Multiculturalism: Failed Experiment or a Just National Model?

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“Although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over the other”. – Pierre Elliot Trudeau

This statement by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, made as he introduced the Multiculturalism Act of 1971, was meant to describe the new official policy: “Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework” (Mackey 1998:64). Multiculturalism entails state recognition of diversity, promotion of plural cultures co-existing together and is characterised by tolerance (Mackey 1998). However, this institutionalization of managing diversity was not as innocuous as merely wishing to embrace a more pluralistic Canada but rather, was politically motivated. It was an attempt to flesh out a unified Canadian identity, distinct from that of imperialist Britain or the United States (Mackey 1998).

 

This official policy of managing difference was thusly created, not to subvert or to challenge the status quo or dominant culture, but rather to ensure its continued hegemonic survival through inclusion. To insist that there was no “official culture” was more favourable than actually selecting an “official culture” as such a move would inevitably alienate other groups. The policy of managing difference also dictated how/what forms of difference was acceptable and contributed to Canadian society (Mackey 1998:66). As Mackey notes, “the policy was, after all, called ‘multiculturalism within a bilingual framework’. Only the two founding nations have linguistic and political rights as members of their groups. Members of ethnic minorities only have rights as individual citizens” (Mackey 1998:66). This was also illustrated recently in 2009, when Tamil-Canadians held extensive protests aimed at raising awareness regarding the plight of Tamils in the Sri Lankan civil war. The Tamil diaspora was characterized by much of mainstream Canadian media as pandering to an issue that was culturally bound to another nation (Sri Lanka) and not an arena for Canadian intervention, ignoring the conflict’s locus within the larger global discourse of human rights (George 2012). The Tamil diaspora was therefore portrayed often (but not totally) as an “other” group, whose interests were irretrievably distinct from “Canadian interests”, and their allegiance to Canadian citizenship was implicitly challenged, prompting questions about their belonging (or lack of) to Canadian society (George 2012).

 

Tolerance, as a characteristic of multiculturalism, also presents its own challenges and associated assumptions. Tolerance, in multicultural discourse, is the bare minimum that one should aspire to, with celebration of difference going a step farther. Mackey argues that despite the British being supplanted by multiculturalism in this new configuration of Canadian identity, tolerance as one of its key features was part of “a continuum with earlier forms of British/Canadian identity, for example, the nationalist image of the gentle and tolerant Mounties (being kind to native people) as a symbol of Britain’s superior justice” (Mackey 1998:65). Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that there exist limits to multicultural tolerance, when national values or cohesion is seemingly threatened. Evidenced by the French ban on face covering (targeted mainly at niqab/burqa wearers) in public space, the national value of secularism triumphed over tolerance of this particular practice. Limits to tolerance raise questions regarding cultural relativity, which are murky waters to traverse due to the ambivalence it imposes on societal moral objectivity.

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Recently, heads of state such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron made statements about multiculturalism as a “failed experiment”. Chancellor Merkel remarked on immigrants (mostly Arab) inability to successfully assimilate into German society and subsequently, eroding national unity. Cameron asserted that state multiculturalism had culminated in ethnic groups sequestering amongst themselves and not participating in mainstream society. It must be noted that their sentiments espouse integration and assimilation, not necessarily the mosaic that multiculturalism embodies within the Canadian context (despite its own set of problems). The way multiculturalism has been enshrined legally under the Canadian, British and German contexts, is different and manifests in different forms. While mostly celebrated in Canada as a part of our national identity, multiculturalism is disparaged as a “failed experiment” in others, highlighting the discrepancy between the approaches to multiculturalism.

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