Happy birthday to Canadian multiculturalism

Posted on in Equality History

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TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sat Oct 08 2011.    By Haroon Siddiqui Editorial Page

It was on Oct. 8, 1971, that Pierre Trudeau announced the policy of multiculturalism. Saturday was its 40th anniversary. Being Canadians, we did not celebrate.

Yet an overwhelming majority of Canadians are quietly proud of it and view it as a defining feature of Canada.

The policy has not been free of controversy. Right-wingers keep sniping at it. Periods of economic insecurity and fear of terrorism produce a backlash against it. But such phases prove “transient,” says Barry Watson of Environics Research Group. With each passing year, more Canadians approve of multiculturalism. Tellingly, the Canadian-born and the foreign-born endorse it equally. They also overwhelmingly approve of immigration and only 9 per cent want Canada to bar non-whites.

Such broad acceptance of multicultural equality partly explains why Tim Hudak bombed with his attack on a provincial job-training program for new immigrants, “foreign workers.” It also explains why Stephen Harper succeeded in the federal election with his strong defence of multiculturalism when wooing “ethnic voters,” whereas Michael Ignatieff failed with the same bloc by being lukewarm about the trademark Liberal policy.

Support for multiculturalism now crosses ideological lines.

While French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron pronounced multiculturalism dead, no serious national politician in Canada dare suggests it.

It’s not just public opinion. Unlike in Europe, where multiculturalism-lite was left to the whim of governments, our policy is anchored in the 1982 Charter of Rights as well as the 1988Multiculturalism Act. No government, regardless of political stripe, is going to axe that act, let alone contemplate constitutional change.

There are also positive reasons for the endurance of the policy, rooted as it is in our history.

The 1867 British North America Act recognized aboriginal peoples, English-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics on the basis of race, language and religion. The DNA of BNA was pluralism.

The same spirit informed the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission’s declaration in the 1960s that while Canada was bilingual, it was no longer just bicultural but rather multicultural. That set the stage for Canada to become the world’s only constitutionally multicultural country.

We are now the envy of the world, for having expanded our legal, political and social space to include all citizens, regardless of culture, religion, ethnicity or colour.

Nothing being perfect, systemic racism endures. Studies show that visible minorities, including those born in Canada, suffer job discrimination.

Quebec rejects multiculturalism, preferring its “interculturalism,” with its presumed supremacy of not only the French language but also French culture.

Many English Canadians blame multiculturalism for several sins: that it allows importation of alien practices and “old country” conflicts; erodes common values; encourages ethnic ghettoes, dual loyalties and fifth columnists; spawns political correctness that constrains free speech, etc.

But such challenges have little or nothing to do with multiculturalism. They are as old as Canada itself, and common to all immigrant societies, including the U.S. and others that are decidedly not officially multicultural.

Similarly, contemporary hot-button topics of “sharia,” niqab, gender equity, etc. have proven just as divisive in non-multicultural nations.

Religions that discriminate against women and gays — and most do — do so not in the name of multiculturalism but rather freedom of religion. The tension between the competing rights to religion and gender equity would exist with or without multiculturalism.

Canada has tackled these issues better than others, having developed case law on how best to balance minority rights and majority mores. Quebeckers were all hot and bothered through their 2007-08 “reasonable accommodation” debate but calmed down after the sensible report of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission:

“The desire for sameness is authoritarian.” “The right to freedom of religion includes the right to show it.” Schools and universities should provide space for prayers. The display of religion in public spaces — kippa, kirpan, turban, hijab, etc. — advances the common good. Restricting it may produce the opposite effect: some believers may withdraw and “cease to interact with the common culture.”

Professor Will Kymlicka of Queen’s University, one of the world’s leading experts on multiculturalism, has written: “If we believe that immigrants converge on Charter values the longer they reside in Canada (as all the evidence shows), then we do not need to continuously test or provoke minorities, as is the fashion these days in Europe. This sort of provocation is self-defeating. If we tell immigrants that we do not trust them, and that we are monitoring their every word and reaction for hints of disloyalty or illiberalism, they will not feel that their political participation is welcomed and their political integration will be delayed, if not derailed entirely.”

Sane words; Canadian words.

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2 Responses to “Happy birthday to Canadian multiculturalism”

  1. Daniel Pelletier says:

    On October 8, it was multiculturalism day in Canada. I think it’s upsetting that most Canadians don’t even know that it’s exists. I believe that our mothers and fathers fought for a country that is fair and honourable. The diversity in Canada is a great example of this, but the country still has many issues to address. I believe that you will always have to fight for equality,and that there is always going to be a “battle” for furthering rights for equality. I believe it’s sad that some people think that multiculturalism is a bad thing. There are multiple advantages to having a multi-cultural society. For one, the economic benefits alone help the country with a wide array of businesses, including restaurants and other businesses. I believe that it’s a great thing to have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the various cultures right here at home. This will also help people to become more culturally competent.

    You cannot stop everyone from being racist. Some people hold on to old values, and feel threatened by change. The people that are against multiculturalism are probably upper class white people, who likely have never been affected by poverty. Having an open multicultural society will help, by allowing others to see people as different but equal. As the government works on dealing with social issues such as poverty, adequate housing etc., I believe that racism will diminish even further. I lived in poverty, and I know people that did not have much tolerance for immigrants. Without immigration Canada would not be able to grow. It struggles with its population. We all deserve the freedoms in this country, no one should be subjected to some of the horrors that take place in other countries. We can only be responsible for our actions, and try to help influence others to act with compassion as well. Canada is a land of peace and tolerance. It’s people have to step up and get more involved. Happy Multiculturalism Day!


    My ashtonishment is why Canada did not celebrate 40th Anniversary of the Canadian Multicultural day which happened to be on 8th October, 2011 ?
    It is true that many Canadians are not aware of this day . Let us celebrate this day with pomp and gala in 2012 . Our Government may kindly take full initiative in this direction and foster proper support to the 1982 Charter of rights regarding 1988 Canadian Multicultural Act .


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