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Multiculturalism and immigrants in North America vs Europe: Toronto vs Berlin

In this article I sketch out a model of immigration and multiculturalism for Western Europe and Canada (and the US?), using Berlin and Toronto as examples. It’s largely based on cultural observations and some quick history. Feel free to nitpick, but keep in mind I am trying to paint a broad description and model for thinking it through.

Immigration stories: The Canadian vs The European

The history and context of immigration and what it’s like to be a foreigner in Europe is different than in it is in Canada. For Canadians (and probably most Americans) who are unexposed to Western Continental Europe, it can be difficult to understand this. Note: The UK has its own unique dynamic which is probably somewhere in between North America and continental Europe.

A simplified model of ‘multiculturalism’ in continental Europe

Here’s a basic model for understanding multi-culturalism in European countries. There are typically some low number of different immigrant or foreign ethnic groups living among the largely homogenous population. Immigrants typically make up less than 15% of the population. They are poorer, have worse educational and employment outcomes, are (often) Muslim, don’t speak the language well, often don’t obtain citizenship, and are not well integrated into the national identity. The national ethnic group is weary of the immigrant group, and begrudgingly accepts them, depending on who is listening.


A history and model of European immigration and multiculturalism

European countries typically consist of 1 majority homogenous ethno-cultural group (Swedes, Germans, Dutch, Italians French, Poles etc.), or sometimes 2 (Belgium, Spain, Northern Ireland), which making up anywhere from 70-95% of the population.

How did this occur? In pre-WWII many Central and Eastern European countries exhibited much more of a mix of ethnicities than they do today, with various groups (Germans, Jews Slavs, Roma, Hungarians) living in relative proximity depending on the given region and forming significant portions of the populations of countries.

In the post-WWII era, the number of Jews was greatly reduced in Germany, Central and Eastern Europe via fleeing in the 1930s, the Holocaust itself, and various waves of further emigration by Jews (i.e. out of Poland in the 1960s). In addition, mass population transfers and forced expulsions of ethnic groups after WWII (especially Germans throughout central and eastern Europe who were sent to Germany), resulted in remarkably ethnically homogenous countries by the 1950s (in Poland or Hungary, the present day countries are almost ethnically homogenous, whereas pre-WWII they had major Jewish and German populations, among others).

Within 15 years of WWII, Germany and the rest of northern Europe was accepting 100 000s of “Guest Workers” per year from Turkey, Italy, Greece, etc. to fill a major need for manual labourers. France received huge numbers of immigrants from former French colonies while the UK received immigrants from its former colonies (Caribbean, India, and Pakistan).

In Germany, Turks are by far the largest immigrant group. Many don’t have German citizenship after a generation (or 2), Islam remains strong, and academic and overall employment indicators are sub-par for the group. Most importantly Turks (and all other immigrant groups) are not considered German – by either Germans, or by the immigrant group itself. This may strike Canadians as odd, where quick amalgamation of at least a good chunk of immigrants is the norm, certainly in the largest urban centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Why is this?

I claim its a dynamic of at least 3 broad factors: 1) The combination of the high educational and employment achievement of native Germans. While, in Germany millions of ethnic Germans face chronic unemployment and poor life outcome (in much of the former East or in the West German ‘rust belt’), but the good jobs and positions go to ‘other’ Germans, not foreigners. Such a dynamic is quite different in North America, where many immigrant groups tend to outperform ‘local’ groups; 2) The relative lack of education of the immigrants who came to Europe (rural, highly religious Muslims, unskilled labourers); and 3) The relatively robust ethnic/identity norms of European national cultures.

Add to that the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 where millions of refugees and economic migrants entered Europe and were resettled (Germany accepted at least 1 million refugees), and the result is that here we are in 2019, with surges in political parties which openly discuss reducing or preventing immigration in Western Europe (AFD in Germany, Front National in France, Lega Nord in Italy, etc), and openly anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties in power in East/Central Europe (PiS in Poland and Orban in Hungary).

Bringing it back to a Canadian Comparison

The Canadian immigration and multiculturalism story is very different from the European one I just sketched. Coming from Toronto, I tend to paint it very rosily – but I have gotten feedback that its not as ‘golden’ as I often make it out to be (e.g. from Eric Kaufmann)

If we think of Canada around 1900, besides the traditional English and Quebecois groups, and various First Nations people, Canada had already and would continued to receive successive waves of immigrants from Europe: Irish, Polish & Ukrainian, Italians, Jews, then Portuguese, East Europeans & Russians, Caribbean groups, Greeks, former Yugoslavians, and eventually Indians, Chinese and Koreans, Iranians, Africans, Filipinos. The list goes on.

The point is if we want to have a model of Canadian multiculturalism, it would look something like as follows:

In small town Canada, we have a variety of white ethnic groups (Quebecois and British, but also German, Scandinavian, etc) groups which have been in Canada for 100s+ years. Depending on where, there will be varying degrees of First Nations present in towns and cities. Then in the bigger city centres, especially Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, we see a very high number of and blend of different cultures and ethnicities.

Toronto is now considered the most multicultural city in the world, with half of its population foreign born. If you add to that 2nd and 3rd generation Canadians, an enormous percentage of the population would have had no ancestors in Canada before say 1940. 

Looking at this from the European perspective, the degree and speed with which to which recent immigrants and their descendants manage to feel themselves very Canadian and Torontonian is unthinkable. No doubt, many people and even whole groups remain unintegrated or would be considered non-Canadian. However, the groups that come to mind (Somali, Korean, some of the Indians, Russians, Persians) are still in the first generation, and one can project that their kids will be well integrated or at least identify as being Canadian.

Why can Canada’s big cities soak of these immigrants so well? Of course a number of factors play a role here: the type of higher skill immigrant Canada admits, the dynamically emerged Canadian acceptance culture of others cultures, the relative lack of ‘strong ethnic-cultural identity’ which is present in Europe, and so on. The nearly de facto reality that a resident of i.e. Toronto is a 1st-3rd generation immigrant themselves plays a role in accepting others.

This of course seems to shut the door on any real anti-immigrant sentiment a) emerging in a large enough subset of the population; b) manifesting itself in a popular political platform.

On the flipside, it really does bring up questions of what it means to be a Canadian. Being over in Berlin, I often find myself describing “what Canadians would think” about an issue, or “what Toronto is like compared to Berlin”. 

This can be tricky to answer, because I am aware that the implicit assumption is that I will speak on behalf of the dominant white group (i.e. what the Germans are to Germany), which it is also taken for granted that I am a part of. In contrast, I would hold that 1) In fact such a group doesn’t really exist in Canada’s big cities in large enough numbers to consider the ‘majority group’; 2) The other groups are in fact Canadians as well, but then I stumped again because I am both not sure of their opinions about various social/cultural norms (which is a negative byproduct of such high levels of immigration – others do not get time to become aware of the views of the new groups) AND I am aware I am almost deceiving the German asking the question by including them in my answer.

The implications of these broad strokes differences in historical immigrant assimilation between Europe and big city North America have implications for societal cohesion, economic growth and political party formation (and extremism) that I’ll expand on in future posts.


Author: rinijose

twitter: @JoeRini6 From Toronto, living in Kiel (after 8 years in Berlin). Interests:, economics, sociology, complexity studies, philosophy, political/cultural movements, history. MA in international and development economics Work experience: Economics and systemic risks research at a German publicly funded think tank, as part of 3 EU-funded projects (Financial Stability, Green Growth, and the Precautionary Principle); 2) SaaS consultant at a Berlin startup; 3) Internships at UNCTAD and DIW Berlin

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