The rise of nativism in NL politics

Our provincial and post-secondary leaders are playing with a dangerous idea.

Newfoundland and Labrador politics is always feisty and full of vigorous debates. Nothing wrong with that.

But there are certain strains of political discourse that it’s important to watch out for.

The recent bout of nativism by provincial politicians and university officials in the debate over post-secondary funding in this province is one of them.

‘Nativism’ is defined by Wikipedia as “the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.”

Guardian columnist Ian Jack offers a more applied definition, describing nativism as “prejudice in favour of natives against strangers, which in present-day terms means a policy that will protect and promote the interests of indigenous or established inhabitants over those of immigrants.”

“We called it racism [in the ’60s]. Now it’s nativism,” he writes, noting that nativism offers a more nuanced, less stigmatized way for policy-makers and pundits who wish to target and discriminate against foreigners yet are “anxious to distance themselves from accusations of racism and xenophobia.”

A polite way to discriminate

Let’s be clear: nativism is indelibly connected to racism. What it means in practice is that one group is trying to protect its power and dominance in society against another group. And in the North American context, it doesn’t refer to ‘native’ in the Indigenous sense, but rather to the dominant settler population, descended from white Europeans.

Whether it’s Catholics trying to keep out Protestants, white Americans trying to keep out Mexicans, white Canadians trying to keep out Chinese immigrants, or any other juxtaposition of religious or ethnic groups, it’s usually an appeal by one group for others of that group to rally together against another group, usually by asserting that one group has or ought to have some privilege over the other.

This is often done by appeal to tradition, numerical superiority, or ‘we were here first’ attitudes. In recent years, it’s often been reinforced by the claims of fiscal populism so common to austerity economics, equating people’s value as citizens to their value as consumers: ‘We’ve paid more [in taxes, for instance], therefore we deserve better treatment and more privileges than other residents of this place.’

However it presents itself, it’s always an ugly and distasteful attitude.

When it comes to debates about differential access (i.e. differential fees) to social programs by different groups of people—such as the ongoing discussion of tuition fees at Memorial—what politicians claim is a debate about responsible use of public funds needs to be seen as what it really is: a debate about which people in our community should be treated in more or less privileged ways than others, in this case based on where they come from.

Much as we pride ourselves on anti-racist tropes like the Lanier Phillips story, this is not the first time that nativism—and other more violent forms of racism and xenophobia—have reared their heads in Newfoundland and Labrador since European colonization. There were of course the infamous Catholic versus Protestant confrontations in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the banning of black fishers from the Newfoundland fishery. There was the imposition of the infamous head tax on Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century, and the rejection by Newfoundland of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

These examples are all centuries or decades old, but nativism hasn’t completely disappeared from political discourse and decision-making in the province.

When the place you were born determines your ability to access an education

Education is a sector particularly susceptible to this form of discrimination, since universities are a key site of international exchange, cultural interaction and immigration.

In Canada, a long history of racism in the educational sector led not just to infamous residential schools for Indigenous students, but also to racial segregation in the K-12 school system as late as the 1960s in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

In Trump-era America, educators have already warned that nativism—the outright xenophobia expressed by Trump and his white Republican supporters against Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, and others—could assume the form of outright exclusion of groups of students based on ethnicity, nationality or religion. In sparsely populated and rapidly aging Canada, a country which can scarcely afford to bar immigrants, nativism today assumes other forms, such as producing barriers to accessing social programs based on one’s nationality and place of origin.

In Canada, the notion of discriminating against international students by charging them higher fees to go to universities here is a relatively recent idea, dating back to the late 1970s. The Canadian Federation of Students dates the practice to federal-provincial transfer payment (the monies used to fund social programs like education) negotiations in 1976, when the federal government explicitly suggested charging foreigners higher fees as a way of compensating for federal funding cuts.

Newfoundland and Labrador was one of the last provinces to give in to this exclusionary practice, only implementing higher fees for international students in the late ’80s. They currently pay slightly more than three times what Canadian students pay. And up until now, students from all Canadian provinces and territories have been charged the same tuition rates.

