‘To be or not to be: a Nation of Immigrants’

‘How does the number of immigrants in a country influence the identity of a nation?’ is the central question of the lecture, Where are the Nations of Immigrants, that Donna Gabaccia, Professor of History at the University of Toronto, will give at the University of British Columbia on Feb. 13.

It is very interesting that only a small group of immigrant countries thinks of themselves as such and identify as nations of immigrants,” she says.

Identity building

North America and Australia are globally known for their open attitudes towards migrants. Although the United States currently appears willing to consider dramatic changes to its policies, Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau openly proclaimed that Canada should be an example of a nation of immigrants to the wider world. Both the populations of Canada and Australia consist of about 20 percent of people with an immigrant background. While for decades the United States proclaimed to be a ‘nation of immigrants,’ only 14 percent of their population consists of immigrants.

“Whether a country identifies itself as an immigrant country or not has to do with nation-building strategies. It is not always the proportion of foreigners that enter the country that determine whether or not a country chooses to imagine itself in this way,” says Gabaccia, who is writing a book on the topic.

According to Gabaccia, there are some countries with significant numbers of immigrants in their populations that don’t call themselves immigrant nations. For example, the population of the United Arab Emirates consist for 88 percent of immigrants and is frequented just like Saudi Arabia and Singapore by a very high number of foreign oil workers that stay for one to three years on work contracts. Israel has a very high number of foreign settlers, while Jordan gives shelter to a very large number of refugees. European countries all hover around the 10 percent range, but Switzerland stands out with a surprising 28 percent.

“Switzerland has about twice the percentage of foreigners in its population than the United States. Half of the country is Protestant and the other half Catholic and a small percentage Muslim, but still it is quite adamant in its proclamation that it is not an immigrant country. It can take generations before you might be eligible to get the Swiss nationality because children inherit the foreigner status of their parents,” says Gabaccia.


In most of the countries of North and South America, everyone born in their territory or land is automatically considered to be a citizen. But in most of the world, high barriers exist for foreigners and their children to become citizens.

“It is somewhat ironic in a globalizing world that acquiring citizenship to another country than your home country is that difficult. Canada, the US and Australia are quite exceptional in this regard. These countries encourage naturalization,” Gabaccia explains.

The stereotype that Canada attracts mostly rich migrants because of its point based visas is a myth according to Gabaccia.

Donna Gabaccia, professor of history at the University of Toronto. | Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto

“Two-thirds of immigrants who have acquired residency recently got access through another channel. It is true that many people believe that Canada receives only the higher social-economical classes, but Canada’s migrant population is no more skilled than in the United States. 10 to 15 thousand Syrian refugees were accepted the previous years, a refugee policy that is admired around the world,” she says.

Gabaccia researches the way that nation states have approached immigrants through history.

“In the 19th century, people coming into Canada and the US were frequently called emigrants, not immigrants. The expectation was that they would emigrate to the frontier provinces, and the people that stayed in the city as migrants were not really welcome. The immigration restriction movement in the United States, explicitly tried to exclude these immigrants. Only from the 1960s on, the United States started calling itself a nation of immigrants. A belated development that is similar to Canada,” tells Gabaccia.

In her lectures at the University of Toronto, Gabaccia experiences Canada’s multiculturalism firsthand.

“Toronto’s population consists of 51 per cent of foreign-born people. I see all these different cultures back in my lectures because I teach courses on migration, a topic that they are interested in,” she says.

The lecture ‘Where are the Nations of Immigrants’ will be given by Donna Gabaccia at the Coach House, Green College, UBC, Feb. 13, from 5–6.30 pm.