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Immigration nation

Concordia experts examine social, psychological and political implications of Canada’s growing number of new arrivals
May 5, 2015
By Beverly Ackerman

When former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien spoke at Concordia on March 4, he showed that time has diminished none of his style or pith. Chrétien told the audience packed into the Sir George Williams Alumni Auditorium: “I was proud to tell [European leaders] I don’t have any problem with immigration in Canada. For me an immigrant is not a problem, an immigrant is an asset.” 

The venue was an appropriate place to relate that story, because a number of Concordia faculty across departments are addressing the challenges and opportunities that form part of the Canadian immigrant experience.

Professor death metal

Vivek Venkatesh One research focus of Vivek Venkatesh, associate professor in the Department of Education (among other roles), is messages of hate found in metal music culture. He recently spoke at the industry conference of the Inferno metal festival Norway.

Vivek Venkatesh, MA 03, PhD 08, is one busy guy. He’s associate dean, Academic Programs and Development, at Concordia’s School of Graduate Studies, acting director of the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, director of the Graduate Certificate in University Teaching and associate professor in the Department of Education.

Originally from India, Venkatesh came to Canada by way of Singapore. He has a layered understanding of what it means to move between countries, languages and cultures. He studied French as a schoolboy, married a woman from Paris and is now pleasantly surprised to discover himself able to deliver keynote addresses and white papers in la langue de Molière. “I’m an unabashed proponent of the interculturalism Quebec is known for,” he says.

As successful as his personal immigration experience has been, some of his research looks at the flip side. “It focuses on how digital media is used in the creation, dissemination and propagation of online hate including misogyny, homophobia and racism in multicultural societies,” he says.

Venkatesh wants to “sensitize Canadians to the deleterious effects of hate speech,” he says. To this end, he received a two-year Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada grant — under their Kanishka Project, a five-year $10 million initiative to invest in research on terrorism and counterterrorism, including how to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Venkatesh and his team are championing the SOMEONE project, an acronym for SOcial MEdia educatiON Every day. The vision: “To build awareness, create space for dialogue and combat online hate.” An online portal of learning materials — multimedia, digital and social — will be created to sensitize Canadian students, parents, teachers and the general public and designed to prevent hate speech inciting violence and violent extremism. The goal is to foster resilience and develop digital literacy and critical thinking. The developed material — blogs, podcasts, videos, comic books, graphics and other media — will help educators, community members and government stakeholders encourage the use of social media to counter hate speech.

The project brings together principal investigators from each of Concordia’s four faculties and other Canadian- and American-based researchers. Collaborators include experts in consumer consumption and cultural theory, peace education, terrorism risk assessment, textual analysis, psychoanalytics, feminism and a host of other specialties.

SOMEONE grew out of concerns about social media and the propagation of hate online — an awareness that arose during some of Venkatesh’s other research on extreme metal music. Venkatesh stresses the fine line that exists between building a culture of respect for civil liberties and freedom of expression and an anything-goes mentality. Currently he’s become interested in how elements of Nordic culture, Canadian history and assimilation stories are incorporated in the extreme metal art form. Racist ideals are propagated through the metal scene, and so linguistic analysis of Reddit and Facebook chatter is in his sights. Which means among his latest collaborators are people who study online discourses, as well as the history of societies in Scandinavia and North America.

“I’ve been a metalhead as long as I can consciously remember, probably 30 years,” he says. “We need to better understand how hateful messages are propagated and interpreted by various members of these music scenes.”

The way of all flesh

Lorna Roth Department of Communication studies professor Lorna Roth is in the process of writing an e-book, Colour balance: skin tones technologies product. It will examine the history of the colour “flesh,” its multiple meanings and complex place in societies.

Lorna Roth, BA 72, PhD 94, professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies and fellow in the School of Community and Public Affairs and Simone de Beauvoir Institute, has been deeply concerned with minority communications and cultural rights throughout her wide and varied career.

