"F*ck you, immigrant!"
These three words loaded with hate and vitriol came barrelling toward me as I pushed my infant son in his stroller one frigid day last February. My initial reaction was to freeze, no pun intended. Could this complete stranger be talking to...me? But there was no mistake about it. The words left his mouth like spit - vile and contemptuous. His intent pointed and malicious. He wanted me to know that I was the intended target of his tirade. I could feel the repulsion reverberating off him as he shoved his way past me on the tiny portion of passable sidewalk – the rest blocked by a small mountain of snow.
My attacker was, by all likelihood, emboldened by the current climate of anti-immigration spilling across our southern border and percolating across the Atlantic. He had been convinced that I was one of them. The burden to society; the insatiable mouth suckling at the teat of public funds. In his mind, I was assuming space and exhausting resources to which I had no claim.
"A pity he doesn't know I was born in Toronto", I thought as I continued. And then I had the sudden urge to cry. Which I did. But then I had the urge to contemplate what it means to be an immigrant. Literally, and figuratively.
This humble word which once symbolized a daring dream to leave all that is familiar behind in search for a better life for oneself and one’s family has become a loaded subject, dividing families and countries. Today, the word ‘immigrant’ and the affinity for or aversion to it, is the cornerstone upon which many an election campaign is built on the rock against which it can fall apart. It is the ace of spades which politicians wield as they must to sway the fickle electorate.
It is interesting to note that as at the last census in 2016, my borough is made up of some 25,000 immigrants representing 20% of the total population. It is also interesting to note that of that total number of immigrants, 36% (some 9,000 plus) have arrived from predominantly white countries – Portugal, France and the United States. Simply put, more than a quarter of my borough’s immigrant population is…or more than likely is…white. And by mere virtue of their being white, they are afforded the courtesy of acclimating to the comforts of Canadian life. No more questions asked.
It appears to me that, perhaps the problem everyone has with immigration isn’t immigration at all. But it's what we imagine immigration is. And more importantly, who we imagine an immigrant is. We’ve been force-fed…and subsequently, have digested the idea that an immigrant is different. If we really want to get into semantics, we can consider the differences between immigrants and expats. We’ve been conditioned to believe that an immigrant is, or should be, undesirable. That they will bring with them their strange customs and that they will come to steal jobs. Meanwhile, expats living abroad (who are mostly white) outearn their local counterparts up to 900%. We say to immigrants, “Assimilate or go back where you came from!”, meanwhile expats live in bubbles, well insulated from the realities of life in their new countries with very little, if any desire or effort to assimilate. We can quickly establish that immigrants and expats are perceived very differently even though they leave their home countries to live and work elsewhere for much of the same reason. And that is as direct a result of the meanings we ascribe to the two words. And the preconceived notions that we attribute to them.
I would imagine that Americans don’t think of Justin Bieber or Ryan Gosling as immigrants. Because they fit the bill. They are not other. Likewise, the white American and French immigrants here don’t have to contend with verbal attacks on sidewalks whilst going about their business. And let me be clear: this isn’t about me. To be fair, this was the very first time I’ve been made to feel like I did not belong here. And I am very aware that I am what would be considered as a ‘palatable’ immigrant. English is my first language. I do not have a thick accent. I am fair-skinned. I am not muslim. I do not wear a burqa or hijab. This is about the countless number of immigrants who are shamed and harassed and attacked because they do not blend in so easily. And they shouldn’t have to.
It is time we redefine the way we think about, and unlearn what we’ve been taught about, immigrants. I know there is no shame in being an immigrant. But for one fleeting instant I did feel ashamed. It’s been several months post-incident now and I’ve had ample time to reflect. And if there’s any good that has come from this run-in, it’s that my immigrant pride has been reignited.
It was the dream of immigrants that allowed me a Canadian birthright. The sweat and perseverance of immigrants that put me through college. The unwavering support and friendship of immigrants that consoled me when I was at my lowest. The drive and hustle of immigrants that inspire me daily. But it is without a doubt, the grit and indomitable spirit of immigrants, unrelentless and thriving, that make me most proud…to be an immigrant.