Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

The Road to Nowhere (II)

March 21, 2005

If Canada, as an historical, social, legal and cultural concept, does not demand respect for itself and its ideals, why should any respect be expected?
(Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions, p. 144)

Multiculturalism has become the new shibboleth of Canada’s self-image. We are assured that Canada has managed to build a showcase of multicultural harmony for the rest of the world to admire and imitate.

Here is John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail (February 6, 2004), gushing about the Aga Khan Foundation’s interest in establishing a global centre for pluralism in Ottawa: “…[G]overnments around the world increasingly look to Canada as the world’s most successful pluralist state. We have found a way, despite many strains, of accommodating the founding French and English cultures, and have welcomed succeeding waves of European, Asian, Hispanic and African immigrants. Unlike the rest of the world, the more polyglot Canada gets, the more politically and culturally stable it becomes.”

The Emperor Without Clothes

Neil Bissoondath, Trinidad-born, of East Indian descent, Canadian playwright and novelist, will have none of this high-flowing self-congratulation. His Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada is a thoughtful but blunt reminder that, as he puts it, the emperor of multiculturalism has no clothes. He has made himself few friends among the movers and shakers in this country.

Bissoondath encountered not just criticism but vilification. He found that his East Indian and immigrant background gave him no immunity against the charge of being a bigot and racist. To question multiculturalism is to question what he calls “a holy cow.” But he is unrepentant and has plunged into the thick of the controversy that many do not want to touch.

His skill as a novelist is evident in the sensitive way he describes his own roots and the challenges faced by those who leave their homeland to start a new life for themselves in a strange country. But Bissoondath has little time for those who insist on retaining their loyalty to the country left behind rather than making Canada their true home.

He believes that a country that embraces citizens who would treat it “s they would a public washroom – that is, merely as a place to run to in an emergency – accepts for itself a severe internal weakening. It is perhaps inevitable that for many newcomers Canada is merely a job. It is desperately sad, though, when after many years their children continue to see Canada as only that; and it is even sadder when their children continue to see Canada with the eyes of foreigners.”

Bissoondath has little good to say about the celebration of ethnic diversity that amounts to no more than sentimental celebration of ethnic stereotypes. He argues that multiculturalism that wants to hang on to the ancestral homeland, with its insistence that “There is more important then Here,” serves to encourage the serves to encourage the ghettoizing of the different ethnic communities.

This divided loyalty, if such it can be called, has led some born in this country to return to take up arms on the side of the Croatians during the war in Kosovo. The other side of that coin is that old feuds in the homeland have been introduced into Canada – sometimes with deadly results.

The advocates of multiculturalism do not honestly face up to the fact that many ethnic communities and races harbor deadly animosities within themselves. They refuse to face up to that ugly truth because it would expose a fatal flaw in their grand design of nation building.

Bissoondath devotes a chapter to showing that the elevation of diversity to public policy is empty without setting out some limits. But where to draw those limits when some immigrant communities (at least their spokespeople) argue that female circumcision is part of their culture? Or what about the demand to adjust criminal law enforcement in the case of wife or child abuse in certain communities; or the demand for exclusive black schools; or sharia law for Muslims?

Ethical Chaos

The author writes that we do not know how to answer these questions �use we have so blithely accepted the mentality of division, we find ourselves lost in a confusion of values. Multiculturalism has made us fearful of defining acceptable boundaries. And so we find ourselves in danger of accepting, in its name, a slide into ethical chaos.”

Ironically, multiculturalism has been exploited to feed the sense of alienation in many ethnic communities – inevitably coupled to, what else, the notion of victimhood. We now must be careful to avoid giving any offence to minorities, especially visible ones. This kind of anti-discrimination fetish has flourished especially in the academy and among the literati. Entire books and plays that do not meet the new standards of race and gender sensitivity have been declared to be unacceptable.

A vicious fight has been going on against writers who, like Bissoondath, want simply to write honest stories. The new racist and sexist vigilantes now insist that only blacks can write about blacks, women about women, Africans about Africans, aboriginals about aboriginals. And so on.

Many university professors, especially in the social sciences, have found the hard way that there is a price to be paid for disobeying the new politically correct dictates. The lives of some of them have been made miserable and in some cases impossible, because they did not faithfully adhere to the new orthodoxy. Zealots insist that male professor should not teach novels by women writers, or that a white professor may not organize an exhibition about Africa. Here is a case in point, one of many that could be cited.

