Immigration then and now

As times change, so does the experience of newcomers integrating into Canadian life. Farid Rohani, chair of the Laurier Institution, a foundation dedicated to understanding Canadian diversity, shares his point of view.

“We were very much welcomed by those that appear to not be welcoming,” says Rohani about his neighbours in an upper-middle class area of Victoria, B.C. when he immigrated to Canada in 1970.

“They invited us over, taught us many different things, and helped us with our new language,” he says.

Rohani recalls how his grandmother, who didn’t speak English, tried to engage with the community. Soon, the older women in the neighbourhood started coming over to Rohani’s house with tea, cookies and cake. Rohani would translate for his grandmother.

“She was very happy and it was fun and the neighbours enjoyed it,” says Rohani.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Rohani moved to Victoria for high school and joined the Laurier Institution when it was founded in 1989 because he shared its ideals.

The Laurier institution now has a board of nine individuals including community activists, intellectuals and commentators. They hold two yearly lectures (Milton K.Wong and Ethics and Human Rights), which also on the CBC program Ideas. The institute also holds community dialogues tackling issues of importance such as identity politics, racism, extremism and policing.

Changing times

Farid Rohani, Chair of the Laurier Institution | Photo by Alexa Treleaven

Farid Rohani, Chair of the Laurier Institution | Photo by Alexa Treleaven

Rohani says these days neighbours are more closed off from one another.

“Immigrants then were much better integrated than the immigrants [of] today,” he says.

Rohani, 57, says Canada has overcome a lot of barriers such as resistance to interracial marriage – his own son is engaged to a Canadian woman of European background and his daughter is dating a Canadian man of German descent – but still faces other problems of racism and respect for fellow citizens.

Rohani uses an example that he calls “reminiscent of a colonial past.” If a neighbour sells their house at a high price, others wouldn’t have a problem if he or she is of European background but would if he or she was Asian or Middle Eastern.
Need for integration

He says back in the 1970s, his family had to integrate, but there is less of a need to do so today.

“It makes me upset when some people who have no intention of wanting to belong here, don’t want to learn the language, or respect each other,” he says, but adds it is easier for a young, skilled immigrant to learn English versus an older immigrant.

Rohani believes Canada is one of the most welcoming countries in the world because the neighbours are welcoming but immigrants themselves aren’t necessarily willing to make an attempt to integrate.

“They go to their own sectors (grocery stores, cultural events), don’t need to integrate and the internet gives them news of their home countries,” says Rohani.

Rohani says there’s a difference between racism and criticizing a lack of integration.

He says his children growing up would comment about how unhappy they were of the different groups of students speaking their own languages at school. Although Rohani feels this is “logical criticism”, he believes it can be easily misunderstood.

“If anyone complains about anything to do with immigrants, it’s very easy to attach it to racism. They become very defensive and in becoming defensive, they go into their underworld where racism develops,” says Rohani.

For Rohani, Canada and its ideals have changed over the many years he has been in the country.

“The thorns and issues that divided us have changed into ideals of citizens of diverse backgrounds,” says Rohani.

Although he says people can’t sit down and all agree what it means ‘to be Canadian’ he says the ties people make to the community are very important.

Rohani adds there are still a lot of people and families (those who have been in Canada for many years) who want to welcome new immigrants.

“Get to know your neighbours and if you’re able to break down any fears that exist, that’s individual responsibility and you can build bridges,” says Rohani.

We were very much welcomed by those that appear to not be welcoming.