The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has steadily increased in recent years, more than tripling between 2000 and 2012 and surpassing the number of people admitted for permanent residence to Canada.
What are the implications of relying on temporary workers who reside in Canada but are unable to become permanent citizens? How does this affect issues of racism and our understanding of multiculturalism and Canadian identity? These are the types of questions that Yasmeen Abu-Laban, a professor in the Department of Political Science, aims to answer in her research. Abu-Laban studies nationalism, public policies (such as immigration, multiculturalism and employment equity), and the comparative politics of Canada, North America and Europe.
“[The high number of temporary workers] is a major shift with huge implications because it means that you have growing numbers of people living in Canada that do not hold Canadian citizenship,” explains Abu-Laban. Alberta, in particular, has regularly struggled with labour shortages and takes advantage of programs to recruit temporary workers to fill labour needs.
“Also, [this raises] larger questions about the type of society we want to be; is it right that there are people denied rights when they reside here and pay taxes? They don’t have a right to vote, they don’t have a right to participate in the same way as others,” she says.
Changing symbolism around multiculturalism
Canada’s policy of multiculturalism has largely been admired internationally because Canadian immigrants, when compared to other countries, have tended to do fairly well in our system. However, the move towards having more temporary workers could shift those dynamics and lead to a re-bordering of Canadian identity and citizenship.
Although public opinion polls suggest that Canadians continue to strongly support multiculturalism, Abu-Laban’s research suggests that the symbolism associated with multiculturalism has been changing in recent years. For example, government documentation such as Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, which is used by newcomers to study for the citizenship test, has an increasing emphasis on the role of the British Empire in shaping Canada, as well as the Queen as a unifying symbol. In addition, other literature and commemorative events such as the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 two years ago highlight our military history and paint Canada as a warrior nation.
“One of the challenges there, from a scholarly standpoint, and also a standpoint that gives recognition to the complexity of Canada, is that of the place of social history. The role that different groups — women, minorities, indigenous people and children — have played in shaping Canadian history and that kind of scholarship is really valuable to understanding Canada’s complexity,” explains Abu-Laban.
“There have been alarm bells raised…around what is being perceived as a sidelining of social history that may come about because of these changes.”
Racism and human rights
Abu-Laban is also interested in issues of human rights, racism, nationalism and gender politics. For example, in collaboration with a colleague at the University of Toronto, she has a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that looks at how the United Nations has engaged with and shaped issues of racism and discrimination through its World Conferences Against Racism. This research project is aimed at understanding how issues surrounding human rights have developed internationally.
“It’s really important that we have discussions of issues facing us in all societies around diversity. The vast majorities of states around the world are ethnically, religiously diverse.”
In addition, earlier this year Abu-Laban was awarded the 2014 McCalla Professorship, which is given to faculty members who have made significant contributions in their field of research, teaching and learning. Abu-Laban will use her professorship to write a textbook that addresses contemporary Canadian contributions to human rights.
“It’s really important that we have discussions of issues facing us in all societies around diversity. The vast majorities of states around the world are ethnically, religiously diverse. We’re not homogenous. It’s a myth that there’s these homogenous populations,” says Abu-Laban. “If we understand it from the vantage point that diversity is the norm…what can be distinct is how different states handle that diversity. What policies do they have in place that foster feelings of inclusion, foster feelings of participation for everyone that lives in that society?”
Abu-Laban’s research could play a key role in shaping our understanding of diverse societies and public policies: “The real value of research is that we have time to look systematically through the different choices and options, and to compare and to assess, and to evaluate which ones are better or worse from the standpoint of inclusion, from the standpoint of human rights, and from the standpoint of a good society,” she adds.