Her work over the years with Aboriginal groups eventually led to the creation of the Aboriginal People’s Television Network in 1999.

Since finishing her book on the history of First Peoples media in Canada in 2005, she has been working on two research trajectories. Roth was a member of the Montreal Life Stories Project team at Concordia (2007–2013), which produced oral histories of 500 Montrealers who emigrated to escape from mass violence and conflicts in their home countries. She and Caroline Kunzle, MA 03, compared the impact of video (as opposed to audio-only) recording of oral histories in the “About Face” project. “What are the reasons you would or would not want to show your face?” Roth questions.

Her second research focus has shifted to one “much more subtle and nuanced,” she says. “I consider the ways in which skin colour is embedded in manufactured products, and the recognition by designers and producers that not all skin is light in colour.”

Roth is interested in understanding what goes into design decisions affecting various products one wouldn’t immediately associate with race. Kodak stock photographic film was a classic example: it was developed for light skin colour. Surprisingly, her research indicated that problems associated with this weren’t pointed out by people with darker skin but by advertisers, such as those manufacturing wood-grained products who couldn’t get properly exposed “photographs of their beautiful furniture,” she says.

Over the years, she discovered much international evidence that confirmed the light flesh bias in stock films of all brands. Roth notes, “Once you start researching, these concerns become ubiquitous: from Crayola’s ‘flesh’ coloured crayons to the film industry’s Shirley colour-balance cards used in the calibration of photo prints (which had been dominantly white until the mid-nineties), to ‘nude’ pantyhose designed for Caucasian skin, to the colours of makeup, mannequins, dolls and Band-Aids, not to mention the colour correction and adjustment processes inherent in video and filmmaking.”

To complement her case studies, Roth has formulated a framework to analyze the emergent theoretical questions from her material evidence and international interviewees. “People tend to assume that the product designs are deliberately racist,” she says. “But I’m not certain how skin colourconscious manufacturers have been. People emerge out of a context, a time, a history; these products began appearing prior to the civil rights movements around the world.” She favours the term dysconsciousness, “a low level of awareness that such issues exist,” and a more nuanced interpretation of the typical embedded racial bias. She goes on: “Nonetheless, these products have had major consequences on the development of a colour complex for peoples with darker skin colours.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, many product designers became more inclusive of all skin tones, Roth notes. “The change is fairly recent, and it’s not quite fast enough for me, but it is happening,” she says. “I’m looking for a different kind of equity, not based on statistics, policies, or legislation, but rather on the embeddedness of a range of skin tones in all the products and technologies that I have been studying.” Roth remains devoted to the push for inclusiveness, for social justice. “It’s very important,” she says. “All visual aspects of our environment, for kids especially, should be equitable.”

Depression and newcomers

 Andrew Ryder Department of Psychology associate professor Andrew Ryder is also an affiliate researcher within the culture and mental health research unit At Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. His research includes looking at the relationship between individuals and their cultural context.

How do newcomers make the psychological adjustment when they arrive in Montreal?

That’s one of the areas of research for Andrew Ryder, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and a licensed clinical psychologist. Ryder looks at the relationship between individuals and their cultural context and how this affects mental health — for example, recent findings showed that minority groups in the United States are less likely to receive treatment for personality disorder, possibly due to their socioeconomic status.

His current work explores differences in how Chineseand Euro-Canadians present depression, as well as research into immigration and acculturation. “I’m interested in the psychological processes that people experience as they shift cultural environments,” he says.

Ryder is looking at the way immigrants at various points along the journey of becoming Canadian adjust their values, emotions and attitudes. In collaboration with psychology professor Catherine Amiot of Université de Québec à Montréal, Ryder is working on a multi-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada project on how international students adjust to Montreal.

The students come with differing goals, running the gamut from those who intend to immigrate to those who only want to spend a short period abroad. “They’re eager to access the blend of English and French, the unique urban context,” he says. “People see the Montreal identity as a discrete, salient thing,” Ryder reports. There’s an initial excitement that lasts until “a dip at midterms,” which tends to pick up as the one-year mark approaches. “Newcomers adjust in terms of their comfort and confidence. It’s about practical and emotional things, their interpersonal competence, comfort using a new language,” he says.

