Tolerance of diversity still a work in progress – comment – Tolerance of diversity still a work in progress
December 13, 2007
Harry Sterling

Can democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and cultural diversity realistically be transplanted into any society?

Although several countries, including Canada, have societies where respect for ethnic and cultural pluralism is reasonably successful, other nations have encountered difficulties.

Current developments in the violence-prone Balkans typify the problems and dangers some countries encounter because of ethnic or religious differences.

Such destabilizing factors came into play following the Dec. 10 report of a mediation troika established to resolve demands of the Albanian-speaking population of Serbia’s Kosovo region for independence from Serbia.

The mediators advised United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that despite months of negotiations with Serbian and Albanian officials, the two sides couldn’t be reconciled, raising fears of further violence in the Balkans since the Albanians reiterated their intention to soon announce unilateral independence. Muslim Albanians represent about 90 per cent of Kosovo’s 2 million population, the remainder primarily Orthodox Serbs.

Several European Union countries originally expressed reservations about Kosovo’s unilateral independence. They worried separatist-minded groups in their own countries might do likewise, including Serbs in Bosnia, potentially destabilizing the entire region.

Most, however, reportedly now believe, like Washington, that independence is inevitable.

Considering the seemingly unstoppable integration of European nations via the EU (now 27 states), some cannot comprehend why conflict persists there between different ethnic and cultural groups.

One reason is that such places are often caught in a historical time warp, old perceived injustices and hatreds remaining alive despite the passage of time.

Unlike Canada, which initially was relatively open to immigration to help spur economic development, much of land-scarce Europe had a history mired in class and religious strife.

The horrific ethnic cleansing and massacres following the breakup of Yugoslavia – with Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians and Slovenians turning on each other – was a product of the mistrust and antipathy inculcated over several centuries. More than 10,000 Albanians alone were killed in Kosovo during 1998-99, with 800,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Government efforts to integrate immigrants and “guest workers” within European states have frequently been half-hearted or ineffective, resulting in modern-day ghettos with embittered under-classes prone to violence. Contrary to Canada, where citizenship effectively means acceptance as a Canadian, until recently long-time Turkish residents in Germany weren’t eligible for German citizenship.

While many are encouraged by the generally positive Canadian attitude toward other cultures and value of immigration, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

One need only recall the deplorable treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, including the punitive head tax imposed on them, to realize the present-day openness in Canadian society is the product of vastly improved attitudes. During World War II, Japanese Canadians and some Italian Canadians were sent to concentration camps despite their Canadian citizenship.

Canada’s native population had its own rights restricted and children forced into residential schools where their culture was denigrated. Even today, some in Quebec say immigrants who don’t speak French shouldn’t be allowed to vote in provincial elections.

The reality is that this country’s openness to cultural diversity remains a work in progress, constantly requiring vigilance. For example, a study issued Dec. 10 by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Association for Canadian Studies reported 25 per cent of Canadians said they’ve been victims of discrimination based on their race or ethnicity. The wearing of certain types of religiously based attire has become a controversial issue, especially for Muslims.

The fact Statistics Canada’s 2006 census indicates almost 20 per cent of Canadians were foreign-born makes it clear maintaining respect for diversity of all kinds both enriches Canada and reinforces its image as a beacon for those seeking to realize their dreams in a free and open society.

Canada’s multicultural diversity is a welcome sign of this nation’s growing maturity and commitment to respecting the rights of every Canadian, regardless of their ancestry or station in life.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

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