How Canada Killed Multiculturalism

By Frost, Catherine | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

How Canada Killed Multiculturalism


Frost, Catherine, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


Abstract

Elke Winter's latest work on pluralism and national identity has an iconoclastic quality that helps put Canadian multiculturalism in a new and more interesting light. But it also raises troubling questions about how this national tradition operates. This critique focuses on six aspects of her work: 1) the othering process that persists within the pluralist dynamic; 2) the moral questions surrounding negotiation; 3) whether normative pluralism has any moral qualities; 4) the absence of intention in the process she describes; 5) the implications of her work for our understanding of nation-building; and 6) the conformist qualities of Canadian multiculturalism.

Resume

Le caractere iconoclaste des derniers travaux de Elke Winters sur le pluralisme et l'identite nationale permet de jeter un eclairage nouveau et plus interessant sur le multiculturalisme canadien. Mais il souleve aussi des questions troublantes sur la maniere dont cette tradition nationale opere. Cette critique se focalise sur six aspects de ces travaux : 1) l'image de l'Autre qui persiste au sein de la dynamique pluraliste; 2) les questions morales autour de la negociation; 3) si un pluralisme normatif a une quelconque qualite morale; 4) l'absence d'intention dans le processus qu'elle decrit; 5) les implications de ses travaux dans notre comprehension de la construction d'une nation et 6) le caractere conformiste du multiculturalisme canadien.

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The difficulty with a good piece of research is that you want to sympathize with it rather than play critic. That is my problem with Elke Winter's Us, Them, and Others. I am indebted to her for the new light in which I see Canadian multiculturalism and national identity. The interpretation that follows is my own--Winter's work is responsible for inspiring these reflections but she cannot be held accountable for them. Nonetheless, I find myself re-evaluating a number of common doctrines concerning the Canadian experience in light of her work. And to my eyes, the resulting picture is a lot less salutary than defenders of multiculturalism would wish. Whether this should constitute a call to arms in defense of the merits of the approach, or a much-needed reality check concerning its faults, is for her readers to decide.

Winter's work advances the idea that to understand pluralism or multiculturalism, one must understand national identity. This is why her project is framed around the question: "how does the national 'we' become pluralist?" (Winter 2011, 9). It's a helpful and timely approach. We are so used to the standard national story that the most puzzling elements of it have faded from consciousness. Winter uncovers the standard national story in the discourse of leading Canadian newspapers. It involves the idea that by a lucky twist of rate, Canada started its national lire saddled with an unresolved dualism between French and English. Because the Quebequois prove resistant to assimilation, the embryonic nation learns a salutary lesson: sometimes it is better to coexist with difference than snuff it out (Winter 2011, 124-5). And the genius of Canadian nationality is born. This insight works its way through Canadian history, eventually bringing the country to terms with its Aboriginal peoples and immigrant diversity, while conveniently distinguishing it from its southern neighbours (Winter 2011, 143).

This is the stuff of which national identity is made. The capacity to simplify and even forget the elements of how we got here is one of the central features of nationalism. When it comes to forming a national identity, as Ernest Renan put it, "it is good for all of us to know how to forget" (Renan 1999, 145). But this forgetfulness is not helpful if you want to understand the dynamics of the process, and it is positively hazardous if you want to consciously and responsibly manage the delicate process of coexistence between groups.

Winter, therefore, points out that the standard story does not adequately explain how our national identity took pluralist form (Winter 2011, 23). …

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