Q&A: Desmond Cole wonders exactly what we're celebrating about Canada this year

Saif Alnuweiri
Desmond Cole. From Twitter.

We shared the results of the Ipsos poll with Canadian journalist and activist Desmond Cole and then talked about his thoughts on the findings.

What does this poll tell us about the state of the Canadian public? Any surprises?

No, and even if the numbers had been slightly higher, I still wouldn’t really be surprised. You can’t have a conversation about Canadian attitudes towards immigration without talking about white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy and hetero-normativity. If you’re not talking about those things, you’re not even talking about Canada, you’re just talking about some fantasy land that you’re projecting some positive values onto. What can I say?We live in a neo-colonial state and white supremacy dictates who is fit to be a Canadian and who is not. So that fear does not surprise me at all.

Where are we as a nation after 150 years?

We’re again celebrating 150 years of cultural appropriation, white supremacy and colonialism. I shouldn’t say we because I’m not celebrating it. But that’s what’s being celebrated.Why do we have to have an overall positive view of our country and who does that benefit? What if we were like, ”yeah, Canada is kind of a second rate country.” Why is it so important to people when we criticize Canada 150 for example, that they come back and tell us about the good things. This reminds me of (Canadian Senator) Lynn Beyak complaining that the report on residential schools, which killed thousands of indigenous kids, didn’t focus enough on the goods stuff.So I think that this whole positivity around Canada and then 150th celebration is propaganda. It’s not really part of our toolkit for understanding our country and our people.

How does this poll square with the image we Canadians have of ourselves?

One of the ways we talk about ourselves in Canada, one of the ways that we view ourselves is as this counterbalance to the United States. In fact, I would say that’s the central, that’s the core of our outward Canadian identity, defensiveness. Canadians are an extremely defensive group of people who hate talking about themselves. The Americans are our get out of jail free card so that we can stop looking at ourselves and say ‘gosh, thank goodness, it’s so much worse over there, now I feel much better about being Canadian again.’

The survey results that you’re about to publish show that more than half of us are threatened by refugees, but that’s not the story we’re telling about ourselves. We’re quite afraid to look in the mirror in this country and a lot of the so-called Canadian values that we like to project are just fluff.

How much of our identity is positive stereotyping or wishful thinking?

I think most of it is. This is why it’s important to investigate, because the deeper we go with Canadians and the more questions that we ask and the more that we probe, I think that those stereotypes about ourselves are people start to melt away. That takes me back to this idea that the majority of survey responders are threatened by refugees. This is a vast, vast country. We need more people in this country. And yet the couple thousand that have come across the border in recent months are enough to incite a moral panic in Canada. Again this is a country that doesn’t actually provide good jobs for its own people, but the few immigrants who come here, most of them racialized people from the Global South, are the scapegoat. Canadians are anxious, but they’re trying to smile really hard through their anxiety to hide the fact that they’re scared of the future.

What direction do you see the country moving towards?

The honesty in addressing who we are and what this country is and how it was founded and who it’s been benefiting, these are the big challenges I see ahead. We are not going to stop immigration to our country. That’s out of the question. We need immigration and we’ve always benefited from it, and I think to be specific, the white settler colonial state has always benefited from how it uses immigrants. The problem is that we have never really been honest about why that’s happening. And what I get scared of is that as the non-white population in Canada grows and the systemic inequality that we see now continues, the country is going to tear itself apart. But I will say this one thing about Canada. It is actually good enough in Canada right now for enough people that they are not all taking to the streets the way that I am. That’s not going to be true in 30 years if we keep going like this.

I think that Canadians like immigration in the way that we believe we can benefit from it. We like immigration when it helps us. But when immigrants want to raise the minimum wage, they’re bad. When immigrants want to have status right when they arrive, then they’re bad. These contradictions exist in the country and they’re important to understand.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.