Author Malcolm Gladwell understands the importance of countries remaining open to newcomers during times of economic hardship, having immigrated as a child to Canada, where he says he was welcomed "with extraordinary warmth."
"It’s a mistake not to welcome newcomers with open arms because, properly welcomed, history has shown that they make contributions. Canada is a strong country built almost entirely around immigrants," he said.
His comments come as the Conservative government plans to rejig its immigration policies, including capping the amount of admissions applications to reduce backlog, while increasing the intake of temporary foreign workers. And while such initiatives may protect the immigration system from overload, some critics fear these and other rules may deter potential newcomers. Not to mention they could harm Canada’s reputation as a welcoming society.
"I would say that keeping that spirit alive is the great challenge," Gladwell says.
Gladwell, New Yorker staffer and author of The Tipping Point, Outliers, Blink, and What the Dog Saw, has a unique view on Canada's multiculturalism. Born to an English father and a Jamaican mother, he immigrated from the UK to Ontario at age six and, having graduated from the University of Toronto in 1984, left for the United States.
HuffPost Canada spoke with Gladwell about immigration’s effect on Canada’s economy ahead of the University of the West Indies benefit gala on March 10, where he and other notable Canadians of Caribbean descent will be honoured.
HuffPost: Though lauded for its multiculturalism, Canada has also been the subject of recent criticism over new, stricter immigration policies. How will that affect newcomers?
Gladwell: Immigration in times of economic difficulty is always a very politically controversial subject, so it doesn’t surprise me that there should be controversy around this. But I think we have to distinguish two things: historically, over this broad sweep of history, Canada has been welcoming, and I guess my only issue would be is this a temporary thing, or does it mark a real shift in perspective? And I hope it’s just temporary.
HuffPost: If so, what can be done to reverse the trend?
Gladwell: I think it’s easier when the economy is strong... Even though, rationally, you could make the opposite argument that when your economy is weak is exactly the time to be welcoming immigrants because that’s when you need the energy and enthusiasm and ideas that immigrants bring. But it’s a simple fact about people that when they get anxious, they get a little more conservative in opening their doors. Part of me thinks that when things get better, this trend will be reversed.
HuffPost: How do you think American and Canadian economies will recover, considering their different immigrant experiences?
Gladwell: I don't know. We do know, as a general principle ... that immigrants tend to be highly entrepreneurial as a group, so any country that allows a lot of immigrants is going to have a kind of entrepreneurial edge. If you look at Silicon Valley, it’s a kind of case study of the benefits of immigration. I mean, a number of start-ups in Silicon Valley that are headed by people not born in the United States or whose parents weren’t born in the United States is astonishing. That would be more of a kind of thing I imagine Canada and the United States would have in common.
HuffPost: Canada’s immigrant experience is by no means perfect. What can the nation do to ensure newcomers’ economic success?
Gladwell: I think the most important thing is not institutional, it’s an attitude thing. The most important thing is that those in Canada have an attitude of warmth and openness to newcomers. That’s not to say all the institutional things and the support mechanisms and the services and things aren’t important – they’re all crucial. But the absolute most important thing is that when you come, you feel like you’re wanted.