Friday, April 3, 2015

Multiculturalism: A Need for Balance

Multi-culturalism is a sacred tenant of Canadian liberalism (and, in a modified version that places a higher value on wealthier ethnic communities, of Canadian conservatism as well).  For those of us who grew up here and are of a certain age we have a deep attachment, verging on nostalgia, to the ideal of a multi-cultural society.  We grew up with the notion that, unlike in the Unite States (where we were taught everyone got thrown in a great melting pot), we could all retain our different ethnic identities and still be Canadian: all at the same time.   Who doesn't recall that heart warming Canada Song from 1967?   Or the ever so popular annual folk-fests of the 1970s that celebrated ethnic diversity through food, dance, and costume?

Enacted by the buoyant Trudeau Liberals of the day, multi-culturalism was an utopian ideal that made us (children, youth, and adults) feel very good about being Canadian.  It conformed to an idea of the "nice Canadian" (wonderfully spoofed in the Michael Moore film staring John Candy, Canadian Bacon).  It was premised upon a perceived fundamental difference between a Canadian vs an American kind of society.

The idea of a Canadian "Cultural Mosaic" laid the basis for the multicultural policies of the 1970s and onward in which nice Canadians opened the door to the people of the world and, as the story goes, accepted without question all of the difference that each wave of newcomers brought to this immigrant settler nation.  According to this Canadian myth we all lived in a kind of happy utopia where we could be separate and equal and no one among us would be compelled to give up our ethnic languages, cultures, or customs.

The reality is not quite so simple. John Porter's trailblazing 1965 study, the Vertical Mosaic, clearly showed a racialiazed and ethnic socio-political hierarchy in which Indigenous peoples were firmly locked at the bottom of the cultural mosaic. There was no happy society in which all ethnic groups and social classes shared in the wealth and decision making of Canadian society.  Certain groups were on the top. Indigenous peoples were consistently on the bottom. Of course, if one strips away the ideology of multiculturalism we can see a structure of power based in a colonial system in which the original owners were (and continue to be) displaced from the center of power and from the very means that would ensure Indigenous communities the resources to rise out of poverty.

The idea of the mosaic in which different ethnic communities would simultaneously integrate and retain cultural distinctiveness has never truly been realized.  Instead, what has emerged has been a kind of ethnic balkanization.  Ethnic communities, especially those with wealth and power, have organized internal hierarchal power structures. Interaction circulates within neighbourhoods and communication stays locked within the home language. Integration, such as it is, comes at the level of power brokers rather than at the grassroots level.

"John Porter publicly opposed the policy of multiculturalism on the grounds that it would:
'foster ethnic separation, enclavement and retention of traditional values. Ethnic particularism, in turn, perpetuates the vertical (ethnic) mosaic by creating barriers to upward mobility in post-industrial society which is predicated on universalistic norms. In this view, government encouragement of ethnic diversity legitimates the proliferation of particularistic value differences among Canadians and thus impedes the development of national unity.' (Kallen 1982, 54) 
In two later essays, John Porter (1987) strengthened his critique of multiculturalism and challenged the validity of the census data on Canadian ethnicity as a basis for the policies.4 
In summary, its opponents in the 1960s and 1970s claimed that multiculturalist policies endorsed and reinforced the "age-old Colonial technique of divide and rule utilized by majority ethnic elites to guarantee and perpetuate their ascendancy" (Porter 1987, 54). Multiculturalism as a policy, it was stated, symbolized the contradictions between rhetoric and the practical, daily treatment of ethnocultural and racial minorities. It was frequently purported to be a policy of containment and appeasement of the conflicting demands made by the non-English and the Québécois. As such, it was feared it would become a technique of domination, legitimating the entrenched powers of the ruling Anglo elite when its superordinate, national position was threatened by both Québec's claim to political power and the ethnic communities' growing numerical, economic and cultural strength (Kallen 1982, 54-55). [Quoted from Lorna Roth]
 Looking back from our vantage point in 2015 it would appear the John Porter and other opponents of the Trudeau style multiculturalism were right.

We can now see how the policy of multiculturalism - encouraging new immigrants to retain their core cultural practices without expecting them to adapt their practices to already existing Canadian cultural practices- has indeed fostered ethnic separation and the retention of traditional values, many of which are decidedly antagonistic to a democratic civil society.

The small 'l' liberal ideals held by many Canadians makes it difficult for us to speak out against what is clearly becoming a serious social problem in our society.  Many, feeling guilty by their perception that they might have some intangible privilege, hold their tongues even when they have witnessed clear abuses of position and power couched in an ostensibly anti-racist multiculturalism (yet, ironically and sadly, it is anything but anti-racist).  But few liberals want to be called insensitive or politically incorrect and so they remain quiet.

There are those in positions of power, more conservatively minded, who benefit from their alliances with multicultural power brokers.  They see no need to call attention to a system that works in their favour.  In fact they laud such a system. These power brokers fly off on political junkets to far flung lands and enter into all manner of business deals to their personal and corporate advantage.  Back home in Canadian the power brokers form alliances that server their vested interests, rewarding their clients and supporters. Ironically, these are people who may well have no qualms about doing business with power brokers from other ethnic communities but in their private lives have little kind to say of their business and political partners.

We need to find a more honest and direct way to solve this problem before it fuels the indignation of populist opposition movements such as France's anti-immigrant National Front.  Across Europe we see the rise of the far right where integration has not worked.  We see rumblings of it here in Canada, but no where near as strong as it is across the Atlantic, yet.

We should start to redress the imbalance with a proper and full recognition by all Canadians and immigrants that this is a settler colonial nation that has stolen the land upon which everyone is living without proper compensation or acknowledgement (this is especially the case in British Columbia).

We must also insist that the language of business, instruction, and governance conforms to the official languages of Canada, which should include (where appropriate) Indigenous languages.

Cultural values that diminish the democratic secular aspects of Canadian society need to be replaced. It is important and useful to value the cultural diversity of peoples. At the same time we have an obligation to evaluate these imported cultural values against the rubric of democratic and universal values that uphold human rights (such as gender equality, one person one vote, safety from discrimination for one's sexuality and sexual orientation, etc).

I recall my childhood school civics lessons.  The core value highlighted our personal responsibility to contribute to society - not so we would receive personal recognition, but because it made society better.  The civics lessons emphasized the link between education, critical thinking, knowledge, and democratic practice.  We were all to be equally valued members of civil society.  While that dream may not have been fully realized, it's the best dream to take us toward a just and democratic society.

It's time to reset the balance.  The push to value difference, as manifest through multiculturalism, merely reinforces old power systems and keeps ordinary people locked into ethnic ghettos.  We need to break free from ethnic particularism and reinstate a form of universal citizenship where we all share a common set of values in which participatory democratic practice is front and center.

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