Canadian multiculturalism and social inclusion

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tania Das Gupta, York University
Guest Contributor

According to a recent international survey of Europe and North America, Canada is ranked among the world’s top countries in terms of the integration of immigrants. High marks were given to its multicultural model, especially in how it has been implemented through the educational system. This assessment corresponds with what new immigrants tell researchers about why they chose Canada as their future home – its reputation for policies and programs that enhanced a socially inclusive citizenship in an increasingly diverse country.

Ironically, however, it is apparent to those who study this area that Canadian multiculturalism, which has provided the framework for socially inclusive policies and programs in the postwar period, has been gradually eroded over the last decade, with inadequate public debate. There have been other changes too in the same period, which undermine Canada’s historic claim to equality and social inclusion, as these changes disproportionately impact women, people of colour and marginalized communities.

Examples include the erosion of employment equity legislation in the province of Ontario, the defunding of the Charter Challenge Program and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the restructuring of Human Rights Commissions, the changes to the census long form which helped create a database of Canadian diversity and, most recently, the drastic cutback of immigrant settlement funding in Ontario, the destination of most immigrants and refugees to the country. All of these programs were designed to engender equality, social justice and social citizenship rights.

While most of these rollbacks created at least some public discussion and in some cases public outcries, the erosion of multiculturalism has not engaged the public in the same kind of debate.  I think this situation must be seen in the context of post-11 September 2001 politics, but not in the way articulated by, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron. The post-9/11 moment ushered in a concern with national security and an anxiety around the threat of terrorism, particularly seen to be emanating from those of Muslim background, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. It has led to claims that ‘multiculturalism has gone too far.’ Consequently, demographic multiculturalism – which is predicted to double the population of non-whites by 2031 – is being managed by asserting a kind of assimilationist nationalism.

While in the past proponents of multiculturalism placed some emphasis on fighting inequities, racism and discrimination, at least rhetorically, today there are claims that multiculturalism has ‘gone astray’. This sentiment is not only to be found in Canada, but also is echoed in Germany, France and the United Kingdom as elsewhere. One of the fundamental assumptions in these discussions is an erroneous conceptualization of ‘culture’, in which the latter often is associated with ‘ethnic enclaves,’ which is contrasted with a ‘Canadian mainstream’. ‘Culture’ in this framing  superficially refers to the outward manifestations of what makes a people different from the ‘norm’, whether in their dress, language, cuisine  or religion rather than, say, notions of culture that focus on evolving ways of life, which develop out of daily interactions among people, in a process of give and take. If we think of what are Canadian norms today and what they were a hundred years ago, we realize that such norms have evolved for the better. There is a mistaken belief that what we define as ‘culture’ or ‘norms’ are fixed or unchanging and mutually exclusive categories, thus removing any notion of how culture in diverse societies is created through dynamic intermixing, social interaction and fusion.

In popular parlance ‘culture’ in multiculturalism is code for ‘non-western’ and non-white, much in the same way that ethnicity or ‘ethnics’ typically refer to non-whites. The erroneous assumption is that new immigrants in Canada (mostly non-white) have culture or ‘ethnicity’ in contrast to the ’mainstream’ or ‘normal Canadians’. In this social construction, those belonging to non-western cultures are socially produced as not fully belonging to the nation, as not fully Canadian.

It is instructive to follow some of the arguments flowing from this flawed conceptualization of culture, which lays out the framework of why the Multiculturalism Policy erroneously may be seen as a failure:

Argument 1 – Multiculturalism has created segregation and ‘ethnic enclaves.’ According to this argument, the policy has facilitated a self imposed segregation by immigrants and their resultant lack of integration into the mainstream. The implication is that whites and those not concerned about their culture are perfectly integrated into the broader society. This logic circumvents the reality of segregation and lack of integration being produced by racism in society, most notably in employment, education, health, housing and other institutions. Moreover, many members of the so-called mainstream are also marginalized and increasingly alienated due to unemployment, poverty, homelessness and ill health.

Argument 2 – Multiculturalism has nurtured ‘un-Canadian’ behaviours among immigrants and people of colour, including terrorism. In the post-9-11 period, particularly with the roundup of the so-called ‘Toronto 18 homegrown terror cell’, this anxiety has bubbled up to the surface. Some have equated the rise of terrorism among Canadian-born youth of colour to their Muslim culture. Incidentally, events such as the shooting death of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, on the subway in the United Kingdom and the discrimination against, including shooting death of a Sikh man in Arizona following 9/11, have shown us that one does not necessarily have to be Muslim, only to be visibly different, in order be suspected of terrorism. One only has to ‘look like a Muslim’, based on whatever is the predominant stereotype of a Muslim, confirming the fact of racial profiling based on physical appearance and negative stereotypes. Racial profiling requires a highly contentious connection between social violence and visible ‘difference,’ as in how one looks, which runs counter to the historic commitment to policies against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion and national origin discrimination.

Argument 3 – Continuing from the preceding argument, one myth is that Canadian multiculturalism has encouraged immigrant men’s misogyny and violence against women and children. Violence, in this case gendered violence, is seen to be emanating from Muslim, Sikh or Hindu cultures rather than from domination of women and children by men, that is, from patriarchy. The erroneous implication is that non-Muslim, non-Sikh or non-Hindus in Canada do not experience any gender-based violence. Media regularly represent violence, including murders (e.g. ‘honour killings’) as resulting from inherent racial and cultural motives of the perpetrators. This kind of analysis falsely implies that white Christian men and women exist in perfectly egalitarian, democratic and civilized relationships. When such men become violent they are depicted as ‘crazy’ or ‘pathological’ and their violence is distanced from historical and cultural gender norms. As well, women from so-called violence-prone cultures often are assumed to be passive, dominated and requiring rescue by mainstream society. This narrative has a long history, including in orientalist literature and films and captured in the phrase ‘white man’s burden’. Cultural explanations for social ills such as poverty, crime, alcoholism and violence against women and children have a long genealogy. Social phenomena is viewed as primordial or inherent rather than as being socially, economically and politically produced.

Efforts to undermine Canadian multiculturalism moves us closer to an American melting pot approach – rather than an historically Canadian mosaic approach, although the latter has worked well. Of course, multiculturalism in Canada has room for improvement. That said, it needs to be stated clearly that we do not wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather, multiculturalism policy as other historically effective social inclusion programs need to be strengthened by, among other things, continued government support of employment equity programs, minimum labour standards to prevent the exploitation of immigrant and refugee workers, support for community-based anti-racism public education initiatives, and support for immigrant settlement including second language training programs. These kinds of social policies have served Canada well by making it a more just, equitable and inclusive society.

Tania Das Gupta is a professor in the Department of Equity Studies, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University in Toronto.


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