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Canadian minister speaks out on minorities

Hedy Fry, the Canadian Minister for Multiculturalism and Women's Rights, visited Slovakia on November 11 to deliver a speech on the role of minorities in nation-building. Speaking at Comenius University in Bratislava, she outlined Canada's experience with immigration and minorities, and described the contribution immigrants can make to the countries in which they live.
Following her speech, Ms. Fry told The Slovak Spectator what she thought Slovakia could draw from the Canadian experience.

Hedy Fry, the Canadian Minister for Multiculturalism and Women's Rights, visited Slovakia on November 11 to deliver a speech on the role of minorities in nation-building. Speaking at Comenius University in Bratislava, she outlined Canada's experience with immigration and minorities, and described the contribution immigrants can make to the countries in which they live.

Following her speech, Ms. Fry told The Slovak Spectator what she thought Slovakia could draw from the Canadian experience.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why are you here?

Hedy Fry (HF): I'm here because a new government has been formed, and generally I think it is important to show new governments courtesy. I'm also here because we have been asked to talk about our experiences in multiculturalism, which are unique. As European cultures begin to deal with the issue of migration, they begin also to seek ways of resolving long-standing ethnic hostilities. And unlike the United States, our experience is not one of assimilation but one of integration.

That said, our experience cannot be so easily translated to Europe... We have over 100 minority groups in Canada, and since we have been bringing in immigrants from Asia and Africa, the visible minority component of Canada has increased very rapidly, and we know that change creates anxiety in the population. We have to learn how to manage that change in a way that does not increase this anxiety.

We have always found that working with communities is the key - getting them to tell you what their values are, and how government initiatives and policies can assist them. We have always found that when communities begin to integrate, many of their differences disappear. But we have also found that laws alone are not the answer, that they are not necessarily implementable unless you work at community development.

What we have also found, and what we would like to share with people, is that when we have made mistakes in our past, these mistakes were very detrimental to the growth of Canada and its peoples. As a government, when you treat people with respect, you get back a sense of nation.

We have made many mistakes in our past, particularly with aboriginal peoples. In coming to terms with this history as a country, we found that an apology was a very important first step. We said that we regretted all the things that we had done to the aboriginal peoples. Aborginal people said that this went a long way towards a healing process. They said they had begun to feel stupid, drunk and no-good. "We have no self esteem," they said, "but by telling us that you have a sense of responsibility for what happened to us, then you're telling us that we're not inherently stupid and irresponsible, but that in fact things were done that helped to create this situation, and those things can be undone, and we can re-create a sense of esteem and identity."

47% of Canadians are neither English nor French in their origins. Globalisation is a reality, and we have found that if a country is to be competetive, it has to engage all of its human resources - to create wealth, to contribute to business, to become independent citizens, to participate in civil society and in decision making. It makes simple, plain economic sense, for things like tourism and foreign trade, for countries to harness the talents of all of its peoples. There are all kinds of concrete, positive spin-offs even if you don't buy the human rights, warm-fuzzy-nice-thing-to-do image. This is the message we want to give to other countries.


TSS: Slovakia doesn't have anything like Canada's ethnic diversity or immigration figures. Isn't the Canadian experience a little irrelevant to the Slovak situation?

HF: No, because I think if Slovakia wants to find a place within the European Union, it has to be able to understand and to demonstrate experience of other European cultures. So it's important to look at the other European minorities which are living here... With regard to the Roma, I suppose you can say that the Roma don't have any nation and that therefore the foreign trade advantages of integrating them are not there. But on the other hand, if people produce and become part of the system, become economically independent, then they are not a burden on society.

The Roma can in many ways be compared to the Aboriginal peoples of North America. The question here is - how do you, haven taken away, having almost emasculated a people and taught them to be dependent, how do you get them to be independent again? That's not something you solve in six months or a year. But you have to go to those people and say to them, "what are the solutions that you think would get at the core of the problem? What are the policies that we could make that would help?" I think there is a real slippery slope that we have found in Canada with aboriginal peoples, the mentality that says, well, you can't let them look after themselves because they're really incapable. They're not very bright and they're alcoholic etc. etc. What you have to do is create opportunities. Giving people responsibility for their lives has to do with having them make decisions that affect their lives, helping you who have the power to make the right decisions rather than inflicting those decisions on them from where you are. In other words, devolving a certain amount of autonomy over time.

Education is also a vital aspect, and one can always say, "look at native children in Canada, how they drop out of school in grade eight or ten." But the first thing you have to do is to create role models that native children believe they can become. You have to have politicians from the native community in the federal government, physicians, teachers, nurses. You also have to give up a certain amount of power, to trust people enough to allow communities to start looking after their own education and develop a system that works for them.

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