Social networks are especially important — “the entry to a real social life,” Ryder explains. “The single best way to learn a language is to speak it, but how are you going to convince people you are worth talking to? Studying their social networks lets us predict the degree of high-level comfort in the language, the difference between someone who can use new language skills to get what she/he needs and someone who can go out and share a few beers and talk hockey.”

He explains that different groups experience psychological symptoms in different ways; for example, among some groups stress and depression is experienced more in physical symptoms such as fatigue while others emphasize psychological symptoms such as guilt. Being in Montreal has advantages in Ryder’s field of study. While Toronto is more culturally diverse on certain technical measures, “Montreal is one of the two or three best centres in the world for the study of immigrant acculturation and mental healthcare,” he says.

Looking at immigration policy

Mireille Paquet Mireille Paquet, assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Political science, looks at Canadian immigration policies. She’s co-director of the university’s Centre for the evaluation of immigration policies, created in 2013. “We’re not interested in whether a policy is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but in studying what governments actually do, and how to measure the impacts of these policy changes.”

Mireille Paquet, assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Political Science, researches and teaches immigration, public policy and public administration. Co-founder of Concordia’s Centre for the Evaluation of Immigration Policies (CEIP), her current research focuses on the governance of immigration in federal countries and the roles bureaucrats play in formulating immigration and integration policies.

Her research demonstrates that all Canadian provinces are largely on the same page. “The kind of message that Mr. Chrétien put forward in his talk at Concordia of immigrants as an asset, starting in about the mid ’90s, diffused out of the federal government,” she says. “It’s become extremely popular in all 10 provinces. This whole idea that we need immigrants, they’re needed for the economy, they’re needed for our demography, they’re needed because they’re educated, really began to motivate provincial governments to develop new immigration policies during this time period.”

Prior to that, Paquet notes, only the Quebec government was really active in this domain. Immigrant selection was devolved to the province in 1991, as was responsibility for integration. Now Quebec is no longer the sole province having “unlimited selection capacity,” she says.

For the longest time, Quebec immigration policy was mostly driven by concerns about the need to secure the French language. She reports that since the 1990s this has gradually changed, with economic consideration now also on top of the province’s immigration agenda.

Over the past two decades, Paquet has found that economic concerns have been paramount for the provinces. Her findings feature prominently in her upcoming book, Les provinces et la fédéralisation de l’immigration au Canada 1990-2010 (Presses de l’Université de Montréal). The need to buttress economic growth, to ensure a strong population base for taxation, demographic and population renewal are all important drivers of immigration policy across Canada, Paquet says.

Overall, though, she says: “The message our country broadcasts is, ‘Canada is open to immigration, but we expect you to access employment very quickly.’ Economic integration is a primary goal.”

She points to the federal government’s new Express Entry program, which matches qualified and semi-qualified immigrants with employers to generate job offers prior to immigrants’ arrival in Canada. “It used to be that immigrants were looked upon in human capital terms, they were bringing in their education and experience, and were expected to integrate easily. But these newer programs address real hurdles that exist in getting into the job market,” she says.

These barriers include difficulty having foreign credentials recognized by Canadian organizations and professional associations and “the refusal of some Canadian employers to hire immigrants lacking Canadian job experience,” she adds. “Canada sends a strong message: we recruit based on qualifications. But then qualifications aren’t recognized. This is unfair.” Problems associated with racism and ethnocentrism remain, too.

In her book, Paquet finds many similarities in policies among all provinces, although there are differences related to language concerns, of course. Overall, Quebec takes a larger role in the provision of direct services to new immigrants. The other provinces are more likely to provide funds to community groups to accomplish similar goals. “Employment is the big thing,” she says.

—Beverly Akerman is a Montreal freelance writer.

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