University of Toronto anthropology professor Jeanne Cannizzo, some years ago was driven from her job after she curated an exhibition called “Into the Heart of Africa” at the Royal Ontario Museum. Some black groups denounced her as racist and picketed the ROM. Her critics wrote graffiti on her house, and according to Robert Fulford, “invaded her classroom, shouted her down, and threatened physical harm. She withdrew from teaching and fell silent.”

Where were the university leadership, her colleagues, the “human rights” champions, and for that matter the police, standing up for academic freedom, even the basic freedom from criminal attacks?

Bissoondath responded to an essay by Susan Crean who attempted to justify professor Cannizzo’s attackers. He wrote that there is more in this than a hint of condescension of the guilt-ridden intellectual “hastening to prove herself more sensitive to racial issues than people of colour, more ethnic than the ethnics. The [Crean] article in the end, reveals the confusion often found in white left-liberal circles: not the exercise of intellect but the abdication of it, not exploration of ideas but conversation in a confessional.”

The vaunted tolerance has made way for hateful intolerance, and Bissoondath has had his share of the slings and arrows for his breach of the new orthodoxy. But he is unbowed. He says: “Any attempt to padlock the mind is a question of fundamental liberty. Any limitation of subject matter or point of view,… represents for us all a severe restriction on the free play of the imagination.”

You need not agree with everything in this book to find this a refreshing change from the doublespeak that appears to be endemic to the subject of multiculturalism. The bitter irony, which Bissoondath has the temerity to point out, is that the much-hyped multiculturalism in our country does not deliver what it promises. It does so in two ways.

First, multiculturalism fails in that instead of fostering national cohesion, it promotes division and alienation. Second, perhaps worst of all, it serves to undermine the historic institutions and mores, with its roots in the biblical worldview, that have made this a country where freedom and civility have thrived.

The road toward a more healthy and vigorous nationhood begins with an acknowledgement of the truth about multiculturalism. That road will be difficult and treacherous. But Selling illusions is full of suggestions to make a start at least with the first steps on that road.

Mosaic Madness

Sociologist and professor at the University of Lethbridge, Reginald Bibby has joined the discussion about Canada’s dilemma in attempting to be all things to all people. His study of life in Canada published in 1990 bears the revealing title Mosaic Madness.

He is of the opinion that multiculturalism is really a form of relativism that puts a common basis for nation building out of reach. He writes that we want to be so open-minded (pluralistic) that we are not very loyal to anything except to a rather “tenuous willingness to coexist.”

The problem, says Bibby, is that in this country pluralism means that if someone dares to advocate a position on the basis of an ethical, moral, or religious principle - for example, on premarital sex, marriage structure, or homosexuality - such a person is typically considered narrow-minded -- if not a threat to the public well-being, I might add.

Bibby thinks that religion, which after all is concerned with what is true, should help us find a way of living together within one nation. But relativism means that truth is understood to mean something that is true for one person may not be true for another. And this is exactly the tar pit of modernity that lands us into what Bibby calls a “visionless existence.”

He describes religion in Canada as not very aggressive nor is it expected to be very demanding. Most Canadians have no strong convictions about religion, which at best has only a marginal place in their lives.

The result is that when religious groups speak out about public issues, whether Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, or conservative Protestants, their statements, according to Bibby “hardly sound prophetic. Usually they reflect the educational and ideological backgrounds of the people who have prepared them.”

Bibby’s study of religion and its impact on society in Canada has caused him to believe that religion in Canada lacks authority and has therefore lost the ability to make a contribution to the creation of social cohesion. He concludes: “Sadly, religion, rather than decrying the excesses of individualism and relativism, has tended to embrace them. It therefore has lost both its message and its vocal chords.”


Both books help us to see what needs to be confronted if we are to make headway in dealing with the very serious challenges we face in Canada.

Selling Illusions is intense, bold, detailed with some helpful suggestions. Bissoondath takes on the advocates of multiculturalism right on their home turf - and has the scars to prove it.

Mosaic Madness is more scholarly, detached, careful not to upset the applecart. In the end, Bibby does not go much beyond some well-meaning admonitions to keep on striving to do better. He concludes that there is still much hope that “madness can yet give way to sanity.”

I am not so sure, unless there is a far more radical and honest reconsideration of the road now taken in this country. One thing is certain: Christians who want to take their confession seriously need to do their homework much more effectively than we are now doing. The two books mentioned here, though quite different in tone, provide compelling proof of the urgency of that assignment.

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