything in World War II, this was an opportunity to be something new; to do something different; and to have opportunities which were denied her.

We lost everything in the war, but Canada gave us the opportunity to re-build, and ultimately, to succeed.  My story, my family’s story, is the story of so many Canadians who originated somewhere else, but who have made Canada home.  Whether seeking refuge, or simply a better life, generations of newcomers have worked to make this country more tolerant, more inclusive, and more welcoming.

Indeed, we can take pride in our ability to encourage a sense of belonging. By embracing multiculturalism and diversity, Canadians are embodying a way of life that upholds our commitment to peaceful pluralism and in many ways is unique in the world.  And we do so while providing newcomers with space to stay connected to the cultures, religions, and communities of their roots.

This may seem now like an obvious strategy – even a cliché. Yet Canada’s accomplishments in welcoming new Canadians, with no small amount of help from people and organizations like yours, is something that takes dedication and commitment, as a society.

To be truly successful, we know, in this room, this work can’t just be about helping newcomers find accommodations, learn a language, and find a job. We need them to engage in our public debates in our civic life. It is, after all, their democracy now too. Their ideas are important, and we need them, because democracy works best when there are many voices and a diversity of viewpoints.

We know that many immigrant communities are active in our electoral process. They breathe life into our institutions. Look at the House of Commons. Minister Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, who is himself is a Somali refugee. Minister Harjit Sajjan, the Minister of National Defence, was born in in Bombeli, a small Punjabi village. There are MP’s who were born in 22 countries  represented in the House of Commons, and Punjabi is now the third most spoken language in the House of Commons. The House of Commons is becoming more representative of the mosaic that is Canada.

But reports from Elections Canada, Statistics Canada and various academics have told us that recent immigrants have had a lower-than-average participation rate over the years. Part of inclusion also necessitates a sense of belonging to the civic life that surrounds you. We must be alive to the trends and actively seek to ensure newcomers to Canada feel they too are an important part and voice in our civic life.  Attempts have been made at both the federal and provincial level to buck this trend. For instance, Elections Canada now produces a voter’s guide in 31 languages.  But we know that civic life runs deeper than just a voter’s guide.

There are some more encouraging trends, however. In 2015, we saw an across-the-board increase in the number and percentage of Canadians casting ballots. More than 17.7 million Canadians voted, or 68% of registered voters. That compares with just under 15 million in 2011, or 61% of registered voters. That’s one of the largest increases in our history.

While we have seen lots of great efforts to increase voter participation, there is still much more to be done. We need Canadians, whether they were born here or chose our great country, to feel they are full participants in our democracy. Let’s look for more ways to help them take advantage of the opportunities our democracy affords all of us.

When engaging with new voters, I often say why I think it’s important to vote: because if you don’t, your voice will not be heard.  I also know, that for many people, voting for the first time, contacting your MP for the first time can be scary, even intimidating.  I often have newcomers that approach me and ask how they might be able to have a meeting.  I say just call my office, just send me an email.  But that can be scary and daunting.  That’s where your work is so vital.  De-mystifying political engagement for many Canadians is something we all need to work on.

This is where a term I’m calling citizen literacy comes in.   

In my role as Minister of Democratic Institutions, I’d like to see all Canadians – including newcomers – view democracy as being more than just casting a ballot. We need to identify barriers to participation and explore avenues to engage people with pathways for meaningful engagement. When I talk about citizen literacy, it’s about developing the tools we can use as citizens to be informed and engaged in our civic and political life.  Why that ballot we cast on Election Day matters and what we can do between elections to engage with and hold our politicians and governments to account.  That’s why you – and the work that you do – is so critical.

For our country to continue to thrive, all of our people need to be part of its continued self-reflection and aspiration building.  This will help us ensure that everyone who has the right to participate also has the opportunity and possibility to do so.

The strength of real democracy is a number of different voices and views coming together, and the debate, discussion and examination of important issues in a constructive and respectful way. Our own open society is most secure when we are in a world of open societies. This is why being exposed to other points of view is vital. To close ourselves off to this is to ultimately harm who we are as Canadians.

I think it is up to each and every one of us to make an effort to question our own opinions.  And there is no other place in the world where people of diverse backgrounds come together, choose to persistently work for a better life, and share their own unique experiences.

In 2017, the opportunities to engage in our democracy are enormous.

My message to all Canadians, everywhere I go, regardless of how long your family has been here: Engage in a public policy discussion over lunch or online. Volunteer for a charity.  Join a community organization. Sign a petition. Participate in a rally. Get in touch with your local MP, MPP or City Councillor.

Participation is particularly important for new Canadians.  The voices of new Canadians matter. If any group of Canadian’s doesn’t vote, there is a risk that government policies won’t reflect their needs, which are significant in the early years after arrival.

And I know from my own personal history, that when my grandparents came to Canada, when they immigrated to Niagara Falls, and were working in a grocery store, and eventually my grandfather ended up buying a strawberry farm in Lynden, Ontario, what got them involved in the community was getting involved in the local Lions Club. It was joining a community organization where he had the opportunity to meet new people, to be integrated, and feel that local connection, and for my grandfather, to ultimately become Lynden Citizen of the Year.  They had a sense of belonging, and Canada was now their home.

When individuals or communities feel disengaged or disenfranchised, they may become excluded from the democratic process.  I believe that we, in the global context, have done a good job being open and welcoming. But we have to be vigilant and look for ways to do more.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed me to this position, he asked me to help him “restore Canadians’ trust and participation in our democratic processes.” We have already acted, introducing legislation to make it easier to vote.

For instance, Bill C-33 would create a National Register of Future Electors to enable youth to register to vote before they turn 18. The legislation would also permit Canadian citizens to vouch for someone who doesn’t have photo identification.

It would also allow Elections Canada to undertake public education initiatives to build a better-informed electorate.

Bill C-33 will help address some of the barriers that are particularly challenging for New Canadians, youth, and Indigenous Canadians.  But not all of them, and there’s where you come in to help us identify where some of those barriers are.

I share the views expressed in a 2015 report from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

The Institute argues that apathy and language deficits aren’t sufficient reasons to explain lower participation rates among newly-arrived Canadians.

The report cites a lack of information, a lack of confidence in how to negotiate the electoral system, and even a lack of adequate time off work to vote. We need to look for ways to deal with these hurdles.

To continue to address these hurdles, we need to hear from people on the front lines -- like you. We need you to continue your efforts and let us know what works.  What doesn’t?

That’s why I’m delighted to be here and part of this timely conversation that you are leading.

I look forward to getting your feedback and continuing to work to make our civic life and democracy more inclusive.

In closing I’m going to point to comments included in the Institute for Canadian Citizenship’s report.  They came from first-time voters sharing their feelings after leaving a Canadian voting booth for the first time.

One Mississauga participant said: “I felt accepted. I felt part of the Canadian fabric that day.” Another from Vancouver called voting a gesture that confirmed that she is a Canadian. A third, from Ottawa, simply said: “I started sobbing.  I came out from the voting booth and I just burst into tears.”

As I said at the outset, nation-building requires consistent and dedicated effort.  It requires us to continuously work for inclusion and a sense of belonging among all of our citizens.  Democracy is not inevitable.  But those reflections and deep emotion felt by first time voters amongst our newcomers mean we’re doing something right.

Thank-you. Meegwetch.


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