Five questions with Jennifer Welsh, Canada’s 2016 Massey lecturer

Former UN Special Adviser Jennifer Welsh on the importance of refugee burden-sharing, how pluralism and equality go hand in hand, and how Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ may not have been the end, after all. 

By: /
19 September, 2016
Daniel Kevorkian, The Italian Cut

Jennifer Welsh – until earlier this year the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, and currently a professor of international relations at the European University Institute in Florence – has a busy week ahead.

Back in Canada to deliver this year’s Massey Lectures, which begin in Winnipeg on Wednesday, Welsh will first be attending the Toronto launch of her book, The Return of History, Monday evening and will participate in a discussion on inclusion Tuesday morning, hosted by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson at 6 Degrees.

OpenCanada caught up with Welsh to discuss what makes Canada’s pluralism unique, how to foster inclusion at both the global and local levels, and what to expect from her Massey tour.

1. How is Canada’s pluralism model seen from abroad? 

There’s no question that people talk with a certain amount of amazement – I mean it’s not just admiration, it’s amazement – at some of the facts about our society. If you look at the statistics on the number of people who live in Toronto who were born outside of Canada, or the composition of parliament and representatives of different constituencies and society, or the contrasting way in which Canada has approached refugees from Syria…people do look on with a certain amount of amazement and ask, why don’t you have the same sorts of issues that seem to be plaguing other parts of the world?

There are two caveats to that. One is that the level of pluralism differs across the country, so there are parts of Canada experiencing pluralism in a very rich sense for the first time. In some respects, I’d say it’s too early to tell how well it will work. In some of the bigger urban settings and in some societies where we have had generations and generations of this it’s easier. But you look at cities like Regina and Saskatoon where, yes, in periods in history we have had other people arrive in large numbers – I’m from Regina so I remember Vietnamese refugees from the 1970s – but now the population of both of those cities is really changing. And so far, the story looks positive. But I think we need to remember that it’s not an evenly painted picture, in terms of the length of time that communities have had to experience this level of pluralism.

The other thing is that Canada is a reasonably new country, and so the weight of migration – whether that be refugees or immigrants – has been part of nation building from the very beginning, and so that’s important. And that has had to be also negotiated with First Nations people who have a different story and a different narrative. 

Pluralism and equality are twin concepts.

I think perhaps the other reason why we’ve had relatively more success in Canada is that there is relatively more social mobility. The United States, if you look at the statistics today, despite people believing it’s the land of opportunity, has some very shocking trends with respect to social mobility. And certainly the United Kingdom, when you look at its segmented school system over decades and decades, has limited social mobility, that [system] is part of the reason. Equality is linked to this, pluralism and equality are twin concepts, and so anything that breaks down social immobility is not going to be directly promoting pluralism, but, in many cases, is going to have an indirect, positive effect. 

2. What other models are working best or are in need of improvement?

Most of my professional attention is [focused] on situations where conflict is a very real possibility, so when I think of examples that work well, they’re usually in societies that have tried to build by leveraging pluralism, and that also, by trying to highlight and harness pluralism, are trying to prevent conflict.

There are examples of countries that have done extraordinary things, though I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘better’ than Canada. I’m thinking, for example, of Ghana. This is a country that sits in a region that has had a lot of violent conflict over the last several decades, and it’s also a country where elections produce very fine results. A party will win by a very small percentage of the vote, yet the country does not descend into inter-communal violence. They’ve created something called the National Peace Council, which is a non-governmental body. It’s people from outside of government who sit on a council, from different religious faiths, and they help in mediation and advocacy, providing advice (or sometimes even more than advice) to foster peace, to reconcile among different communities. It’s a very fascinating example because it is non-governmental.

Then there are countries in the world where you still have institutionalized forms of racism, where citizenship is not available to certain communities, where it has become normalized to persecute minorities.

At the other end of the spectrum, we could say that European countries are very uneven in what I would call their level of courage around [promoting inclusion], in terms of public discourse. Having watched the Brexit debate very closely in the UK, I think the leaders of that society, political and non-political, needed to challenge the half-truths or in some cases outright falsehoods that were allowed to perpetuate during that campaign. That’s a question of being able to do better in terms of the courage of political and other leaders to foster an atmosphere of inclusion, to foster a more productive way of thinking about diversity, in particular [around] recent arrivals.

