Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Canada: A Multicultural Model for Northern Ireland?

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Canada: A Multicultural Model for Northern Ireland?

Article excerpt

This article contrasts policy responses to cultural diversity which have been adopted in two very different geopolitical contexts. Although in both Canada and Northern Ireland, such policies are legitimised in discursive terms relating to cultural and political rights, both approaches have primarily arisen as pragmatic responses to competitive notions of nationhood. In both situations, the cultural rights of particular, powerful communities have been privileged in order to achieve cooperation between them. However, this support of what are essentially competing positions also risks undermining the authority of the political centre. Legal structures such as the Belfast Agreement and Canada's constitution, which bind competing interests in a single polity, have successfully addressed immediate issues, but have also contributed towards further complex situations, which, in the longer term, are difficult to reconcile. In this article I will focus on particular state policies relating to language and broadcasting, as, alongside education, these are key cultural domains for the construction of social identity.1

Despite a lengthy and vociferous debate regarding the linguistic and sovereign rights of its citizens, Canada is widely regarded as a successful example of multicultural cooperation, if not quite unity. In fact, the initial reason for my own interest in Canadian multiculturalism arose from my employment with the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council in the late 1990s.2 Canada was considered such a good model of accommodation of cultural difference that those working in the field of conflict resolution elsewhere in the world were expected to learn practical lessons there.3 Although Canada's national self-representation as a paradigm of multiculturalism may be somewhat aspirational, it is nonetheless true that Canada has managed, and even welcomed, its growing cultural diversity, aboriginal and linguistic secessionist movements with very little actual violence or civil disorder. By contrast, even in this current period of sustained 'peace', Northern Ireland is still plagued with a steady, if much lower level of violence and seasonal rioting, both of which receive at least the tacit approval of a significant proportion of the population.

Although the scale and intensity of conflict are clearly very different in the two contexts, it is nevertheless possible to identify a number of broadly common issues and dilemmas, which I shall use as the basis for this article. Of central importance, both Canadian and Northern Irish regimes face the challenge of formulating a coherent and inclusive 'national' identity, which is acceptable to communities with highly divergent political aspirations. Consequently there is limited consensus on matters of sovereignty (though in both places this issue is actually dealt with in legislature) and it has proved difficult to develop the centralised language and education policies to which most nation states aspire, and even effectively to challenge the conflicting interpretations of history which sustain division at a cultural level. While Northern Ireland is slowly emerging from a long crisis, Canada is continually avoiding one, and political stability in each context has required particular pragmatic developments in cultural policy. In the body of this article I will look briefly at the historical development of each context in turn, then return for a broader discussion of the issues at stake.

The Foundations of Canadian Ethnopolitics

Modern Canadian biculturalism is the result of a deliberate effort to embrace diverse ethnopolitical interests in a single political entity. The original French- and English-speaking migrants emerged from distinct political, linguistic and religious spheres. Though both communities were pioneers to the 'New World', they were, from the outset, agents of competing European colonial interests. After the military defeat of the French at the battle of Quebec in 1759, these diverse interests were strategically united in response to the possibility of annexation by the United States. …

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