Multiculturalism and Immigration

It seems every once in a while multiculturalism becomes a topic for intense discussion and debate in Canada and around the world. Most recently, this debate has been brought about in part by the acts of terrorism that occurred in the United Kingdom last summer and the rioting that has occurred in immigrant communities in France, Denmark and other European countries in the last year. Given the sources of much of this unrest, many Western countries have decided to re-examine the ways in which they go about integrating immigrants into the wider population.

Although multiculturalism has been the official policy of the Canadian government since 1971, some would argue it has never been fully accepted by segments of our population. This despite the fact that the policy was more or less enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. (Section 27 of the Charter reads: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”)

Last week The Globe and Mail published an online poll that asked: “Is it time for Canada to abandon its multiculturalism policy and insist that immigrants adopt Canadian cultural values?” I would argue that this is not necessarily an “either or” proposition. In fact, a true multi-cultural policy should involve immigrants adopting core Canadian values why at the same time having the freedom to retain the culture of their homeland should they choose to do so.

Nobel Prize winning scholar Amartya Sen put it quite well recently went he contrasted the “plural monoculturalism” he sees advocated and practiced in his adopted country of Great Britain (he immigrated there from India in the 1950’s) with a true multiculturalism that recognizes and supports the cultural freedom of immigrants and others to make choices that may or may not be in line with their cultural traditions.

The point he makes is that a true exercise of cultural liberty involves more than settling in a new country among people of similar backgrounds and then simply co-existing with your fellow countrymen and women from within distinct cultural communities. He also points out that, conversely, native-born Brits, or Canadians for that matter, have a responsibility to broaden their cultural knowledge and interactions to recognize the contributions to our shared culture that immigrants and others are making and have made throughout our history.

For example, in the Canadian context, the culture of our Aboriginal peoples has obviously been marginalized and neglected over the years. How is an Aboriginal Canadian supposed to react when he or she hears a Canadian of European ethnicity talk about how immigrants don’t do enough become “real” Canadians? How many Canadians really make the effort or take the time to learn anything about the culture of the “original” Canadians?

If Canadians by birth have a responsibility to understand their culture in a broader context – recognizing the contributions, history and traditions of both Aboriginal peoples as well as the immigrants who have shaped our culture more recently – immigrants of a more recent vintage have the same duty to become aware of their new cultural environment.

I would argue that Canadian citizenship must mean more than the ability to carry our passport. New Canadians have a duty to understand and adopt certain core Canadian values such as those embodied by the aforementioned Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Tolerance, respect of difference, social solidarity, equality, personal freedom and democracy are all at the core of what it means to be Canadian. Indeed, in many cases, these values are what have attracted immigrants to Canada in the first place.

So, properly conceived, multiculturalism is a two-way street. Immigrants who come to Canada espousing values incompatible with our own – e.g., the subjugation of women or the preaching of violence against people of different faiths or nationalities — should not expect to have these values incorporated into the Canadian identity. They must recognize they have come to a country whose core values are not reconcilable with ideologies or actions based on inequality or intolerance.

Having said that, within the parameters of our core values, what is means to be a Canadian is constantly in flux. Generations of newcomers of countries like China, India, the Philippines, Iran, Korea, Pakistan and countless others have shaped, and continue to shape, the identity of this country in important and essential ways. Our multicultural identity is best viewed as a work in progress. And it is also one that requires us – new Canadians and native-born ones alike — to work at it constantly to make it a success.