Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

Living Better Multiculturally: In Canada We Seem to Get the Multi Part, but How about the Culture?

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

Living Better Multiculturally: In Canada We Seem to Get the Multi Part, but How about the Culture?

Article excerpt

Canadians today are proudly multicultural. Along with publicly funded health care, multiculturalism has become part of the sticky stuff of Canadian identity. It is relatively new, a stage in our evolution from a binational, bilingual society. An official policy of multiculturalism was first enacted in 1971, followed by the Multiculturalism Act in 1985. The first section of the constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982, provides in section 27 that the Charter "should be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians."

Canada is unique among western democracies in its constitutional commitment to multiculturalism. It has also done extraordinarily well in practice. Its large cities reflect an impressive range of diversity among the many cultures that live peacefully with one another. Watching World Cup soccer in Toronto testifies to the city's cultural range and diversity. People borrowed cultures as their favourite team was eliminated and switched allegiance to another team and another cultural community. Bystanders were welcomed and invited to join Ghanaians, French, Italians, Portuguese and Koreans who took to city streets to wave flags in celebration. At its best, multiculturalism in Canada is inclusive, rather than exclusionary.

Canadians generally respect difference, dislike any kind of stereotyping and make a conscious--and healthy--effort to avoid giving gratuitous offence. We are generally far more polite than our neighbour to the south and far more inclusive than many European states--Germany, France, Italy--that have old and deeply rooted cultures. We pride ourselves on having done it differently from the United States with its metaphor of a melting pot, an open society that demands assimilation and a fiercely assertive nationalism. We think that we have done better than older Europe, which treasures its past and lives uneasily with significant numbers of immigrants who are largely strangers in European cities. Generally, we do not have the squalid suburbs peopled by new immigrants that ring Paris, or the large-scale ghettoes that are visible in so many European cities. Different communities live side by side, if not exactly together, in Canada's cities, with relatively little cross-cultural violence. The record is impressive and encouraging.

Despite extraordinary successes, the Canadian commitment to multiculturalism is being tested in new ways. Recent immigrants to Canada are not doing as well as previous generations. Their incomes are significantly below those of Canadians with comparable skills. The commitment to multiculturalism is also being tested by worries about "homegrown" terrorism, the fear that acts of violence may be committed by Canadians against their own government. It is being tested by a resurgence of orthodoxy in Christianity, Islam and Judaism where lines of division between "them" and "us" are being drawn more sharply. And it is being tested because Canadians are uncertain about what limits, if any, there are to embedding diverse cultures and religious traditions in the Canadian context. We know pretty well what the "multi" in multicultural means, but are much less confident about "culture." Does culture in Canada mean just a respect for pluralism and difference? Or is there more? Have we produced a broader set of shared values that must, at some point, bump up against the diversity and difference that we celebrate?

There is a sniff of smugness in our celebration of our successes as a multicultural society. That smugness, a culturally sanctioned political correctness, is becoming less acceptable as real divisions creep into the debate about cultural and religious difference. How far can respect for difference go? When does it constrain freedom of expression? That issue boiled over when cartoons from Denmark that Muslims considered defamatory were published, but anti-Semitic cartoons have provoked similar debates. …

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