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MMC interviews Kim Turner
“Beyond the open door”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

Kim Turner co-founded the Cities of Migration initiative in 2008 at the Maytree Foundation, Toronto.[1] Until she retired earlier this year, Turner was a senior research associate at Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange. Previously, she led the Nonprofit Library Commons project at Imagine Canada.

A welcoming attitude towards new arrivals is only one of many prerequisites for successful urban migration, explains a “very optimistic” Kim Turner. Cities need to rethink resource allocation, adapt their infrastructure, engage existing communities, celebrate diversity, tackle injustice, and partner with the private sector to ensure inward migration translates into sustainable benefits for all.

Would you agree that all forms of mobility—be they forced or voluntary, internal or international, in the global North or South—have essentially become urban affairs? Or has migration always been an urban affair?

Yes, I think it is increasingly an urban affair. Cities are at the epicentre of the settlement and integration of migrants and refugees worldwide; that’s where the majority of the world’s population live and work. The role of cities has never been more important and continues to be under-appreciated. Until recently, cities haven’t been invited to the policy table, certainly not at national or international levels, where they might be contributing to the kind of discussions that are under way now, such as on the global compacts, etc.

As migrants and refugees concentrate in larger urban centres, is there a risk that cities become islands of diversity and multiculturalism and thus fundamentally different from the rest of the countries that they’re situated in?

I think that there is a risk, yes. As islands of diversity, cities are places where a lot of the most important innovations and creativity and national wealth and prosperity are being generated. These impacts need to be dispersed more broadly across countries. I think it is very problematic in Canada, for example, where we have a growing divide between our urban and rural or regional context. Canada’s proactive immigration strategy has been less successful in settling migrants outside the big cities, and that’s exacerbating regional disparities. I think we’re starting to see some fracture lines politically and culturally as a result of those differences.

At the national level, do you foresee political, or social-cultural, collisions ahead?

We will have to do more to adapt. In Canada, for example, attitudes towards our diversity are on the whole positive but recent events, the [Covid-19] pandemic and certainly what’s happening south of the border in the US right now [with the Black Lives Matter protest movement], are helping us understand that these are not settled issues. Recognising our diversity also means recognising its inequalities, its racial disparities, its ethnic disparities. In our embrace of multiculturalism and the values of good governance (and maybe also because of our famous politeness), we’ve been reluctant to own up to our own challenges around race and class. In Toronto, over 51 percent of the population is foreign – born, we are a majority minority city, within which the so-called “visible minority” [a technical term used by Statistics Canada] is also the majority. In our big cities, this is something we’re fairly comfortable with but in the regions, where we don’t have that kind of diversity, it’s a different situation. This will become problematic as significant economic challenges emerge as a result of natural demographic change.

You mean the depopulation?

Yes, depopulation—mainly of working-age populations to the cities, as well as low birth rate and a bulge in retirees—is having a significant economic impact on smaller and regional cities. The out- migration of young people is one of the great tragedies of the regions, as is the collapse of the manufacturing industries that were the lifeblood of so many regional centres. These are economic challenges that cannot be addressed by a natural population growth. Increased immigration, and specifically efforts to increase immigrant retention in smaller towns and cities, is needed to sustain and return economic vitality to the regions. The challenge is to help regional and rural communities understand how to embrace immigration as an economic development strategy. It’s one thing to attract immigrants to your city, it’s another to create the conditions for a successful settlement and integration experience. Immigrants need to feel welcome if you want them to invest in the community and remain. Otherwise, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.

Can a city have too many migrants? Can you see any drawbacks to unconstrained open-door policies, or the growth of migrant populations?

No, all the economic analyses we see here in Canada and elsewhere point to the vital contribution immigrants make, how essential they are to economic growth and prosperity. But practically, it requires a significant outlay of resources to ensure that newcomers are well integrated, that they receive the services they need to help them integrate into their communities. That starts with language acquisition and access to employment, but it takes much more than that. It takes significant efforts to adapt the working infrastructure of the city to make it open and welcoming to newcomers. I think one of the things that immigration is helping us understand is the complexity of creating an inclusive culture where everyone, all groups, all diversities, can feel comfortable and have a role, and that’s good for all of us. So we need to engage ordinary citizens, members of the community at large, and embrace a whole-community approach to how we develop and communicate policy solutions to meet these challenges, including how to deal with experiences of discrimination, racism, and exclusion. This requires strong leadership.

What can mayors and other city leaders do to make migration in cities a positive phenomenon?

