Canadians Tire of Multiculturalism Two Countries Are Struggling to Shape a National Identity out of Many Nationalities

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 1995 | Go to article overview

Canadians Tire of Multiculturalism Two Countries Are Struggling to Shape a National Identity out of Many Nationalities


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


CANADIANS once embraced the motto "Let's celebrate our differences!"

Today, that 1970s mantra of ethnic tolerance has all but disappeared. Instead, Canada's official policy of multiculturalism is under heavy assault.

Critics say the policy has undermined Canadian identity and systematically divided the society into little more than a bunch of squabbling factions and ethnic groups.

"People don't accept anymore that you can justify Canada as {simply} the sum of its multicultural parts," says Philip Resnick, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Public support for Canada's multicultural policy has fallen from two-thirds to about half since 1989, according to an Environics Research Group poll released last week. Last year, 72 percent of Canadians thought ethnic groups should adopt a Canadian value system, a Decima Research poll showed.

In that same survey, 41 percent agreed: "I am tired of ethnic minorities being given special treatment."

For 24 years, the Canadian government has supported immigrant cultural traditions and languages, in accordance with the vision of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The goal: to create a "cultural mosaic" of interracial tolerance in contrast to the United States "melting pot."

Others say there was a darker side to Mr. Trudeau's desire for a multicultural society, including muting Quebec's French-speaking minority by making it one in a sea of ethnic voices. Others say simply it was a way of luring immigrant votes with federal dollars.

Spearheading the national multiculturalism debate is novelist Neil Bissoondath, a Canadian citizen for more than 20 years, who was born in Trinidad of Indian descent. Mr. Bissoondath decries the current policy for "racializing" Canadian society. "Multiculturalism was supposed to coalesce into a new sense of Canadian identity," he said in an interview at his home here, as he took a shot at what some say is the holiest of Canada's holy cows.

"Instead, it has helped tear {Canada's identity} apart. It has told those of us who have come here from elsewhere that what matters more is the past ... what defines us is our ethnic or racial identity," he adds. "It has caused many of us to disregard the larger possibilities around us, of belonging to a larger country like Canada."

Bissoondath inflamed debate last fall with his book "Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada," a national bestseller. The book has brought him acclaim and disdain: He has been called a racist and a "coconut" -- brown on the outside, white on the inside, he says.

"I don't enjoy Neil Bissoondath," said Sheila Finestone, secretary of state for multiculturalism in a speech last November to the Canadian Ethnocultural Council in Toronto that castigated him for lacking empathy for immigrant Canadians.

Recent headlines, however, have turned a spotlight on the issue. …

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