Andy Kusi-Appiah: Abdirahman Abdi and the integration of Canadians of African descent

Andy Kusi-Appiah

Andy Kusi-Appiah


Can Abdirahman Abdi’s death tell us anything about the integration of 2nd Generation Canadians of African descent?
Prof. Andy Kusi-Appiah
There is no shortage of migration stories in the holy Koran, the holy Bible and the holy Torah. In the holy books of today’s “Holy Land” we are told that Abram was always on the move, and his great grandchildren took refuge in Egypt (Genesis 26; Quran 29:26: Quran 21:71). In the same area, we learn about the story of Prophet Mohamed’s (PBOH) flight from Mecca to Yatharib (renamed Medina) in 622CE. Also, the story of Joseph and Mary, and the birth of Jesus is another story of migration in which Jesus parents had to travel to Bethlehem because of a census and taxation. In all of these ‘ancient’ stories of religious significance, we are able to determine whether integration of the migrants was successful or not. Sometimes, these stories end with the settlers integrating peacefully and quickly to the benefit of the receiving country/society. In other stories however, integration does not fully happen, and for the most part, it is the fault of the system in place, and the role that the wider population plays (or do not play) in the integration process.
Epistemological disputes and the re-victimization of the oppressed.
The last 1,825 days or so have witnessed an unprecedented number of stories (social media, mainstream media, alt-news media, academic publications, etc.) dedicated solely to the “invasion” of refugees from the global South to the global North. During this short and infinitesimal period in the history of humankind, we have been privy to some very sharp and unflattering comments about migrants all over the world. There are frequent stories of Syrian refugees in the news following the civil war in progress there. In Syria, millions of people, mostly children and women, have been displaced as a result of five years of non-stop fighting, fled their home and are living in dire conditions. Most of the children are living in very vulnerable conditions without basic necessities of life, let alone a descent education. We also hear of stories of desperate Africans fleeing, mostly war torn countries, to Europe through the Mediterranean sea.
For the most part, the sentiment about “these people” is how to stop them from moving or crossing onto affluent shores. The discussion has reached fever pitch with all kinds of arguments, mostly couched in the language of security of the destination area, and how the destination area can keep their borders from terrorists, criminals and uneducated people within the refugee population from entering. This narrative has gained a lot of grounds in the destination areas of the world (affluent world) – which happens to be spaces that perpetuated colonial tendencies to the detriment of sending areas.
Alas, in the era of the second decade of the 21st century, the word migration is a ‘bad’ word. It is this word that has galvanized many a western population to call for a moratorium on migration in their communities. Migration has also led to political movements that ‘feed’ on this hatred for the refugee who is coming to ‘dilute’ these
communities. It is this sentiment that has led to the rise of ultra-right wing politicians in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany, United Kingdom, just to mention but a few. Brexit was born out of this sentiment, and President Trump rode on the coat tails of this single sentiment all the way to the White House. As I write, it has been predicted that Le Pen’s National Front in France may win in the coming elections in France. Eastern Europe has not been spared by this trend either. Poland and the right wing conservative Law and Justice party is busy altering the constitution to suppress judicial oversight of the government and stifle the press. As Paul Mason of the UK Guardian puts it: “The far right is weaseling into the mainstream, dressed up in suits.” (May 2, 2016). Fortunately, Canada has not asked for a moratorium on migration (not yet!), however, current happenings of increased ethnic and cultural discrimination against new Canadians of African descent cannot pass without comment.
Canada – island of sanity or gathering storm?
Canada is historically a diverse nation, founded by Indigenous peoples who were already here, and settlers who joined them, initially from France and Britain, and everywhere else. At the beginning, immigration primarily reflected the ethnicity of the United States and Europe, and then settlements by other groups, of non-European descent (e.g., Chinese workers were brought in to help with the construction of the railroad; Nova Scotia and Ontario also saw an influx of Afro-American immigrants, escaping slavery in the United States). Beginning in the 1960s, Canada relaxed its immigration policy to allow other immigrants from other areas into Canada.
It was around this time that the Multiculturalism Act was passed (1971) to reflect the diversity of the people. The Act emphasized the need for all cultures to retain their linguistic heritages and ethnic cultures instead of being assimilated into mainstream society. One main value (there are a few more) of the amended Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988 is important as we mourn our brother Abdirahman Abdi. The Act asserts that individuals and communities are to be assured full and equitable participation in all aspects of Canadian society and that any barriers to that participation will be eliminated. No one should be excluded from participating in key social, political, and economic institutions simply because they have chosen to maintain their traditional cultural customs and practices. Obviously, the passing of Abdi, and other related and numerous examples of ethnic and cultural discrimination dotted all over the Canadian landscape, is testament to the fact that the integration of new Canadians has not been complete (see Rima Berns-McGown, 2013). In her now well cited essay: “I Am Canadian – Challenging Stereotypes about young Somali Canadians”, IRPP Study, Berns-McGown (2013) challenges perceptions that Somalis do not want to integrate, and that the Somali community is part of the problem. With lots of research and data to show for it, Berns-McGown found that the issue is the other way round – Somalis do identify as Canadian, and want to be part of the Canadian system, which they see as their home. The question to be answered is whether the wider society is ready to lower the barriers so that new Canadians would be able to play their role as productive members of society.

Needless to say, integration is a two-way street – the wide population need to be ‘edge-mucated’ (i.e., be given the edge) that every successfully integrated new arrival is an asset to Canada and the world. Canadians who have already integrated into the system have the singular responsibility of making sure that all new migrants receive ALL the tools they need to be fully integrated into the Canadian system. For it is only when new comers are well integrated that a society can be said to be secure. This means that as Canadian citizens, we should continue to demand better from our elected officials at all levels of government; we should continue to hold our police officers to account. Above all, we should continue to demand that our integration programs and services must be fully funded so that the efforts of organizations like the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa, and other organizations such as the Boys and Girls clubs, truly impact our new arrivals for a better tomorrow.

About the writer

Andy Kusi-Appiah is an Adjunct Professor, Carleton University, Ottawa. He is also the founder of SkillFocus, an Ottawa-based soccer development program for elite athletes, and has also served as head coach for elite teams in both Ontario and Quebec (1995-2010).  He is also the co-founder and CEO of the Canadian Education Management Agency.  Andy was the Senior Advisor on Diversity Issues to former Mayor Bob Chiarelli, and has also served on numerous advisory committees and task forces at the City of Ottawa. 

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