The multicultural milieu

Multiculturalism has indeed failed, but not in the sense international pundits have described

In 1991 former French President Jacques Chirac, then the Mayor of Paris, declared that the immigrant population of France had exceeded the “threshold of tolerance,” and that the values of newcomers not of French ancestry had come into a collision course with decidedly French values.

Just a few weeks ago in another European giant, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the death of multiculturalism, saying that it has failed in Germany because of “alien cultures”.

And right here at home we’ve always been a country that prides itself on multiculturalism, but there is a new discourse emerging, and its foundation is particularly xenophobic.

The Globe and Mail has declared that Canada ought to “strike multiculturalism from its vocabulary,” suggesting that in order for Canada to move forward, the idea of the “mosaic” must be removed from our national vision.

It may come as a surprise to some that one of Canada’s biggest newspapers might suggest such a move.

After all, a national survey in 2002 found that for Canadians, multiculturalism was the second most pride-inducing characteristic of Canada. We seemed to place a fair bit of importance on the idea of an inclusive, welcoming Canada.

Now we find ourselves at a moment where our leading media outlets are rethinking multiculturalism in favour of some kind of pluralism that allows for the development of a “successful society around the concept of citizenship”.

Multiculturalism, they say, has proven unsuccessful in the Canadian project and in order for Canada to develop a distinctly Canadian idea of citizenship, multiculturalism must be ditched. Some have asked: why is it failing now? What has changed? What has led the Globe and Mail to declare to immigrants to Canada: “Canada cannot replicate their homelands, nor should it strive to”?

The answer I would have for them is that it’s probably more accurate to say multiculturalism has never been successful since its inception.

While Canada has been a diverse country, the idea that multiculturalism works is a widely held mistaken belief.

I by no means wish to suggest that Canada’s population is not diverse. Immigrants come from all over the world and choose Canada as the place to build their new future.

However, the criteria for the success of multiculturalism cannot include the mere existence of several backgrounds side by side. The pluralism being advocated by the Globe is a more accurate description of what exists in the Canadian state now.

Being tolerant of difference in Canada has always come with a particular boundary, and some immigrants are not allowed to cross it. Much like the French “threshold of tolerance”, many newcomers to Canada have been particularly restricted in existing as they please.

This is no way reducible to all immigrant communities: we can hold the Taste of the Danforth in Toronto or Oktoberfest in Waterloo as successful examples of celebrating roots outside of Canada.

But the idea that every culture is permitted to exist freely is simplistic: Sikhs had to go to court for the right to wear the Kirpan and Muslim women who choose to wear the Niqab in Quebec are still facing problems with their religious choice.

The limits of multiculturalism are such that one may be just different enough so as to not offend the historic European-sensibilities that set the political agenda in this country. These sensibilities may not be surpassed.

So in an increasingly hostile post-9/11 world, we begin to see new ways through which the limitations of multiculturalism are imposed. For some cultural groups, multiculturalism has been a lie.

Make no mistake: the multiculturalism we know about has never existed in this country. If multiculturalism is about an equal mosaic of people living together and living with differences equally, then let’s not kid ourselves.

According to Statistics Canada, immigrants (and particularly immigrants not classified as white) are less likely to find a family doctor, have a harder time finding housing, less likely to find a job (even if they have more education), and when they do find jobs they can be sure they will be paid less than their white counterparts.

Furthermore, new immigrants report high levels of discrimination, leading us to question just how tolerant we are as a society.

A truly multicultural society would (presumably) be able to introduce policies and national discourse that would curb the problems these newcomers are facing.

However, we continue to be unequipped to deal with these problems, probably because multiculturalism has never come to take place in Canadian policy, but only in the image Canadians have of themselves.

I am for striking multiculturalism from our national vocabulary. However, I’m not for it because for the same reasons as the editors of the Globe. I support this idea because multiculturalism is talked about so much without any real desire to institute it.

I figure we should stop pretending and start dealing with the reality of pluralism in Canada.

If newcomers to Canada are experiencing an array of problems integrating to their new home, and if they’re only allowed to recognize their own cultures to some extent, then I ask: what is the difference between Canada’s “mosaic” and America’s “melting pot” analogies?

The answer is there is no difference, only we’ve convinced ourselves that Canada is exceptionally tolerant.

Multiculturalism is more than the existence of different backgrounds together. Multiculturalism is an active commitment to fostering difference and the acceptance of that difference.

If we were to just examine the experiences of some groups in Canada, we would see clearly that multiculturalism is not an accurate description of Canada.

What we do with this knowledge, whether we build a truly multicultural state or institute pluralism is a matter of opinion. But let’s at least acknowledge the truth.

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