DES COLOHAN: Racism vs. xenophobia

Critical to understand what is going on; do our utmost to welcome new immigrants, refugees with open arms

Published on March 20, 2017

Recent Syrian refugees are welcomed to P.E.I. during a special reception in Charlottetown in mid-March, 2016.

©TC Media/File Photo

In the March 8th issue of the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Canadian Coalition for Concerned Citizens said that, “The main mission of our group is to protect our country, our way of life and our culture. I don’t know how that is racist?”

Technically, he has a point, provided that his organization doesn’t actually believe that the people about whom they have concerns are a threat to our way of life because they are of another race.

Nevertheless, the Canadian Coalition for Concerned Citizens may very well be xenophobic. Many people conflate these two terms. Racism is manifested by discrimination and prejudice towards other people based on their race or ethnicity. Racists believe that biological factors can be used to explain the social and cultural differences amongst humans. Racism includes the belief that there is a natural hierarchical ordering of peoples so that superior races can dominate inferior ones. This is evidenced by stereotypical beliefs, such as the misapprehension that people of the other race are more, or less, intelligent, ambitious, motivated or sexually precocious, but that our race is superior overall.

In contrast, Xenophobia is the fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or of strangers. According to Andreas Wimmer, professor of sociology at Columbia University, xenophobia is "an element of the political struggle about who has the right to be cared for by the state and society: a fight for the collective goods of the modern state". Xenophobia manifests itself when one group feels that its entitlement to benefits from the government is being superseded by another group. In the current leadership race for the federal Conservative party, several candidates are advocating limiting immigration to applicants who profess their belief in “Canadian values.” What exactly does that mean? It strikes me that this is code for “they must be like us.”

A 2013 Statistics Canada survey found that an overwhelming majority of Canadians share the values of human rights (92 per cent agreeing) respect for the law (92 per cent) and gender equality (91 per cent). There is substantially less agreement among Canadians about whether ethnic and cultural diversity, linguistic duality and respect for aboriginal culture are also shared Canadian values.

According to the Canadian Index of Well Being, published by the University of Waterloo, Canadian values include fairness, inclusivity, democracy, economic security, safety, sustainability, diversity, equity and health. Motherhood ideals. What immigration applicant in their right mind would deny sharing such values or admit to espousing honour killing or genital mutilation (other than male circumcision)?  That’s why pre-screening immigrants for Canadian values would soon become a useless and insulting exercise.

Canada has had a long and often unenviable record when it comes to taking in refugees and immigrants. There are many historical and more recent examples of Canadian xenophobia and outright racism, as manifested by our unconscionable treatment of our own aboriginal peoples, and our historic abuse of Blacks, Jews and Asians. Now we have a new bogeyman, which is comprised of multiple ethnicities and races.

Our homegrown fear mongers and political opportunists are trying to segregate our newest immigrants and refugees in a “basket of deplorables” with a common religion, Islam.  Our fear of Muslims is completely irrational, but gives the xenophobes an excuse to turn Canadians against them. Unfortunately, as xenophobic and isolationist fervor ramp up in the U.S.A., these disturbing behaviours are likely to become more evident in Canada. It is critical that we understand what is going on here and do our utmost to welcome new immigrants and refugees with open arms, without prejudice and try to protect our most vulnerable new residents from further harm.


- Desmond Colohan is a semi-retired Island physician with a keen interest in responsible social policy.