Is Multiculturalism in Canada dead?
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Canadian Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is Dead?

By Anonymous - September 2009.

If you walk along the Rideau canal towards the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa you will pass the last bend on the canals route towards the Ottawa River, there you might see (like I did) a piece of graffiti that caughts your attention. It reads: “Multiculturalism is Dead."

Now if you, like myself, are prone to thinking a lot you will probably start thinking about multiculturalism, racial politics and etc. However the reality was that the year before I had been inundated with information on so-called 'identity politics'. Indeed the possibility of an African-American being elected to the Presidency of the United States of America was electrifying/confusing racial commentators and scholars. In particular you may remember the debates on whether he was 'black enough'.

"We've got a tragic history when it comes to race in this country. We've got a lot of pent-up anger and bitterness and misunderstanding. ... This country wants to move beyond these kinds of things."

- Barack Obama speaking about being 'post-racial', March 18, 2008.

At any rate, I already had a retort to the statement “Multiculturalism is Dead." and my answer is: “It never existed!”

Canadian Multiculturalism

In Canada, aside from assaulting the ‘official’ Canadian national identity, this rejoinder may bother people for another reason, namely the fact that Canada is ostensibly multicultural. Canada has people from different cultures. We don't really have a choice in the matter.

Now given this possible point of contention we should clarify what multiculturalism in Canada actually means.

Since the 1970's a narrative of multiculturalism has been adopted by successive governments and is now enshrined within our national discourse. Indeed it’s not uncommon to hear politicians and journalists alike remarking on Canada’s “grand diversity” and multicultural character (partly because it makes them look good). In addition behind its rhetorical use many of Canada’s most important documents (i.e. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms) include multicultural provisions.

However upon closer examination we can expose significant ambiguities concerning the nature of multiculturalism. The term “multiculturalism” is often taken for granted and as suggested before statements of policy such as the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act suggest that multiculturalism is not merely a fact of Canadian society, but is also an ideological understanding of Canada which informs (or should inform) the country’s character and is part of the Canadian identity. This “multicultural” character is touted as being Canada’s defence against the propagation and continuation of discriminatory or racists practices and beliefs. (Although if you ever read a small town newspaper you might be surprised how many racial slurs or stereotypes appear, suggesting Canada is multicultural in name only.)

What is multiculturalism according to the Canadian government? The Department of Canadian Heritage (among others) describes it as follows:

“Canadian multiculturalism is fundamental to our belief that all citizens are equal. Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of, diverse cultures. The Canadian experience has shown that multiculturalism encourages racial and ethnic harmony and cross-cultural understanding, and discourages ghettoization, hatred, discrimination and violence.”

Thus Canadian multicultural society welcomes the continued practice and maintenance of its peoples ancestral identities. This accepting environment somehow discourages xenophobia and encourages cross-cultural education and social equality hence, mitigating racial or ethnic discrimination. However is this description of multiculturalism correct? Are we actually a collection of 'equal' cultures trying to live in harmony? To use a metaphor are we the 'mixed salad' in comparison to America’s 'melting pot'?

Canadian Multiculturalism

Or does our self-segregation sometimes lead to hatred of other ethnic communities? i.e. The French in Quebec wanting to separate from the rest of Canada. Canada's multicultural policies owe a lot to its two official languages and the fact Canada has been ostensibly multicultural ever since New France was conquered by the British and conceded to Britain in 1763. To say nothing of the 10 million aboriginal Canadians who were living here prior to the French and the British.

Despite their fancy rhetorical footwork these statements of policy nonetheless have undercurrents which emphasize a management of minorities over any idealistic commitment to diversity or cultural equality itself. This emphasis on management is illuminated when understood through the multicultural notions of “accommodation” and “tolerance.” It is no secret that “accommodation” and “tolerance” constitute an important, if not essential, element of Canadian multiculturalism.

Do you may remember the debate in Quebec over “reasonable accommodation”? Although official statements of policy attempt to avoid any language which indicates that it is a majority accommodating and tolerating a minority, this fact is impossible to avoid. The dynamic simply oozes through the pages of multicultural policy. Hence the translated version of multiculturalism demands that ‘society’ (i.e. the dominant linguistic group, economic system, race, etc) to accommodate other “diverse peoples” (i.e. those wacky foreigners) with policies that like the following:

“encourage and assist the business community, labour organizations, voluntary and other private organizations, as well as public institutions, in ensuring full participation in Canadian society, including the social and economic aspects, of individuals of all origins and their communities…”

- Heritage Canada.

Hence businesses, universities and sports organizations are to be encouraged to accommodate religious observances and practices by , for example, allowing exam deferrals when religious holidays interrupt school schedules, or scheduling sporting events on non-religious days. Thus the multicultural process involves the management of diversity (i.e. minorities) by introducing culturally sensitive practices into institutions so as to ensure that every outsider can fully participate in the established social structure.

Canadian Multiculturalism

So what has been learned about Canadian multiculturalism? While Canada is purported to be multicultural, this multicultural character is predicated on a pseudo-acknowledged majority/minority relationship (as acutely illuminated through the concept of 'accommodation'). Canadian society does not (as suggested by multicultural rhetoric) constitute an equal partnership of peoples belonging to differing cultural brackets; rather, Canada constitutes a de facto society in which newcomers are integrated through ‘soft’ or culturally ‘sensitive’ policy measures.

Therefore we are left with an increasingly paternal image of Canadian multiculturalism. Here the ‘unhyphenated Canada’ deals with newcomers by tolerating and accommodating their more awkward practices (i.e. language, religion, family/gender structure, economic practices, laws) until these practices are reduced to unproblematic cultural tokens. As a result multiculturalism is essentially identical to the theoretical American ‘melting pot’. This is because it does not truly preserve distinct cultures. Truly preserving cultures would involve maintaining distinct economies and legal systems, essentially ostracizing different cultures from each other. This of course is completely unacceptable to Canada's central government and just plain sounds ridiculous.

To know just how adverse our system is to the preservation of distinct cultures (with their distinct economies and languages) we need only to look at the ongoing history of Canada’s native people, whom have suffered greatly under the heel of Canadian laws, pushed aside and ignored until they are forced to protest just to be given their rights.

The reality of Canadian society is that it does not constitute a mixed and 'distinct' collection of equal cultures (i.e. an ideal utopian multicultural society), rather it's a typical, largely unexceptional modern state which naturally directs is people towards economic and linguistic homogeneity. Perhaps our system does so in a manner ‘better’ than America or Europe; but nevertheless there is no real commitment to the cultural continuity of Canada’s many peoples. Its only in principle. Although you can keep you skin color (that would be hard to take away) and religion (kind-of) you’ll need to talk like a Englishman and work like a Protestant to get onto this ride.

Canadian Multiculturalism

Food for Thought:

Is the World a Cultural Melting Pot?

Is gay culture a culture that Canada should tolerate, and therefore gay marriages should be sacrosanct in Canadian law?

If multiculturalism is part of Canada's national identity, what about making Canadian parliament multicultural too by requiring each political party to select a minimum percentage of MPs from minorities, and at the same time ensuring that 50% of MPs are female (ie. a two vote system wherein everyone votes for one man and one woman for each riding)?

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