Multiculturalism is a Sham: The Canadian mosaic trivializes immigrant culture under a façade of respect

Recent Column.

I’m going to say it. I’ve been holding it in for a while but the time has come for me to say it: the Canadian mosaic is complete and utter bullshit.

Catch your breath.

In classical Western political theory, the key to state stability has often, if not always, been seen as the maintenance of a homogeneous society. Foundational divisions of any sort create a threat to both the state and the fabric of society. And how was this homogeneity achieved? Primarily through education, as philosopher Ernest Gellner so wonderfully noted. Industrialized societies require strong bureaucratic states and these states must in turn create educational systems, the goal of which is not learning but rather the creation of a perfect citizenry to serve that state materially and ideologically.

While it was easier to achieve homogeneity during the time period when such monistic, dead-white-man liberal theories were popular, today’s pluralism forces another approach. Theorists and statesmen are trying to come up with ways to deal with the issues pluralism has brought up in the West. Problems of religious values and rights, individual rights, language, secularism, immigration policies, and gender have all been pushed and pulled. While some countries have tried to deal with their minority populations through assimilationist policies, others have opted for seemingly more inclusive models.

Like Canada.

During the mid-to-late 20th century, Canada’s demographic landscape saw some major changes. The population, which at the time of confederation was primarily French and British in origin, had begun to transform into a collage of various ethnic identities. In response to these changes, Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s federal government sought not only to ensure the political and social integration of these populations, but also to allow them some form of cultural continuity in order to contribute to what would soon be called Canada’s mosaic identity.

The development of Canada’s multiculturalist policies saw three major stages intended to homogenize the Canadian citizenry’s thinking about its society’s nature and makeup. The incipient stage (pre-1971) consisted of gradually socially accepting the ethnic and cultural diversity that was becoming more and more apparent. The formative stage (1971-1981) legally recognized this diversity. In 1969, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism recommended an ethno-inclusive integrationist policy, leading to the formal creation of multiculturalism. Equality became the end goal, and removal of racist or unfortunate circumstantial obstacles became the means. In the period of institutionalization (1982 til present), multiculturalism was protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in 1988 a reform of the policy made the Multiculturalism Act into official Canadian law.

That’s five years of Canadian grade schooling right there.

Here we are, 20 years later. Are we heading toward a society that has successfully been able to balance its heavily heterogeneous populations, which in turn have contributed to the prosperity of our country? That was the point, was it not?

No, not really.

Multiculturalism, as an official policy and not as a demographic reality, was never meant to sustain our diverse Canadian cultures. Instead, it has been a way to create a façade – a fictitious support of diversity that in fact suffocates it.

Let’s take the instance of “illiberal” cultural practices and beliefs, however they are defined and categorized. How does our multiculturalist structure allow us to deal with them? Will Kymlicka, Canadian scholar and Official Defender of Multiculturalism, provides some insight into this question in Multicultural Citizenship. Kymlicka argues that multiculturalism should seek to liberalize facets of various cultures that appear to the government to be ‘illiberal.’ It is ethnocentric to think that cultures are intrinsically “illiberal” and thus incompetent to change. He argues that since there is a link between choice and culture that allows individuals to live and work in their relative cultures, there is a right, a right that is waived once immigrants have left their native countries. Kymlicka concedes that there are limitations to liberal tolerance. A liberal state cannot allow groups to restrict the individual freedom of their members nor can these groups impede on the rights and freedoms of other groups. The question is thus not about whether liberals believe in toleration; it is about what kind of toleration they support.

Awesome, but isn’t the attempt to “liberalize” a culture or group another form of assimilation? Multiculturalism then serves only to create a sort of symbolic identity. People shed any real, substantial ties and practices to their cultures as generations progress, holding onto the very superficial. Additionally, assimilation through liberalization becomes inevitable even without government intervention; individuals become liberalized and distanced from their own cultures and ethnic identities not only through daily interaction with individuals outside their “ethnic” or “cultural” group, but also through the daily barrage of the media. The change is slow, but emphatic: the second generation Indo-Canadian begins to date; the third generation Catholic Italo-Canadian supports gay marriage; and the Syrian-Muslim girl living in Canada since she was six years old begins to drink.

So, do we really believe that we are helping sustain cultures when in actuality all that is being sustained are colourful costumes, delicious cuisine, and fun dances that we can add to further enhance our mosaic?

Most importantly perhaps, what does it mean to receive state-enforced values of equality? If the state is telling us through education and other institutions that we are equal, that we must respect one another, are we really creating any values of substantial worth? Within the past two decades we’ve seen a sharp rise in ethnic tensions in our country. From the wearing of the Islamic hijab during sports to the bearing of the Sikh kirpan to school, any “minority” tradition or practice that seeks to integrate itself into the dominant culture has become a polarizing issue: it has been welcomed not with open arms, but with angry outcries. While one side of the debate argues for integration, the other side, which is becoming louder, argues for assimilation. For Canadians who are espousing assimilationist opinions, it may very well be the fact that they are frustrated not with what is happening but with how it is being dealt with by the government. The government must think of ways not only to ensure the rights of minority groups, but to keep the dominant culture content – a balance which is seemingly becoming harder to achieve.

At the root of this problem is the educational system that has been constructed by multiculturalist policies. What we have is a material educational approach to Canada’s diverse populations. Young Canadian students reading their social studies textbook might see their country as the Canadian mosaic but fail to grasp the profound understanding of the term. Instead, they are made to believe that this mosaic, colourful and cohesive, each piece complementing the other, is what Canadian society is like, leaving them unprepared for the realities that face thousands of so-called hyphenated Canadians everyday. And this needs to change.

The policies of multiculturalism may have worked for Canada and its citizens for the short-term, but are we prepared for the potential long-term affects?

But, then again, I’d rather live here than anywhere else, so I’ll just shut up now.

One thought on “Multiculturalism is a Sham: The Canadian mosaic trivializes immigrant culture under a façade of respect

  1. sana:

    how to you recommend reversing years multiculturalist conditioning? and in a country whose self-image is based on the misrepresentation (or complete marginalization/eclipse) of others in its midst, how do you explain the regressiveness of this outlook to people who feed on these social studies text books? it really is saddening (and maddening) that common understandings of culture(s) are framed through this cosmetic awareness of diversity that links a shallow perception of differences with society’s level of acceptance.

    i think the issue for me is trying to figure out how to articulate how my experience(s) of oppression (after all, dissidence/story-telling/voice really does undermine the myth of multiculturalism period) to others who believe the multiculturalism = inclusivism paradigm and moreover, to others who thinks that canada is a space i need to fit into. i think people relate to what is personal and painful and somehow these conversations transform our preconceptions into critical questions. and quite frankly the people who believe these myths need convincing in order to shock them out of privilege.

    but then again the fact that we’re appealing to privileged people is just maintaining their status in the first place.


    what do you think?

    i really believe that people (who have struggled with any kind of oppression/violence) giving voice to other people’s experiences is the best way to elicit critical thinking and create networks of people committed to changing the status quo.

    but at the same time how do you tell the people who are comfortable with safe, accepting canada that they’re wrong and that they need to reconceive the dream? all of this in a way people who believe this will hear.

    any insight would be much appreciated.

    thanks again for your thoughts!

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