Forgot your password?

Hotel Canada

Is our policy of multiculturalism, which turns forty this year, actually hurting the country?

By Tina Loo

When novelist Yann (Life of Pi) Martel called Canada “the greatest hotel on earth,” he meant it as a compliment –– here is a country that “welcomes people from everywhere.” But before he knew it, the chattering classes seized on his metaphor to launch yet another attack on multiculturalism. Yes, they argued, Canada is a hotel, and it is full of people “sleepwalking to segregation.”

Now that multiculturalism has reached middle age, it’s time for a little reflection, exploring how history might help assess one of Canada’s most well-known policies.

Forty years ago this fall, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to announce his government’s newest policy, he couldn’t have known it would shape how people in Canada and around the world thought about cultural diversity, freedom, and national unity.

“National unity, if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one’s own individual identity,” he insisted. “Out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions. A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society which is based on fair play for all.”

It was a bold statement and an important precedent. Canada was the first Western country to establish a multiculturalism policy and is the only one in the world to enshrine multiculturalism in its constitution. When it was announced in 1971, it enjoyed all-party support. Insofar as there was any criticism, it came from Robert Stanfield and the Progressive Conservative Party; why, they wanted know, had the Liberals waited so long to introduce a policy that was so glaringly sensible and needed?

As anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the news in the last decade will know, multiculturalism no longer inspires politicians and pundits to choruses of “Kumbaya.” In the same year multiculturalism policy became law, Trinidadian-born Quebecker and novelist Neil Bissoondath condemned the ghettoization it supposedly encouraged and took issue with how it defined culture. Multiculturalism supposedly reduced diversity to the exotic and commodifiable, contributing to a heightened and yet shallow sense of difference: Canada is dragon dances and bhangra; perogies and penne.

More recently, philosopher Charles Taylor and historian Gérard Bouchard suggested multiculturalism be replaced with “interculturalism.” If the problem with Hotel Canada was that there was “no there there” — that it was a safe and comfortable place to land with no distinguishing features — then the solution was to provide some definition. The two academics contended that the “reasonable accommodation” of minorities in Quebec should occur within a common civic culture defined by language and liberal democratic values.

Debates about the effects of multiculturalism haven’t been limited by our borders. After 9/11, the critiques became international as fears about the lack of integration became tied to the growth of extremism. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism had “utterly failed.” British Prime Minister David Cameron called for his country to adopt a “more muscular liberalism,” one that embraced tolerance but also set out a vision of the society that clearly signalled what was expected of its members.

In the United States, supposedly the great melting pot, influential thinker Robert Putnam argued that there was less civic engagement — less volunteering, less giving to charity, less community — in places that were less homogeneous. “Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.” We pull in, not trusting our neighbours.

Despite the choruses of disapproval from within and without, the multiculturalism policy persists in Canada. Are we deluding ourselves in thinking it’s a good thing?

Political scientists are doing important work surveying public opinion to answer multiculturalism’s critics, but we don’t need to rely solely on pollster Angus Reid to provide us with some perspective on the debate: Canada’s history does, too.

One of the main criticisms levelled at multiculturalism is that it works against the very unity it’s supposed to promote. While ethnicity and race certainly have been barriers to integration, they’re not the only ones. Historically, one of the biggest challenges to social integration was the divide between rich and poor. There were wealthy neighbourhoods and underprivileged ones, but places like Halifax’s North and South End and Vancouver’s Shaughnessy and Strathcona — economic enclaves all — haven’t provoked the same kind of anxieties about segregation.

Indeed, recent surveys suggest residential segregation among the Chinese in Canada — currently the highest among immigrant groups — doesn’t provoke alarm because Chinese-Canadians are relatively well-integrated economically. When segregation becomes worrisome is when it’s combined with poverty and high unemployment.

If our concern is unity, then is divisiveness any more acceptable if it’s caused by disparities in wealth? By defining diversity in terms of ethnicity and race, multiculturalism policy addresses just one cause, albeit an important one, of social fragmentation. But this can divert us from the need to overcome other obstacles among immigrant communities and the Canadian population as a whole — like the class divide — that stand in the way of achieving the social integration supporters and critics of multiculturalism alike want.

Places like Shaughnessy and Strathcona can’t be categorized with a single adjective; ethnic and economic ghettoes, the former was home to wealthy Brits and Scots and the latter to working-class Brits, Italians, Ukrainians, and Chinese. These neighbourhoods and their residents had multiple identities that shaped their senses of belonging. Given this, the all-too-common assertion that people should be “Canadian” first is a bit facile. “Identity,” as Robert Stanfield argued, “is a complex thing.”

Having multiple affiliations doesn’t make us less of one thing or more of another. People aren’t necessarily less Canadian because they carry other passports or have other homelands to which they feel a deep connection. Identity isn’t a zero-sum game.

In fact, historically, being Canadian meant having an abiding attachment to another country — namely, Britain. Imperialism was at the heart of Canadian nationalism. In that context, no one would have called Daisy Phillips and her husband Jack “un-Canadian” because Jack, like many English immigrants to Canada, went back “home” to fight for the British in the First War, abandoning their orchard in British Columbia’s Windermere Valley.

The imperial tie also shaped how people responded to conscription in the two World Wars. Critics of conscription argued that these were European conflicts in which Canadians shouldn’t be compelled to participate. To the Empire’s supporters, such opinions and the people who gave voice to them — many of them Quebeckers — bordered on the treasonous. After all, “we” were fighting for “King and country.”

Perhaps the most important things history reveals are the circumstances that create belonging. The waves of immigrants that arrived in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to settle the Prairies did so without the benefit of any multicultural policy. But their successful integration shouldn’t fool us into thinking the process is automatic. Agricultural immigrants to the Prairies found jobs busting sod on their own homesteads or on those of others; their incorporation into Canada was helped in part by an economic context that didn’t depend as much on language skills or formal education for success. In cities, the integration of immigrants was facilitated by churches like J.S. Woodsworth’s All People’s Mission in Winnipeg, which provided language instruction, clothing, and help finding jobs to needy newcomers.

Before we conclude that multiculturalism isn’t working, we need to realize that integration doesn’t just happen. It’s the outcome of a particular economic, social, political, and institutional context; of civil society as well as state intervention.

If we agree that immigrants remain crucial to Canada’s continued growth, then we need to recognize that promoting immigration means investing ourselves in integration. That’s the only surefire way to make a hotel a home.

Tina Loo is an environmental historian based out of UBC. She is a former contributor to Canada's History magazine.


Support history Right Now! Donate
© Canada's History 2016
Feedback Analytics