A Clash of Cultures or Clash of Values? An Immigration Lawyers perspective

As an immigration lawyer I am exposed to so many cultures though our clients, their families and employers on a daily basis. Part of my job is to understand people so I can best serve their interests when it comes to their immigration needs. Understanding people, however, is more than just knowing what visas they need, legal procedures and time frames etc. Understanding involves getting to know my clients; who they are; what makes them tick, why they want what they want.

This exercise is both a challenge and a pleasure at the same time: A challenge because people from other lands speak different languages, eat different foods and sometimes behave in different ways. Getting to understand the “hows” and “whys” of my clients isn’t always easy. We are all born and raised in our own cultural landscapes and perceive the world with our own lens. Attempts to be objective are not always successful but necessary if we are to properly serve those from other lands.

But such attempts make for an interesting and rewarding job. I learn so much about the world though my clients. Reading stories about political and cultural strife in the newspapers are no substitute for speaking with real people who can tell you first hand about their struggles to balance their lives especially in terms of moving to a country like Canada.

Most of my clients celebrate their own cultures and choose Canada because of its high level of tolerance for differences. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is a mosaic of cultures that enriches life for all of us. I would therefore state that there is no real clash of cultures here, despite what we read or hear on TV.   We are one of the world’s largest immigration destinations for a reason. People from all over the world come to Canada knowing they will be accepted; that many of their own friends and relavites have been living here for years and have succeeded.

But while cultural differences are celebrated in Canada, there is the issue of values. Values, often confused with culture, are of a different nature. Whereas culture is really about ancestry, rituals, holidays, history, lifestyle, food, family and a general “way of being”, values strike at the  very core of human morality and dignity. Of course different cultures have adopted unique value systems that are infused into their lifestyles. But values are always separate and distinct from a culture. Values should never be confused with culture.

Canada is a country founded on certain principles or values. Most people living here, regardless of their cultures, subscribe to those values. Freedom, gender equality, religious tolerance, education, personal happiness as a goal are but a few keystones that make Canada a nation of immigrants. Without these values firmly in place, our high standard of living, low crime rates and relative harmony would not exist.

It is therefore important when trying to understand people not to get confused about their culture vs. their values. Claims that horrific acts such as “honour killing” as reported in the news lately are really just a cultural matter and who are we to judge others when we could not possibly understand, misses the point. Of course we can’t understand acts of violence in the name of family honour nor do we want to. Such behaviour clashes with our values and should be judged accordingly.

Unlike culture, values are not relative, subjective and therefore not exempt from judgment. Legal systems are based on the principle that values are objective; that there is a right and a wrong when it comes to standards of conduct in society. Murder is wrong….period. That is a value; not a culture nuance, or just a lifestyle.

Those who do not subscribe to the principles of human dignity really have no place in Canada or in any free society. We do and should welcome anyone and everyone to our shores provided they are willing to embrace the values that make us a great nation. If you think I am being too “closed minded” or non inclusive, I thank you. I am….when it comes to values.

Michael Niren

About Michael Niren

Michael is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section and the Associate Member of the American Bar Association. Read more

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