Local leadership, city mayors, have a very important role to play. They can bring employers to the table, direct policy and financial resources to where it’s needed, bring local stakeholders together. Compared to national and state governments, cities are nimble, flexible, responsive. Plus, they have a huge symbolic role to play. It’s vital that city leaders, and especially mayors, set a high bar on issues like immigration, antidiscrimination, inclusion. Not just which public services are provided, but also the way in which they’re provided; how members of the public service are trained to interact with newcomers and [ensure] accountability for whether those services are delivered in an equitable and respectful way. It’s the business of cities to create wealth, foster the conditions for prosperity, to attract investment, jobs, opportunities, etc. Their engagement with the private sector is a very significant part of that role. City leadership can help employers understand how to recruit and integrate immigrants and uncover opportunities for including them in the local labour market.

Should cities and mayors have a stronger say in national immigration policies?

I think they should; after all, it’s mayors that oversee the places where immigrants live, work and pay taxes. Toronto, for example, has been called the engine of Canada’s national prosperity; it’s motto is “Diversity Our Strength.” Barcelona, the great intercultural city, has been described as a “living laboratory” of policy innovation related to immigrant integration. One of the things that we’ve learned at Cities of Migration, over 12 years, is how innovative cities are. Why? because the everyday business of running the city means coming up with solutions where they are needed, finding new ways to provide services, to support social cohesion and public safety. When city mayors stand up and send the right message, as they have in cities like New York, it makes a difference. Many cities are defying national narratives around migration, modelling success when national narratives may be quite negative. On immigration issues, they’ve earned a seat at the national decision table.

You’ve spoken before about the need for more tangible evidence of the long-term costs of exclusion, about what happens when discrimination and bias get in the way of opportunity. What, for you, are these costs, and are you seeing them in many cities around the world?

That’s what we’re seeing now in the United States, for example. When we talk about systemic injustice, systemic racism, systemic inequality, that’s precisely what we’re looking at: the long-term consequences of ignoring these issues or not dealing with them properly. The injustices work their way into the system in ways that become more and more intractable. Just look at the niqab ban in Quebec and France. It is an overheated, absurd debate. For a culture that has always had an intellectual appreciation for the absurd, it’s extraordinary to me the anxiety that a woman’s headdress has created. Of course, the debate has simply surfaced racism already present in the culture but with far-reaching consequences, like toxic populism. The immediate cost of exclusion to cities, of course, is that immigrants, and the skills, experience, and opportunity they represent, will choose to go elsewhere.

What are the critical factors that make migration successful and beneficial as opposed to burdensome conflict-driving at the city level?

It’s well-established that language makes an enormous difference, for all the obvious reasons. It allows you to work and to share your skills and experience, to advance in your work, etcetera. Importantly, it also enables integration at the community and neighbourhood level. And it’s critical to ensuring that your rights are protected, and that you can advocate for your rights and negotiate that legal framework. However, in our work on cities and migration, what’s really emerged is the complexity and multi-faceted nature of integration. Focusing on a single dimension like language, or employment, or housing, without comprehensive long-term strategies that include anti-discrimination policies and community awareness campaigns, promises limited success. Research tells us is that our biases are hard-coded. We all need to work deliberately and conscientiously to overcome them, so they don’t negatively impact how we make decisions, personally and in the interest of others, the community as a whole. And that takes hard work, that takes a lot of work. We should really be talking about inclusion, because that’s what is really important.

Has Covid-19 set back progress in integrating migrants at national and city levels, both in practical terms and also in terms of people’s perceptions of outsiders and the mobility of foreigners?

The idea that a virus knows know no borders is pretty interesting. The pandemic has already taught us a great deal about ourselves, from the importance of community trust in bending the curve, to which populations are most vulnerable. Of course, migrants aren’t the source of the virus; the virus is amongst us, technically blind to the race and nationality of the carrier. However, the pandemic has exposed the disproportionate number of racialised communities, ethnic communities that have been affected. That’s directly related to housing conditions and proximity factors; it’s all about big city density and living conditions. In Toronto, as elsewhere, we can pinpoint Covid by postal code the way we have historically identified poverty at the neighbourhood level. So the pandemic is exposing systemic vulnerabilities that can impact anyone. I see that insight as a positive only if we can be moved to do something about it. I hope more insights about migration will emerge during this time of pandemic. Maybe service workers will finally get the recognition they deserve.

Jumping forward to the future, say 2050, do you see well-integrated, multicultural, multi-national, inclusive cities as the norm globally, or are there going to be forces that oppose this trend?

I believe that our own best interests will prevail and that we’re going to see better integrated, more inclusive, more diverse cities. I’m very optimistic. The global movement of people, information, money, culture is unstoppable. At the city level, there is a growing understanding of both the challenges posed by migration and the availability of solutions. There’s recognition that cities are leading the way forward. It’s promising to think about our young people, who are truly global citizens, who are more open and more equitable, less colour-blind than we’ve ever been. That’s the generation that will be running our cities 30 years from now.


[1] In the spring of 2020, the initiative moved to Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration & Integration.