I would say you have places in continental Europe that are moving backwards, that are putting up new walls. Hungary is one of them…[these are] very, very worrying trends. So yes, they can certainly do better. The question is really for those in the society who’ve not been all that politically active to begin to see this as a major issue of their time. It needs to become much more of a mainstream issue for them. 

3. What should the priorities be at the global level in order to improve inclusion and lessen tensions, such as better refugee burden-sharing?


It depends on what kind of movement we’re talking about. If we’re talking about forced displacement, where people have to leave where they are because of war or persecution, I think burden-sharing [is a priority] and [leaders need to take] a hard look at our refugee and asylum system, which was created after the Second World War, and potential innovations that retain what is ethically vital about it but that also adapt to our circumstance to make it easier for people to move and to move safely. It has to be a priority. 

Everybody pays attention to the idea of non-refoulement, as the core principle of the Refugee Convention, but the twin idea is burden-sharing – that this is a global public good. And both principles are equally important.

But if you’re looking at movement of another kind, this is somewhat idealistic, but I think a priority at the global level is to begin to break down the Chinese wall that people have in their thinking between the free movement of goods and services and the free movement of people. There seems to be a continuing belief that it’s fine to have liberalization on the one side but not on the other.

We will have people who want to move and need to move for reasons that don’t have to do with war and persecution. And we’ll also have more and more people with a sense of identity that is multilayered. The priority at the global level is to reflect that in a way that does not penalize people and limit their life chances.

As well, at a global level, the priority in the medium term is to assist those who are at the frontline. A hugely missed fact in the Brexit debate was that if you look at the 2016 UNHCR report on people on the move, it will show that the top five countries in the world receiving refugees and asylum seekers – none of them are Western countries. None of them! So our whole discourse around how we’re being besieged is completely off the mark. It is Turkey, it is Kenya; you look at the list and it is not Western countries at the frontline of receiving people. The first step globally is to understand that and to act in ways that are consistent with that fact.

We have a system of ‘safe third country’ where the rule is once you hit the first country that is declared safe, the obligations to you are over. The system is not designed to help you get somewhere else that you might want to go. But if we operate under that, then those [countries] that are the closest and the most proximate will continue to have the greatest burden. 

4. What should the priorities be at a local level?

In some ways, it’s a micro-version of what I talked about with the Ghana Peace Council. We talk in my office [for Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect at the UN] about building inclusive societies, and what does inclusive really mean? It’s not just [about] having ‘x’ number of MPs and really formal signs that you have different communities represented, but having much less formal mechanisms for interaction. Creating joint problem-solving at a local level, whether it’s community development or an issue that strikes that community, [and making sure] that you are evolving on a level playing field and making [room] for as many perspectives as you can.

We have to move from, ‘we’ve checked the box and consulted ‘x,’ ‘ to really listening and involving.

There’s a fashion in public policy that you consult, but do you really listen? Or do you just consult? I think we have to move from, you know, we’ve checked the box and consulted ‘x,’ to really listening and involving. 

Though sometimes there is a case for formal steps. Key people in the community need to reflect the community. It is important that police officers, judges, etc. include people from different walks of life and different parts of the community. 

5. What might we expect from your Massey Lectures? What debates do you hope to inspire or kinds of thinking do you hope to challenge?

The main thesis of the lectures is that, 25 years ago, with the end of the Cold War, there was an expectation [famously put forward in an essay by political scientist Francis Fukuyama] that we had transcended history – particularly history understood in the sense of conflict and confrontation – and there was a great deal of optimism about the spread of the liberal democratic model promoting that.

The lectures are a part-personal and part-analytical look at what happened to that promise, and the ways in which history is returning. But while it is returning in different forms – each of the lectures talk about a different form of history returning, [namely] mass flight, barbarism in warfare, Cold War confrontation with Russia and inequality – I also argue that history does not repeat itself completely. Everything we see returning is doing so with a modern twist, and we need to understand what those twists are.

The final message of all five lectures is that we need to be much less complacent about the superiority of our system and look at how precarious it is at this point in history, particularly because of issues like inclusion and inequality.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity. 

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