Saturday, January 09, 2010

The illusion of pluralism

Canada’s federal minister for immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism Jason Kenny recently re-ignited the debate on whether multiculturalism has brought Canadians together or kept various cultures separate in Canada. This is a not a new conundrum. For many doubting Canadians, multiculturalism is still an enigma and Canadians continue to grapple with the effective utility of such policy that envisaged the enrichment of Canada’s culture by taking into account the contributions of all ethnic groups.

When the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced in 1971 his government’s policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework, he stressed that while Canada had two official languages (English and French), there was no official culture for Canada. In his speech before Parliament, Trudeau said: “There cannot be one cultural policy for Canadians of British and French origin, another for the aboriginal peoples and yet a third for all others.”

Now, Mr. Kenney is arguing for a pluralistic society, which he said is more apt to describe Canada where different cultures work together, where there is no “them,” only “us.” It seems Mr. Kenny is standing on the soil south of our borders for he sounds like talking more about the American idea of the “melting pot” where all immigrant cultures are mixed and everyone is assimilated without state intervention. But even the melting pot paradigm never realized the integration of all Americans into a cohesive body polity. Black Americans were able to evolve their distinct culture just as the Latinos similarly sustained and nourished their own culture. While Americans are wary about integration of new immigrants through their melting pot strategy, they are equally concerned about the false promise of inclusion through multiculturalism.

So, is this the end of Canadian multiculturalism? Maybe this is after all the same diversity, yet by another name.

Trudeau also emphasized in launching Canada’s multiculturalism, the first country in the world to adopt it, that “a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians. Such a policy should help to break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies.”

But look at Quebec, Trudeau’s home province and witness how it falls short in the economic integration of new immigrants compared with other Canadian provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia. New immigrants to Quebec are finding the province a difficult place to call home. Quebecers are more demanding of immigrants other than Canadians to drop their customs in favour of the majority. Quebec has even instituted a controversial policy that required new immigrants to sign a declaration accepting Quebec’s “common values,” which state for example, that speaking French is a necessity, and that men and women are equal.

Quebec has always resisted multiculturalism since its inception. Many Quebecers view multiculturalism as a ploy to downgrade Quebec’s distinct society status to the level of an ethnic minority culture under the domination of English-speaking Canada. That this is inconsistent with the special compact between the founding peoples of Canada, the English and the French. Thus, until today, Quebec designates its policy as “interculturalism,” which is concerned with the interaction between culturally diverse groups without implying any intrinsic equality among them. Diversity is tolerated and encouraged, but only within a framework that establishes the unquestioned supremacy of French in the language and culture of Quebec.

On a larger scale, is this not exactly the multiculturalism that Trudeau had envisioned for Canada? All ethnic or minority cultures are to be respected and sustained the way immigrants want them, but under the rubric of a bilingual Canada where English and French, and their respective heritages, are preserved and enriched, if not as the constructive dominant culture.

Even as a matter of policy, the Canadian government has interchangeably used the terms pluralism and multiculturalism, recognizing that Canadians today reflect a vast diversity of cultural heritages and racial groups on acount of centuries of immigration. Instead of assimilating immigrants which was the initial government strategy, it was dropped in favour of multiculturalism in order to embrace cultural pluralism while at the same time encouraging all Canadians to participate fully and equally in Canadian society.

What Mr. Kenney, therefore, is suggesting is not at all a novelty. It’s the same design cut from the same cloth. But what the federal minister failed to account for is the government’s obvious scheme of manipulating ethnicity for political gain. Take for example Mr. Kenney’s various meetings and discussions with Filipino community groups regarding issues of immigration and the Live-in Caregiver Program. At first blush, you could see an adept politician who is deeply concerned with issues that matter to these groups. But then Mr. Kenney, of course, is also largely interested in the Filipino vote as he is with other ethnic votes. Nothing in these encounters between Mr. Kenney and the Filipino community indicates a sense of political empowerment, or of a powerful political engagement of an ethnic group in government decision-making.

The same can be said for other ethnic communities as they compete for federal largesse for their respective heritage or so-called multicultural programs. Most of the funds granted to ethnic groups ultimately are spent in festivals that to Mr. Kenney conjure up images of “kiosks at folk fests -- food, folklore and festivals” or his other favourite alliteration, “song, sari and samosas.” Or among Filipinos in Toronto – the annual Santacruzan and parade of lechons, plus the frivolous beauty pageants and the copycat Filipino Singing Idol contest. As if these festive celebrations are all that make up the culture of ethnic communities or the yearning of ethnic groups to be taken as equal political partners in nation-building.

Mr. Kenny should be carefully aware that the pluralism he so desires could be nothing but a loud noise.

A disengaged ethnic community, too uninformed on many issues or a host of perspectives that really matter to them and to their integration in the larger Canadian fabric is a compelling threat to pluralism.

If the federal government is only interested in paying lip-service to multiculturalism as a symbolic equalizer, ethnic communities will remain at the fringes of political power, or as distinct enclaves isolated and separated from the mainstream culture. There is also the growing intolerance to new immigrants from countries unfortunately linked to terrorist threats and religious fundamentalism that may engender layers of discrimination which could be disguised as necessary for reasons of national security.

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