Published in The Hague/Amsterdam/Rotterdam Times 12 May 2006 page 14
My husband and I decided to move to the Netherlands in part because we felt that the Dutch were more open minded and liberal than North Americans and we wanted to learn from Dutch society. My husband is from Panama, and a year-long battle with immigration for a Canadian visitor visa taught us that intolerance is alive and well there – at least at the bureaucratic level. Once the visa was issued, however, and we finally arrived for our visit, my husband fit right in. The residents of Toronto did not bat an eyelid at one more Latin American, and even when he spent a month in a small town of about 500 in southern Ontario, he didn’t feel any racial tension. The story has been very different in the Netherlands. There was no battle for a visa, but there has been racial tension. One memorable night, my husband was followed by a group of white males who hurled insults at him (most of which he didn’t understand) calling him a “kebab” and an “immigrant”. The incident did not escalate to violence, but it was chilling nonetheless.
The “immigration/integration situation” in the Netherlands entered Canadian society at the national level over a year ago in an article published in the national newspaper The Globe and Mail. The article was entitled “It just doesn’t feel like Holland anymore” and discussed a recent exodus of Dutch people to Canada – Dutch who are troubled by the ways in which immigration has changed their nation. Now there is irony for you. We moved to the Netherlands because of its reputation for tolerance and now many Dutch are moving to Canada in search of exactly the same thing! But is there a difference between tolerance in the Netherlands and tolerance in Canada? The Globe and Mail article stated that “the ethnic cleansing and mass migration of the two world wars left many European countries with one dominant ethnic group, so the presence of large numbers of visibly different people has alarmed and alienated many residents.” But the Dutch are traders who have come into contact with “buitenlanders” (foreigners) for centuries. I suppose the answer lies in the distinction between foreigners as trading partners and foreigners as permanent members of society. One Dutch emigrant interviewed in the Globe article stated that problems in the Netherlands stem from that fact that “Holland has let too many people in without attention to their ability to fit into Dutch society”. The citizens of his town now come in a variety of hues and hold a variety of beliefs, and to him it just doesn’t feel like home any more. I wonder how this man will feel when he arrives in Vancouver (multicultural to say the least and his chosen point of entry into Canada) and sees that several of the customs officers wear turbans and headscarves.
Personally, I have never had a problem with immigrants keeping their traditions. In fact, I find the ethnic alcoves of big cities – the China towns, Greek towns, Little Italy’s and Little India’s – an integral part of modern living. I thoroughly enjoy it when immigrants become active members of their new country without leaving their traditions from home behind. Many Dutch people agree. My husband and I have many Dutch friends who are embarrassed by their nation’s new found intolerance. Furthermore, many Dutch emigrants are leaving not because of the immigrants, but because of the Dutch reaction to them, which has “turned their country men into angry intolerant nationalists”. I sympathize. It’s shattering to discover that your country and your people are not as tolerant as you once believed. Before experiencing a year-long battle over permission to merely visit Canada, I too thought my country was a vision of tolerance. Still, Canada may have a few advantages (once the visas have been issued). The emigrants leaving the Netherlands because of the Dutch response to immigration feel that “Canada is a place where the tension between immigrants and non-immigrants does not exist, because that distinction does not exist”. It is true that in Canada, nearly everyone is an immigrant, so the distinction between “us and them” is blurred and integration becomes less of an issue. In my experience (and I can only speak for myself) there is a very distinct line between the Dutch and the foreigners in the Netherlands. This is not to say that there is no mixing, everyone works together and collaborations abound; however, in social situations there is a tangible “us and them” feeling. It is uncomfortable, it makes me feel guilty for not integrating more, and it is something I haven’t felt anywhere else.
I hope that Dutch immigrants seeking tolerance in Canada will find what they are looking for. Tolerance in the Americas is certainly not perfect. A look at the news in Canada and the US will show mass protests over the deportation of illegals, much like the news in the Netherlands follows the struggles of Taïda Pasic and Saba Rawi. Like the Netherlands, Canada is known throughout the world as a tolerant nation and I hope that despite it’s own debates, it can live up to that reputation.,