Under all of the recent budget proposals from Memorial University’s administration, and with the active complicity of the provincial Liberals who have authorized it, this is about to change dramatically. MUN administrators have proposed to not only further entrench discrimination against international students through ruinous fee hikes, but for the first time ever in the province’s history to charge students from other provinces discriminatory tuition rates as well.

Why such a drastic policy change now?

A critique of discriminatory tuition should not be interpreted as an argument in favour of fee hikes for everyone. As myself and many others have argued, post-secondary funding is a highly productive form of social funding that benefits both society and the economy; keeping fees low and ultimately eliminating them makes tremendous sense, especially in times of fiscal crisis.

Given the widespread public acknowledgement of this fact, however, it appears politicians (who want to cut spending for ideological reasons) and administrators (who want the freedom to generate more revenue without government strings attached) have opted for an appeal to nativism to justify excluding people based on where they come from.

For the bulk of the 15 years of frozen tuition in this province, the tuition freeze covered all students. There were a couple of times when the university got away with increases on international students, but by and large any effort to divide Newfoundland-born and Labrador-born students from everyone else was frowned upon. The Danny Williams PCs even wrote a letter to Memorial University’s Board of Regents in 2008 denouncing one such effort to increase fees on international students (sure enough, they backed off and repealed the proposed fee hike).

Under Paul Davis, the PCs began changing that discourse by lifting the freeze on international students. The Liberals, under Dwight Ball’s leadership, stoked the nativist bellows even further, by signalling that the tuition freeze should only benefit “NL students”.

Obviously, it is in part an effort by the provincial government to wiggle out of its financial obligations to funding post-secondary, without seeming to be doing anything bad. But by appealing to a “look after our own first” sentiment, the Liberals are playing with fire.

Nativism: the practical objection

Practically speaking, nativism is stupid public policy. Advanced Education and Skills Minister Gerry Byrne’s ‘mandate letter’—his job assignment, so to speak—is a good illustration of this. Byrne often cites the fact he has been directed by Premier Ball to keep “a tuition freeze for Newfoundland and Labrador resident students.” Yet in the next paragraph, his letter states “population growth is critical to the future of the province” and directs Byrne to do a broad range of things to bring more skilled people and their families to this province.

Statistics Canada recently reported that this province has the oldest population in the country, and smallest percentage of people 14 years and younger. It is utter fiscal doom for the province to back off on any policy that encourages young people to come here. The province has very few attractions for skilled young immigrants, outside of the tuition freeze and affordable, quality post-secondary education that has already brought many here.

It is utter fiscal doom for the province to back off on any policy that encourages young people to come here.

Not only is appealing to nativism and ‘focusing on our own’ a death sentence for this province, it’s also difficult to put into public policy.

What is an ‘NL student’, anyway? One recent caller to a CBC program pointed out that if government and university start drawing lines like this, she, as someone born in this province, would count as an ‘NL student’ for tuition purposes. Her three sisters, who were born in other provinces because her parents left to find work after the cod moratorium, would not.

If we go by residency stipulations (you must have lived here for X number of years), we might lose other Newfoundlanders or Labradorians who were born here but spent the majority of their childhood outside the province because their parents had to move away for work—and who only came back because the tuition freeze gave them a good reason to.

We end up with divided families, or people who have long considered themselves Newfoundlanders or Labradorians being suddenly told by the government that they don’t qualify for that identity.

Nativism: the moral objection

The more compelling argument is the moral and ethical one. It’s simply wrong to start ranking people’s ability to access public services based on their bloodlines.

Newfoundland and Labrador, of all provinces, should be cognizant of this. As an island in the Atlantic frequented by fishing fleets from around the world, the story of Newfoundland has been a story of continuous immigration. Why should one generation—this one—suddenly get to draw the line in the sand and say “Hold up! Everyone who got here after us will be treated differently”?

We should be thankful when anyone chooses to move here, and in many respects the so-called ‘friendly Newfoundlander’ has been a reflection of that attitude. But now, for no better reason than saving money, the government is suddenly trying to draw a line between those born here and those who came more recently, privileging one group over the other. This is dangerous public policy.

A nativist band-wagon

Appeals to nativism as a way of narrowing access to social programs like education has become more common in other provinces, unfortunately.

