Canada's Lesson in Multiculturalism

By William Pfaff Copyright Los Angeles Times Syndicate | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

Canada's Lesson in Multiculturalism


William Pfaff Copyright Los Angeles Times Syndicate, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Monday's vote on Quebec's independence seems the worst of all possible outcomes for Canada. The issue still is not settled. Those for independence now can say that the small percentage of English speakers in the provincial electorate are all that stands between them and victory. They will try again.

It is anglophone Canada that is in jeopardy, if Quebec secedes. Quebec is an autonomous cultural nation and will survive as a nation, whether outside or inside Canada. English-speaking Canada is unsure that it is a nation, or even that it deserves to be one without Quebec.

English-speaking Canada's lack of belief in itself is apparent in the commitment it has made in recent years to multiculturalism, whose unspoken, and perhaps even unconscious, premise is that it is not really worthwhile for an immigrant to become a Canadian, as the Canadian nation now exists.

An anglophone Canadian intellectual said at a gathering I attended a couple of years ago, "I don't know what the Canadian identity is, and if I knew, I would not want it." There seemed to be general approval of this statement among the Canadians present, as if any other sentiment would amount to a display of unseemly nationalism or even of bigotry.

It seemed to me an astonishing thing to say. I - the outsider - clearly see a Canadian identity. It is to be the non-United States. There are many positive qualities which have become attached to Canadian nationhood, but the bedrock identity is that of those North Americans who chose, and choose, not to be the United States.

The English-speakers descend from those who refused the rebellion against the British crown that founded the United States. The francophones are the historical people who have refused to be assimilated into anglophone North America. This strikes me as sound ground for the existence of a bicultural and binational Canada, now as in the past.

The real issue posed by Monday's referendum, it seems to me, is the following: Does an anglophone Canada still exist which, were it stripped of its link to Quebec, could resist becoming overwhelmed by the culture and political and economic civilization of the United States? The answer to that has only been postponed by Monday's vote.

There is an important lesson in this for the United States. A big and crucial debate is going on here between those who say the United States is (and should be) merely a federation of autonomous and self-sufficient racial and ethnic cultures, but not a united nation-state. …

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