Integration : the Perruchon lessons

Last night's TV documentary on the emigration of the Perruchon family to Canada 35 years ago was compelling viewing. It contained some insights on how to integrate in a foreign land

The story began back in 1976, when Claude Perruchon took his family from Chéseaux, in the canton of Vaud, to Farnham, in the francophone region of Quebec, Canada. They were one of a few hundred Swiss families who emigrated to Canada at that time, but not all would have been because of the decision of a 47 year old husband and father of 4 children to look for a new life.

Their history over the time since then has been regularly documented by a team from Swiss Television, and it includes some very poignant scenes. The "Infrarouge" discussion which followed the showing of the documentary made reference not only to how the Perruchon family handled the emigration, but also how in that same period Switzerland accepted many immigrants from southern Europe. They came with more hope than money, but many finished as well-integrated citizens.

One of the very moving admissions was that for very many months after the move, the parents suffered loneliness and a feeling of always being foreigners. However, seemingly because their move was to offer an improved life to their children, they stuck it out. Their reward, many years later, was the gradual realisation that Canada was now their home and that they now felt comfortable.

So how did this happen? I suspect that they found what many people find, that integration comes via the children, who find new friends via the school which they attend. This, to me, is one important rule to be remembered: send the children to the local state school. In saying that, I am not trying to say anything of the numerous private schools around Geneva: these may certainly be of great benefit for people coming to Geneva for a short fixed period.

It was particularly interesting to see how, several years after the death of Claude Perruchon, his widow Hildi felt able, for the first time, to come back to Switzerland and see how things have changed. Anyone who has gone to the airport to meet family or friends would immediately have recognised the scene showing the corridor where she came through into the welcome area of Geneva airport: a far cry from what airports looked like when they left for Canada.

So what lessons can we learn from this saga, and also from the Infrarouge discussions? The main one is perhaps that we have to distinguish between people who are either already rich when coming here, or expect to be rich in a fairly short time, and those who come here looking better conditions than those relatively poor ones in their home countries. The former category, often called ex-pats and of whom it is argued that they bring prosperity, are frequently somewhat unpopular because they can afford prices for essentials (including housing) beyond the means of the average Geneva people: they may even qualify for special arrangements with Mr Taxman! However, there are many in the latter category, frequently from eastern Europe, who might in 30 years time be established here and accepted unconditionally as Swiss.


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