Celebrate the Canadian way

Posted on November 21, 2011 in Inclusion Debates

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EdmontonJournal.com – life – While imperfect, our adaptive multiculturalism is to be respected, admired – and continued
Nov. 19, 2011.   By Gurcharan Bhatia And Allan Sheppard, Edmonton Journal

With rare exceptions, Canadians have chosen to talk rather than fight each other over important issues. As a result Canada is arguably the best place on earth to live. Some countries may have done as well facing potentially overwhelming diversity; few, if any, have done better. Canadian multiculturalism has contributed to that achievement.

It is unfortunate that our federal and provincial governments and most national institutions skimmed over the recent 40th anniversary of former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s proclamation of the world’s first formal multiculturalism policy.

A persistent minority opposes multiculturalism and the talking, inconclusiveness and ambiguity that go with it. There’s nothing wrong with that. Generally opponents confine themselves to talking. Some of it is bellicose, but it is harmless. And it is necessary. The essence of multiculturalism is inclusiveness; we listen to all voices: all civil, respectful voices.

That is the Canadian way. In the best of futures it will remain so: sometimes dull and unfocused, an often frustrating round of negotiations and negotiations about negotiations; open-ended, unfinished, unsettled, never carved in stone: never fundamentally exclusive, even when it resists being fully inclusive.

Canadians often must tolerate uncertainty. That makes some of us uncomfortable, though seldom to the point of violence and never to the point of civil war. That is a precious legacy shared by few nations.

The sturdiest foundations for that legacy were laid after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, a century before Confederation. Decisions were made not to treat the defeated habitant colonists as conquered aliens. Instead, the country’s forefathers created a unique binary governance and cultural framework. They emphasized accommodation and give-and-take, not defeat and dominance. Some Canadians insist the Québécois and, after them, the First Nations are conquered peoples. Such dissenters are sometimes influential, but they come and go. Most Canadians, most of the time, are comfortable muddling through and getting along. Their primary focus is on survival in a harsh land, and not on national pride and prejudice.

Canada has always depended on immigration. Following the decline of the fur trade, immigrants came to settle and develop the agricultural potential of vast, open spaces. As transportation and access improved, development of mineral, forest and marine resources, and then industrial growth, followed.

Immigrants from Britain and the United States, with their British heritage and English language, integrated easily, if not always well. From Confederation to the Second World War, increasing numbers came from Eastern, Northern and Central Europe. They were welcomed for their agricultural and resource development skills; integration was more challenging, due to language, education, and sometimes religious differences, but these usually faded quickly, given European backgrounds.

There were also immigrants of colour from the U.S., the Caribbean, and South and East Asia. First Nations peoples, though technically not immigrants, were often regarded as resident aliens. These groups presented greater differences than some Canadians could accommodate comfortably. Challenges intensified after the Second World War and the Korean War, as the sources of immigration shifted to Southern Europe, then to Asia and Africa and included more refugees.

Canada responded as it had before: through multiculturalism, it adapted and evolved to simplify and hasten the integration of immigrants with more challenging diversities. We will continue adapting and evolving, unless we decide to chase the far more difficult and problematic goal of assimilation. Critics argue that multiculturalism encourages newcomers not to “fit in”; in objective reality, it hastens a process that would take longer without it.

Multiculturalism has worked. Since the Second World War, Canada has integrated proportionally more immigrants than any other nation. It has done so with some difficulty, but without serious conflict. Not the least of the reasons for that success is the fact that Canada’s multiculturalism is philosophically, politically and practically consistent with the governance strategy that began on the Plains of Abraham. Leaders then found ways not to treat victory as conquest, but rather more as a changing of the guard. Through multiculturalism, Canadians welcome immigrants as valued human resources, not as alien invaders.

Nothing is perfect in life, and Canada’s response to diversity needs improving. Racist attitudes, behaviour, even legislation have always been present, as they are in all countries. Despite its strengths, multiculturalism alone cannot meet that challenge. Racism is often part of the cultural baggage immigrants bring with them, adding to the stock already existing here. But Canada has responded, again in a way that is consistent with its history of civility and mutual respect: with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and human rights legislation, policies and practices to implement it.

The Charter, and many things that flow from it, are flawed, as were the original binary solution to the merging of two nations and cultures, and the subsequent multicultural strategy to integrate diverse immigrant and native communities. But we still have a system that works. It works because it is not written in stone. It remains always subject to change and modification, to adaptation and natural evolution: to reasonable and gradual accommodation on a foundation of civility and mutual respect.

We should celebrate multiculturalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian values that they represent. The best way to do that is to fix the flaws we see and the new ones that will emerge as we proceed. There are many opportunities: We must resolve fairly the human, political and constitutional issues that plague our relations with First Nations peoples (who are also citizens). We must challenge the unequal and inequitable status of many Canadian women and children. We must reverse the growing disparity between rich and poor at home and abroad. Above all, we must attack the growth and criminalization of poverty and homelessness that are both the cause and consequence of every injustice we see, if we look, around us.

Let’s start by talking to each other. Civilly. Respectfully. Like Canadians. Like citizens, not consumers of government services.

Gurcharan Bhatia is a veteran advocate for civil rights and multiculturalism in Canada and his native India. He is a retired judge of the Citizenship Court of Canada, a former commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the founder of the International Association of Citizens for a Civil Society (CFACS.org). Allan Sheppard is a freelance writer and journalist and a founder of CFACS.

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