Reading and misreading Chinese immigration to Vancouver

Many of the reactions I’ve received to the recent write-up of my research with Jing in the Globe & Mail (and to my quick perusal of the comments section) seem to suggest that there’s something fundamentally dishonest and wrong about immigrants looking to make a better home for themselves in Vancouver.  I want to clarify that I don’t think this is the case.  The intent of my discussion with Frances was to make three things plain:

  1. Immigrants are people.  They’re a highly selected set of people, but they are fundamentally human.  This all too often gets lost in discussions about their impact on local housing.  That they’re mostly coming to Vancouver to make a better home for themselves is a fundamentally human thing to do.  And Vancouver is a great place to make a home.
  2. The selection processes concerning who gets invited to come to Vancouver matter.  Many (but not all) of these processes are policy-relevant.  Right now Canadian immigration policy selects heavily for “skill” and wealth (it is difficult to fully disconnect the two, though the skilled stream selects more upon our constructions of the former and business/investment streams have selected more for the latter).  The assumptions behind this selection are that these immigrants will most contribute to the dynamism of the Canadian economy.  As such, the policy is very much market-focused and oriented toward the business world rather than considering other motivations for immigration or broader questions about social justice.
  3. The selection processes concerning who makes a decision to come (or try to come) to Vancouver also matter.  Mostly those who make this decision already know (thanks to things like internet chat forums) that they will not have nearly as many economic opportunities in Canada as they already do in China.  If you’re really into economic dynamism and a high status career, you stay in China!  So most immigrants who come to Vancouver from China select themselves for being more interested in the quality of life in Canada. They want cleaner air, safer food, better and more sensitive education for their children.  They want a home life, where they can spend time with their children.  They also want a responsible and navigable bureaucracy, where they don’t need to know the right people or bribe their way to get what they feel they need.  These are all very human things to want, and they all involve appreciating what Canada has to offer – not free market dynamism, but rather careful restrictions and regulations placed around markets by a largely responsive government to make them work better for people.  [Yes, yes, Canada doesn’t always do this to my satisfaction, but compared to China we do it pretty well].

So mostly the people who select themselves to come to Canada are nice, home-loving sorts who really appreciate what Canada has to offer them.  But because of Canadian immigration policies (as well as the difficulties in navigating bureaucratic systems in China), they also tend to be quite privileged and well-off.  This is the world which my comment to Frances that, “Canada could look at letting in fewer millionaires and more refugees” was meant to reflect.  There are plenty of nice, home-loving sorts of people who would really appreciate what Canada has to offer them currently being excluded by Canadian immigration policies.  And many of them need better homes far more than the wealthy privileged folks we’re currently inviting to the country.  That said, I’m also quite sympathetic to letting in more immigrants period, and I don’t mean to suggest those who have already arrived are in any way undeserving.

So I’m not seeing villains, but are they out there?  Are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members also getting into Canada, and using immigration to hide their wealth?  This seems very likely.  There are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members from countries all over the world doing terrible things (I believe there might be one running for president of the United States at the moment).  And they often get away with it.  We should try and stop that from happening.  But I’d suggest these people are relatively rare, and they’re certainly a minority among immigrants to Vancouver.  Indeed, the folks we talked to were selected for rejecting that aspect of life in China.  They came to Canada to get away from cronyism and corruption.

So I think villains are quite rare, but it’s worth noting that the wealth flowing into places like Vancouver has had an enormous impact on local life. Housing prices, in particular, have risen astronomically, motivating much of the ire at new immigrants, especially those coming from China. We should acknowledge that regardless of the intentions of wealthy immigrants, they’re contributing to processes of gentrification on a global scale. It’s important that we work to figure out equitable ways of dealing with this  from a policy standpoint (I’m not sure the foreign-buyer tax qualifies, but I’ll admit it represents at least an effort).  But it’s also important that we work on this without demonizing immigrants.

2 thoughts on “Reading and misreading Chinese immigration to Vancouver

  1. Interesting blog. I think we need to talk more about colonialism. I would love to attend an immigration meeting put on by the Government of Canada overseas. How is Canada being presented? Since its inception Canada has been created on the basis of “opportunity” vs. community. It was the Indigenous who truly valued community. Immigrants, from day one, came to Canada for opportunity sold to them by the Government of Canada (for example, Eastern Europeans recruited to farm and *settle* the prairies). However, many of those immigrants also happened to be fleeing the violence and poverty that was Europe at that point in history. I married into a business-class investor immigrant family. What Canada has done is something typical, but something that your average Canadian is probably blind to–the latest wave of privileged, wealthy immigrant are here with some pretty big expectations. Canada has been “sold” to them. They more or less have bought their way into the country. So, privilege is key–do you think people who have bought their way in–for example, my Chinese mother in law absolutely sees that she paid her way to be here–when people have paid their way, do you think they’re super excited to become part of the local social fabric? Or, do they see the local social fabric as their servants? My mother in law 150% sees my own Canadian family as her servants. We’re not people, we’re servants. After all, Canada recruited her–Canada sold her a bill of goods. Who will meet her unrealistic expectations? Expectations are tricky. The privileged class in Asia also have servants back at home. Moving to North America is a completely different environment. We don’t typically have servants–but guess what, the new business class immigrant investor might see typical, everyday Canadians as their servants. After all, are we not complicit with the Canadian foreign policy of inviting people in just for their money? Money never really buys happiness; money creates incredibly high expectations that rarely are met. Observing my in-laws’ business class immigrant friends and relatives, I’ve never seen a more miserable group of people ever. And do you know what? They “hate” Canadians–I’ve been told they “hate” Canadians more times than I can count. Canada does little to really help these people get connected to community and to people who have been in Canada a long time. Most of these people will never, ever, ever meet a non-Chinese person during the course of their life in Canada. However, the more things change the more they stay the same, in the Fraser Valley you have large ghettoes of Dutch and Mennonite immigrants who came around 1950–they too are very wealthy. They made their wealth off the backs of the Sumas First Nation–they drained that lake, bought the land for a pittance, and got rich off that fertile soil. Come visit the siloed immigrant populations of the Fraser Valley–Dutch people still say “if you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much”–they’ll say this right to your face, even if you had a Canadian relative who died in the war trying to defend them. Mennonites brag about being Mennonite, help Mennonite relatives before other people–and they are Mennonites first, Canadians second. The Dutch and the Mennonites have their own schools in the Valley–they also can live cradle to grave without meeting anyone outside their communities. And these immigrants came in the 1950s (look how the mayors of Langley and Abbotsford are Mennonites). Arguably, every wave of immigrant might have been somewhat privileged when coming to Canada–somehow they managed to get here while other groups died in Europe. They also got land at the expense of First Nations’ communities. So, truth and reconciliation had Canada on the right track–until the roots of colonialism are honestly looked at–until Canadians really value Canada, then we can expect waves and waves of privileged immigrants to come to this place. We shouldn’t be so surprised when we find our way of life disrupted by the latest wave of powerful, rich immigrants–this is what Canada is based upon! Injustice is like that, we can turn a blind eye to injustice until it starts to hurt us.


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