Canada has never had shared values

OttawaCitizen.com – news – This is a liberal democracy, where we get along despite non-negotiable disagreements about how we live our lives, writes Andrew Potter
December 22, 2011.    By Andrew Potter, Ottawa Citizen

It would be a lot easier to debate the tough cases of Canadian multiculturalism if people understood how the system actually works. That includes everyone from taxi drivers and barbers to those who spend their time trolling the comment boards of political blogs or loitering around the virtual water-coolers of social media. It includes radio and television hosts, editorialists and pundits. And it also includes the Citizenship and Immigration minister himself, Jason Kenney, who last week announced that henceforward, anyone who takes the oath of citizenship must do so unveiled and uncovered.

Announcing the new policy in Montreal, Kenney said that it is “a matter of pure principle, which lies at the heart of our identity and values with respect to openness and equality.” The citizenship ceremony, he went on, “defines who we are as Canadians including our mutual responsibilities to one another and a shared commitment to values that are rooted in our history.”

For conservatives, a Canadian immigration minister using words like “we” and “our” and making forceful references to “shared values” is like the scene in A Fish Called Wanda where Kevin Kline seduces Jamie Lee Curtis with his cannonball Italian: you could hear the moans of ecstasy of the right-wing pundits from Tofino to Torbay.

For the rest of us, it is another lost opportunity for our leaders to educate Canadians about how their country functions, what holds it together, and how we can think about how to reasonably accommodate newcomers. Because here’s the plain truth: Canadians don’t have shared values. We never have, and we never will. But that’s not a problem, because the ongoing cohesion of Canadian society is not seriously threatened by deep pluralism. If it was, we would never have got past the sectarian, linguistic, and cultural divides of the 19th century.

Canada is a liberal democracy, and like similar societies, it is designed to allow us to get along despite widespread and non-negotiable disagreements over values – that is, over how people should live their lives. Our political institutions, underwritten by constitutional declarations such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, don’t assume that citizens have shared values. Instead, they work by providing a framework that is neutral with respect to controversial questions of value. This neutrality is what underwrites our freedoms of expression, of religion, and of association. It is also what motivated a young Pierre Trudeau to declare that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and which inevitably led to homosexuals winning the right to marry.

What does this have to do with immigration?

One of the most enduring misconceptions about Canada’s immigration policy is the idea that, ever since the early ’70s, Canada has styled itself as a “mosaic” that encourages immigrants to maintain their old values and traditions. This has outraged those who believe that the only way to save Canadian society is to force immigrants to “assimilate,” that is, to adopt our notional shared values. But this is a false dichotomy. Canada certainly does not try to assimilate immigrants, but we don’t offer a mosaic either. Rather, the institutions and policies we have designed are aimed at the middle path of successful integration: allowing newcomers to keep as much of their cultural traditions as possible, while providing the means for their full participation in civic life.

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