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Sigurðar saga fóts: 97/252
Sitting here on a motionless train just inside the US border waiting (as, at the time of writing, I have been for an hour) for US customs officials to come and check that I’m not an ex-member of the Nazi government, I think about people like Nicolas Sarkozy and I think, Monsieur Sarkozy, do you really want to leave the Schengen agreement? What’s the economic cost of stopping your fellow Europeans every time they want to come in or out, relative to the convenience of harassing Romanian itinerants or Libyan refugees at the border instead of within the Republic? I love travelling by train in Europe, hearing the languages change around me: English, French and Flemish; French and German; German and Danish, or German and Hungarian; or whatever else comes next. And I do it all at full speed. Well, admittedly I had a long wait between Germany and Denmark on a coach once while they scanned all our kit and then hauled some poor sod off. And spending half the train journey from Helsinki to St Petersburg waiting for customs officials, I’m like, yeah, I accept that the eastern border of Europe is frosty—and frostier going east than coming west. But Canada and the USA? Do their respective governments really want to make life so hard for each other? Did they really (after ninety minutes just inside the US border) need to haul off the pleasant Canadian-but-born-in-the West-Indies woman sitting next to me for an hour’s interrogation because she said she was going to a wedding but didn’t have a printed invitation? I mean, I know I can’t really talk, citizen and inhabitant as I am of one of Schengen’s great naysayers. But at least they don’t make me fill in this silly form each time I go through the Eurotunnel…
I’ve been musing a lot on migration while visiting Toronto. Obviously it’s a burning issue on both sides of the pond at the moment. Admittedly, it’s something on which I was last qualified to offer a professional opinion in about 449 AD; mind you, that didn’t stop David Starkey embarassing himself and his countrymen with his appalling ‘It is because they are black’ performance on Newsnight the other day. Anyway, as someone who thinks that other things being equal you should just let other people come and go as they please, obviously I’m naturally inclined to say ‘why not?’ to migration. It’s pretty normal back in the Palace pub quiz for the Team With Many Names to have more folks born outside the UK than folks born inside, and let’s face it, they’re a lot better at the pub quiz than I am. Not that it’s a simple issue, I recognise. Well, my rubbishness at the pub quiz is a pretty simple issue. But I was keeping half an eye on the Economist debate over the last week on This house believes that immigration is endangering European society—which quite a few Canadians weighed in on—and I was surprised to find David Goodhart (for the motion) mostly outmanoeuvring Philippe Legrain (against). For example, notwithstanding all the rhetoric about the economic importance of immigrants, it looks at the moment like immigration to the UK makes no difference economically: the economy and tax-take just grows in pretty much exact proportion to the number of UK inhabitants. Even so, Goodhart has yet to dent my view that this leaves the glass half full, not half empty.
But anyway, I may be totally missing something, but downtown Toronto seems like a very vibrantly, happily multicultural—and, well, just cultural—place. Ethnic groups often have nuclei in particular areas and I guess some of these areas are posher than others, but I don’t get a sense of ghettos; the comedy class was predominantly white but by no means overwhelmingly. It was cool watching Fiddler on the Roof, which seemed essentially to be a celebration of North American Jewish immigrants, in a park in the middle of Toronto, where those resonances suddenly felt more meaningful than they might have in my native habitat. Of course, I’ve mostly been seeing Toronto through the eyes of migrants, and specifically highly educated ones: people like my British host, his American girlfriend, the Dutchman, the Russians. The one Canadian I’ve seen a lot of, the Dutchman’s flatmate, was born in China. But as immigrants they all seem pretty happy with the place. As, to be fair, does the Russians’ natively Canadian daughter. (But she can’t talk yet so I haven’t been able to check in detail.) Those of my friends who become Canadian citizens look like they will do so with an affection for and pride in a country that has been, all things considered, welcoming to them and to other people like them.
I like to laugh at how, when you ask a North American where they’re from, they’ll be ‘Oh, Ireland, Lithuania, my grandmom is from Costa Rica, and I’m one thirty-second Sasquatch’. But maybe, I now realise, that can encourage a healthy recognition that pretty much everyone, ultimately, is from somewhere else. Whereas in Britain the cultural norm is perhaps somewhere nearer to: LALALALALALALALALA MY GREAT GRANDPARENTS WERE ALL POST-GLACIAL MESOLITHIC
NOMADS FARMERS LALALALALALALA. And get this: in Canada, immigrants even get their own monthly magazine, the Canadian Immigrant! Imagine putting that on the newsstands next to the Daily Mail…
The Russians tell me this openness, in Toronto at least, is a newish, post-war development—which at least shows that things can change for the better. Meanwhile, I have, at the time of writing, been just inside the US border for two and a half hours. Lucky I’ve got a twelve-hour wait scheduled outside Buffalo!