Canadian values boil down to liberal democracy

Posted on May 9, 2009 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinions/Special Commentary – Canadian values boil down to liberal democracy
May 9, 2009.   CLIFFORD ORWIN

Our Minister for Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, has recently championed a major reform of the government’s programs for immigrants to Canada. He proposes that erstwhile Canadian citizens be better educated in “Canadian values.” And not just the fluffy stuff, like recycling (as in the current manual). But just what are core “Canadian values”?

How do we complete the phrase “as Canadian as …”? Not with hockey or maple syrup or poutine. These are plenty Canadian, but they’re also subpolitical and completely irrelevant, civically speaking. You can take or leave any or all of them and still be a good Canadian citizen.

Well, then, how about single-payer medical care? A few years ago, Canadians were invited to identify their most outstanding countryman ever and a plurality anointed Tommy Douglas, the father of that distinctive institution. (Among the countries of the world, only Cuba and Vietnam share Canada’s horror at private billing.) So was this Mr. Kenney’s worry, that immigrants to Canada would balk at public payment of their medical bills?

Not likely. So what else might head the marquee of “Canadian values?” Having taught the flower of our nation’s youth for the past 35 years, I can report that they at least are not in doubt as to Canada’s prime value. It’s multiculturalism, stupid. That’s what distinguishes us from our bumptious, parochial neighbour to the south, and that’s what sums up the new Canada. Ours is the culture that defines itself by its openness to all cultures.

Might this then be Mr. Kenney’s worry, that immigrants to Canada will spurn multiculturalism? That sounds even odder than their rebelling against public health care. On the contrary, don’t they (or their leaders and well-wishers) clamour for ever more of it? Has the hapless Mr. Kenney saddled himself with the worst job in the world, trying to solve a non-problem? Enlightened by this column, will he now get a life (ministerially speaking) and move on to tackle some real problem?

In fact, Mr. Kenney grasps something that my students don’t. Despite what most Canadians have been taught that we think, multiculturalism is not our primary value. In a speech in Calgary on April 14, Mr. Kenney asserted that to be Canadian is to be something rather than nothing, something different from what one was before migrating to our shores. Canada isn’t merely a mosaic of what its immigrants already were. “We want to make sure that when people become Canadians, they totally understand that Canadian history becomes their history, Canadian values become their values.” But what, again, are these values? Mr. Kenney offered two examples. The first was the supremacy of the civil law (as opposed to, for example, sharia law) and the second was gender equality.

In a subsequent interview, Mr. Kenney elaborated this theme. “We can’t afford to be complacent about the challenge of integration. We want to avoid the kind of ethnic enclaves or parallel communities that exist in some European countries.”

The reference to Europe is instructive. Mr. Kenney, already an MP, was too busy to attend the Seymour Martin Lipset Memorial Lecture on Democracy and Democratization delivered in Washington and Toronto in November of 2005. One of the most prestigious lectures around – I confess to being its Canadian co-chair – this one featured American sage Francis Fukuyama. Having recently returned from Europe, he reported that thoughtful Europeans were in a quandary. They found themselves tending simultaneously in two opposite directions. They were increasingly nervous about large blocs of undigested immigrants clinging to non-European ways. At the same time, and for all the pompous and self-congratulatory rhetoric of the European Union, they were increasingly incapable of articulating what it meant to be European. Having sought to accommodate the newcomers by reinterpreting Europe as a hollow shell profuse in apologies for its former self, they found that empty vessels exerted weak powers of integration.

Canada is not Europe. In fact, in the robustness of its confidence in its way of life, it more nearly resembles the United States. At the same time, for it to understand itself as fundamentally multicultural, or fundamentally a single payer for health care, or fundamentally a society that recycles, is obfuscatory and unhelpful.

It seems paradoxical, but is not, that what is most fundamental for Canada is in no way distinctive to it. It is what it has in common with many other societies (but alas, still far too few of them), namely liberal democracy. Liberal democracy implies a way of life – not equal openness to all such – one founded on the individual conceived as the bearer of inalienable rights. “Multiculturalism” may be one feature of our liberal democracy, but only in strict subordination to this more basic one. Canada’s slogan is not, “Let a thousand honour killings bloom.” Mr. Kenney grasps this. He is right in insisting that we teach our immigrants to grasp it too.

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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