When I was a child, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was one of my favourite books. In particular, Alexander’s frequent refrain of “I think I’ll move to Australia” – the farthest place both he, and I, could think of – appealed to my imaginative young self. It also kicked off a fervent, passionate, fantastical love for the country that continues to this day.
When Rob Ford was elected Mayor of Toronto last Monday, October 25th, my first thought was, “You’re kidding.” My second thought was, “What the f*ck?” My third thought was, “I think I’ll move to Australia.”
On September 29th, Toronto Life Magazine offered a well-articulated explanation for why Rob Ford was not the right person to become our next Mayor, yet was still so compelling to so many Torontonians. While reading the article, I knew that the author was right, even though I was hoping against hope that he would eventually be proven wrong.
Since that did not turn out to be the case, I’m not particularly interested in rehashing the “Rob Ford is bad for Toronto” arguments. What’s done is done. Besides, as the Toronto Star’s Royson James points out, a Ford mayoralty will not be nearly as bad as we think. (It’ll still be bad, though.)
What I am interested in is the ways in which “immigrant”, as a social and political category, has been mobilized in public discourse both during Ford’s campaign and after his win. Given his very public and very unapologetic bigotry, we would expect that no immigrant in their right mind would support Rob Ford. Yet, as this National Post editorial points out, many immigrants did, indeed, support him, for the following reasons:
Most newcomers to Toronto don’t have time to dwell on how to make Toronto “inclusive.” They aren’t interested in alternative art exhibits or publicly funded ethnic festivals. They are busy working long hours to feed their children and put a roof over their heads. They also don’t sympathize with “fair wage” policies that pay inflated prices to keep unions happy, at the expense of taxpayers who have to get by on market wages.
True inclusiveness for immigrants in Toronto — and everywhere in Canada — means getting a good job so children can enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents. Participating in society is not achieved through parades or earnest bus shelter posters (a staple of urban Toronto), but by climbing the economic ladder. And that means electing politicians, at all levels of government, who will create an atmosphere where business can flourish and create jobs, and where the taxpayers’ interests come before those of big labour and special interests.
Interestingly, the Toronto Star gave similar reasons for this “immigrant effect”:
‘A lot of people are looking at the municipal election right now and scratching their heads on the amount of anger and protest,’ says Rahul Bhardwaj, president of the Toronto Community Foundation, ‘and quite a bit of that is emanating from the inner suburbs and the disconnect between the inner suburbs and downtown.’
That disconnect has been increasing in tandem with the growth and marginalization of the city’s low-income population, explains Bhardwaj, many of whom live in communities covering much of the northwest and northeast sections of Toronto.
How is it that the Post (arguably a conservative, right-leaning mainstream Canadian newspaper) and the Star (arguably a liberal, left-leaning mainstream Canadian newspaper) can essentially draw the same conclusions about why Rob Ford had the unequivocal support of so many immigrants?
Perhaps it’s because, when used in this way – that is, as if immigrants were a single, homogeneous, like-minded entity – the term itself becomes semantically “empty”, thereby allowing people to give it any meaning they choose. So, in the above arguments, “immigrant” means “poor, low-income, under- or unemployed, visible minorities whose native language is not English”. While this is true of many immigrants, it is not true of all immigrants, a point which both newspapers (conveniently?) did not mention.
What if, instead of ignoring the diversity within Toronto’s immigrant populations, it was highlighted? What if attention was paid to the complexity and nuance of what it means to be an “immigrant” in this city, this country? What if it was acknowledged that some of Rob Ford’s immigrant supporters might have been wealthy, perhaps enormously so? Or that they might have lived in Canada for decades, and that it is only the colour of their skin that marks them as being from “somewhere else”? Or that they might have lived middle- to upper-middle-class lives back in their home countries, and are desperate for a way – any way – to recapture that existence? Or that, now that they have “made it” here, perhaps they don’t want to give that chance to any other newcomer, for fear of losing what they worked so hard to achieve? Or that their politics might already be right-leaning and fiscally conservative? Or that they might not be “visible minorities”? Or that they are no longer “immigrants”, given that being a Canadian citizen is a condition of eligibility to vote?
Maybe then we would have been better able to predict, understand – and possibly prevent – the anger, resentment, and discontent that lead to a Rob Ford victory. Torontonians now have four years in which to learn this lesson.
In case we don’t, I’m going to start pricing flights to Sydney.