Norwegians are not necessarily known for their humour, but they laughed at US President Donald Trump's suggestion that there should be more of them immigrating to the United States. When we asked Norwegian business leaders about Trump's comments, they said, "Norwegians may have immigrated to the United States a hundred years ago, but today, there are more Americans coming to Norway than the other way around."
It is not hard to see why. As we sat on the rapid train from Oslo international airport to the centre of the city, it was clear we were in a country that makes a serious investment in its public infrastructure. Norway's transportation system is a far cry from the notoriously unreliable Amtrak line or constant breakdowns of the Washington Metro system.
It is not just transportation but all the other first-rate public services that makes Norway stand apart. Norway offers publicly funded universal health care, daycare and university education. It's no wonder then, that the country boasts having one of the highest standards of living in the world, and is at the top of the UN's Human Development Index.
Norway has a relatively small population of just more than five million people, but it is also becoming increasingly diverse. Today, 14.4 per cent of Norway's residents are born outside the country. Norway is a net recipient of immigrants and has admitted refugees over the years, but rarely do they become citizens. And while the country is progressive in many ways, it is struggling with its new demographic reality.
Norway continues to grapple with its approach to diversity and inclusion in what has traditionally been a homogeneous society. Make no mistake: Part of the story is that Norwegians are protective of who should enjoy the benefits of its generous state policies.
The country faces these challenges despite espousing progressive social policies such as gender equity. Too often, immigrants are portrayed either as victims of global crises, or as opportunists seeking to benefit from a generous system of social security. Neither depiction is helpful or accurate.
In Norway this week, we came to discuss the benefits of diversity and the role that immigration can play in driving economic prosperity, especially in countries with aging populations. Both Canada and Norway face similar demographic challenges as we seek to maintain our strong social services in the face of static, if not declining, natural population growth.
With a median age of 40 and a birth rate of 1.7, Norway's government officials recognize that they will need to increase immigration to grow their economy and to broaden the tax base that pays to support the aging population. Policy makers and businesses are encouraging their government to welcome more immigrants into their country, but public opinion remains skeptical. Even though the revenue from the much vaunted sovereign wealth fund is often seen as a panacea, it is not enough.
In stark contrast to Canada, Norway does not have a process that allows for immigration, nor an easy or clear path toward citizenship. Many of the refugees and asylum seekers have been granted residency, but their chances of obtaining citizenship for themselves or their children (who may have been born here) remain fraught. Living here for decades does not necessarily lead to citizenship nor acquiring political rights. This can stymie immigrants' incentives to integrate.
When immigrants are given the opportunity to contribute and are included in schools, workplaces and political life, they have a greater stake in the future of their new country, and everyone benefits. Creating an immigration process that is fair, clear and offers a path to citizenship gives newcomers ownership and pride in their new country. This is something Canada does right.
Canada still faces many of its own challenges including continuing workplace discrimination and the continued need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, but Norwegians were nevertheless keen to learn about Canadian experiences. After all, the concept of multiculturalism attracts people from around the world to want to call Canada their home.
Norwegians may not be interested in outward migration to the United States or anywhere else. But we found a country grappling with how to prepare for the challenges of a declining population with little experience in pluralism. We heard a genuine desire to move from diversity to inclusion and to learn from Canada. As a leader on gender equality, perhaps Norway could apply some of the same tools and approaches it has used so successfully here, to advance the goal of achieving racial harmony. Then, there may be lessons to share in both directions.
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.