Christine McKenna, student blogger at Congress 2015
Canada is often viewed as a diverse, welcoming nation comprised of immigrants from around the world, a reputation built on the embracing of “multiculturalism” as an approach to immigration and citizenship. Emerging as a policy framework in 1971, the concept of multiculturalism in Canada has since shifted and evolved, and many now wonder about the term’s relevance to our society, both today and in the future. In a panel presented by the Canadian Sociological Association, scholars gathered to discuss what multiculturalism is, where it came from, and what it implies in a contemporary context.
“The future of multiculturalism: sociological perspectives” was moderated by Carl James, Chair of the CSA Equity Subcommittee, and the panelists in attendance included Eve Haque (Associate Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University), Diane Gérin-Lajoie (of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto), and Leslie Laczko (Professor Emeritus at the University of Ottawa). The fourth panelist, Dr. Pamela Palmater (Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University) was unfortunately unable to attend; however, a room full of enthusiastic participants did not hesitate to offer up additional perspectives.
One of the first points to be raised was that while Canada is widely known as a multicultural nation, it also has a history of racism and “cultural genocide” to contend with. Will taking steps toward Truth and Reconciliation require a new understanding of multiculturalism? How does multiculturalism relate to indigenous communities, and how can we put new perspectives into practice?
The term “multiculturalism” itself was an interesting point of discussion during the panel, as it was widely agreed that its meaning tends to vary across the political spectrum. On the right, it is often used as a negative signifier of racialized “others,” while many on the left consider it an empty signifier of superficial equity. Right-wing discourse on multiculturalism tends to suggest “others” should be assimilated into what Haque described as the dominant “white settler nationalist” culture, while many on the left are critical of the “food and festivals” notion of diversity that Gérin-Lajoie said overlooks the complex dynamics of intercultural relations.
What does “multiculturalism” even mean, and who does it actually appeal to in this day and age? Is there a difference between the multiculturalism of Canada and the “intercultural” approach taken by other countries? What are the positive and negative effects that this concept has had on Canada’s race relations? If multiculturalism has in fact “failed,” what do we have going forward? These questions, as well as many others regarding labour, religion, class, and the disconnect between policy and reality, were starting points in a discussion that I hope will continue beyond the walls of the classroom and the time limits of an annual conference.