For many years Quebec was the only province that gave its own Quebecois students more preferential treatment than students from other provinces (a determination made based on residency, but clearly intended to benefit the majority Francophone resident population and keep them there). Many denounced this attitude as bigoted and discriminatory; people from other parts of Canada took the matter to court, and continue to do so, arguing it’s a violation of human rights. Yet over the past decade other provincial governments have suddenly done an about-face, realizing that if they adopted the same discriminatory attitude, maybe they could use it to save some money.

The question often arises: doesn’t this violate human rights? The Charter, and provincial human rights codes, are supposed to prevent discrimination in accessing public goods and services (which post-secondary education is). Today, many provincial human rights codes prohibit discrimination on the grounds of not just race and nationality, but also place of origin and citizenship. (It would be as though two people walked into McDonalds to buy a burger, and the customer from Canada was charged $3 while the customer from Ghana was charged $10).

The thing about human rights is, you have to go to court to fight for them. And that’s a daunting prospect, especially for students. There have indeed been legal and human rights challenges to differential fees, in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Quebec. These cases from the ’90s were rejected, but the cases are over two decades old, and provincial human rights codes have evolved quite a deal in the past 20 years (some provincial codes now specify ‘citizenship’ as a prohibited ground of discrimination; it was the lack of this which caused the cases to be dismissed in the ’90s in B.C. and Nova Scotia). It’s definitely time for a new rights-based court challenge.

Regardless of legal nuances, what lesson does institutionalized discrimination send to students? That it’s okay to treat people differently based on where they were born? Isn’t this precisely the sort of thing we’re supposed to use our education system to educate against?

The inevitable—and fallacious—tax argument

Of course, goes the pragmatic-sounding reply, ‘They didn’t pay into the tax system like people who were born here!’ ‘Their parents didn’t pay taxes to fund the system, so why should they be able to arrive and take advantage of it?’

That too is a silly argument. Newly arrived immigrants didn’t pay into the tax system, but they didn’t draw from it either. Unlike Newfoundland-born and Labrador-born students, who grew up costing the taxpayer an enormous amount of money in the form of public healthcare, dental care, K-12 education, various baby and child supports, city infrastructure and so forth, the new immigrants arrived fully formed (their human development ‘paid for’ by some other jurisdiction) and ready to start contributing their skills and knowledge (and taxes) to Newfoundland and Labrador.

From the moment they arrive, they start paying into the welfare system that they draw from. If you’re going to reduce the argument to a narrow economistic one, immigrants are a far better bargain to this province than Newfoundland and Labrador-born students. Of course, we don’t say this, because it’s a revolting and reductive way of looking at things.

As Shikha Dalmia wrote in a March 2017 survey of the rise of nativism in western countries, “In America, the notion that immigrants are a drain on social welfare programs is as popular as it is fallacious… [T]he taxes and economic contributions of immigrants — including the low-skilled — dwarf what they consume in public services.”

So when the provincial Liberals start waving the flag of nativism, defending ‘their own’ (read: white European-descended peoples), they’re entering a dangerous path. They’re stoking primitive, xenophobic attitudes and trying to appeal to the belief that outsiders don’t deserve to be treated the same as the rest of us.

This is an attitude that can easily be fanned into even worse forms of exclusionism.

Shared accountability

As people who are supposed to be principled intellectuals, Memorial’s senior administrators should be critical of dangerous refrains that appeal to nativism.

Instead, the deans and vice-presidents shrug their shoulders silently and glance greedily at the revenue that discriminatory tuition policies might bring them. They huddle protectively around their quarter-million dollar salaries and seek reassurance from each other: “There’s nothing wrong with this, because everyone else is doing it, right?”

Nativism is an ugly attitude, and is a key part of the journey toward even more violent forms of racism. It has no place in public policy.

For Gerry Byrne, Dwight Ball, and other politicians to appeal to this backward sentiment is to take political discourse in an ugly direction, and one that all of us ought to be ashamed of.

The Canadian Federation of Students N.L. is hosting a “Rally to Fight the Fees” at Memorial University Thursday at 2 p.m. to coincide with MUN’s Board of Regents’ vote to raise tuition fees by 30 percent for new out-of-province and international students.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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