Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

The Road to Nowhere (1)

February 21, 2005     

 Multiculturalism is the masochistic celebration of Canadian nothingness.
(Gad Horowitz, in Reginald Bibby, Mosaic Madness, p. 92)

Depending on stereotype, ensuring that ethnic groups will preserve their distinctiveness in a gentle and insidious form of apartheid, multiculturalism has done little more than lead an already divided country down the path to further social divisiveness.
(Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions, p.90) 

Canada is supposed to be the shining example of harmoniously merging a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious communities into a peaceful and unified nation.  We pride ourselves on being so much superior to the American melting pot by fashioning a much more vibrant and colourful mosaic. 

But reality is not quite that simple. To be sure, Canada has always been a country of immigrants. Most of us trace our roots back to other parts of the world. For some of us that requires a couple of centuries of backtracking. For many of us, the tracks from our countries of birth are still fresh. 

After World War II a flood of immigrants began arriving in Canada. How to accommodate this large number of people who increasingly came from non-Western countries? At the same time English-French tensions called for a fresh approach. Hence the appointment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, which published its voluminous report in 1969. 

A New Definition

While its main focus was on the special status of Quebec within Canada, this Royal Commission went much further by proclaiming Canada to be a nation of not just two but many cultures. It did not take long before the concept of cultural pluralism, or multiculturalism, was elevated to the defining characteristic of Canada. And that’s how a process was put into motion that has left many people scratching their heads. 

Not surprisingly, this outcome did not please the Quebecois, since they would prefer to keep the limelight on just the two founding cultures. But then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau became an enthusiastic booster of the newly discovered insight. (Could it be that this wily enemy of Quebec nationalism knew that multiculturalism would help dilute the special status of Quebec in Canada?) 

On Otober 8,1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced in the House of Commons that the Liberal government had accepted all the recommendations contained in Volume IV of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. He explained that “A policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians.” The Prime Minister went on to say that this policy would “help break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies….” 

On the same day, the government adopted a statement of policy, “Appendix to Hansard,” that amounted to an unqualified endorsement of the Prime Minister’s comments. It noted that cultural diversity is to be treasured in contrast to what it called “assimilation programs forcing our citizens to forsake and forget the cultures they have brought to us.” 

The government further assured us that Canadian identity will not be undermined by multiculturalism. It declared that “cultural pluralism is the very essence of Canadian identity….To say we have two official languages  is not to say that we have two official cultures, and no particular culture is more ‘official’ than the other. A policy of multiculturalism must be a policy for all Canadians.” 

In 1973 the Ministry of Multiculturalism was established. In 1982 the Charter of Rights and Freedoms  was amended to say that it must be interpreted  to enhance “the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” 

In 1988 the Canadian Multiculturalism Act became law, proclaiming that the policy of the  government of Canada  is to  “recognize and promote  the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial  diversity of Canadian society [and that] multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable  resource  in the shaping of Canada’s future.” (CMA 3(1) a, b) 

Much has changed since the 1960s. The old Canada with its strong Anglo-Saxon and broadly Christian stamp has made way for a much more diverse population. How have the newfangled, “pluralist” policies worked out in practice? What has been gained – or lost?  How do we truly evaluate the outcome of policies that are now almost four decades old? 

We should all be able to agree that Canada’s welcoming and open policies to its new arrivals is admirable. The generosity and goodwill that exists among neighbours of different races, nationalities and religions is something to be treasured and safeguarded, which is the responsibility of everyone of us. If this is what multiculturalism is all about, we should all be wholehearted supporters.  

A New Dogma

But much more is implied in the kind of multiculturalism that has been declared to be the defining characteristic of Canada. And therein lies the problem, of which the main one is that this policy as applied in Canada  assumes the status of a sacred dogma that brooks no disagreement. 

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary  describes dogma as follows: ”1 a belief or set of beliefs held by an authority or group, which others are expected to accept without argument. 2 an arrogant declaration of opinion.” I think that these definitions apply here. 

One may dislike my use of dogma, because it has unfavorable connotations to be called dogmatic.  But the language of the policies and legislation is loaded with words which suggest that issues of fundamental meaning and substance are at stake here. Though the term culture can mean different things, the language used throughout indicates that culture does not only refer to the arts, different customs, cuisine, social conventions, and other outward expressions. In fact, it refers to something much more fundamental,  that is, a whole way of life and a way of being a nation. The absolutist-sounding language leaves little room for a different conclusion. 

Multiculturalism is said to ensure our freedom, form the base of our society, is the very essence of our identity, is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian identity, and provides invaluable resources in the shaping our future, and so on. This is the language of the true believers. 

Four Objections

I see at least four weighty problems with the assumptions and implications of multiculturalism as applied in Canada. 

One.  It is driven by a typically modern, or even post-modern, belief that all cultures are of equal value. Therefore, no single culture is better than any other. For example, we cannot say that largely “Christian,” Western democracies are superior to other cultures. To make such a claim is now seen as cultural imperialism that is responsible for the injustice and oppression of the past. 

The ideology undergirding this cultural equivalence, or relativism, makes it impossible to speak of better or worse, right or wrong. The practical effect is that we are living in a moral wasteland where no abiding standard of truth and goodness may be applied. But the human condition is such that we need to make choices and judgments about all manner of things. How to do that if we do not have a reliable standard by which to make such decisions? There are different ways to solve that dilemma. 

In Canada we are attempting to resolve the challenge of living together in one nation by saying that all cultures are of the same value and must be honoured by all. We call that multiculturalism, in contrast to what Canadian poet Clifton Joseph has described as the “Eurocentric and ultimately soft-sell  whitesupremist framework.” 

Two. This means that we now tiptoe around all kinds of political and juridical pressure points and no longer call a spade a spade. We change definitions or, as the late American Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has famously said, we have “defined deviancy downward.” 

For example, instead of using traditional concepts of justice, we now declare equality to be the uppermost principle. If people of certain national or racial backgrounds display particular tendencies to turn to a life of crime or family breakdown, we are forbidden to say anything about such facts. If we venture to break that taboo, we are quickly denounced as bigots and racists. That’s what happens when you declare all cultures to be the same. It dispenses with the ability to make moral judgments. The main intended result is of course that it enables us to escape responsibility – or so we think.   

The outcome is a culture of hypocrisy and doubletalk – and cowardice. That’s why there is so little honest discussion about immigration and refugee policies in this country. Not to mention the crusade to declare same-sex relations equal to heterosexual marriages. 

The irony is that it is now considered a sign of sophistication and broadmindedness to deny all universal absolutes, whereas at the same time we are busy inventing our own brand of absolutes. We then declare ourselves to be progressive.  Multiculturalism is one of such new absolutes. 

Three. A further bitter irony is that multiculturalism as government policy has undermined the very integrity and substance of Canadian culture. Instead of insisting that newcomers become acquainted with Canadian history and institutions, we tell them that there is nothing distinctive or excellent about Canada. 

Then secretary of state for multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone, stated on a CTV panel discussion on January 31, 1995, “In my view there isn’t any one Canadian identity. Canada has no national culture. “ She received a lot of flack from the public. But she was only restating what Prime Minister Trudeau had said in 1971: “[T]here is no official culture, nor  does any ethnic group take precedence over any other.” 

Four. As a few brave critics have explained, multiculturalism has not led to more harmony and understanding but to the further fragmenting of this divided country.

More about that in my next column. For those who want to look them up, I will be relying especially on the two books mentioned at the beginning of this article and on Jack Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History?

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