Canada has never offered ‘a mosaic’

POTTER: Our policies have been aimed at integrating newcomers, not keeping them apart

Canada has never offered 'a mosaic'
Francis Vachon/CP Images

Grab as much maple syrup as you can and run for your lives. The menacing hydra known as the “hyphenated Canadian” is stalking the land once again, awakened by some sharp statements out of Germany that have been megaphoned across the Western world by a bunch of dangerously ignorant conservatives.

Yes, ancient obsessions over immigration and social stability are roiling once again, thanks to some widely misconstrued remarks by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Taking note of the high rates of unemployment, poor educational outcomes, and increasing religiosity in Germany’s walled-off Turkish community, Merkel declared that “multikulti” had “failed, utterly failed,” and suggested that immigrants really ought to learn to speak German. While Merkel was clearly talking about a very specific, and very German, failure—40 years of abhorrent treatment of its Turkish community—conservatives across the Anglosphere jumped on her remarks as the final indictment of the whole Western pro-immigration ideal.

“This is not a lesson for Germany alone,” wrote the American economist Thomas Sowell. Multiculturalism, he said, has become “a cult that has spawned mindless rhapsodies about ‘diversity,’ without a speck of evidence to substantiate its supposed benefits.” Here in Canada, the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente echoed Sowell by noting how Canadians and Germans alike “have been swamped by official propaganda celebrating the joys of ethnic diversity,” and warned of the reckoning to come. “Our tipping point is arriving too,” she intoned. “And once it does, there’s no turning back.”

Tipping into what? Turning back from where? For all the portentous language, it is hard to see what Wente is getting at, since the only thing Canadian and German approaches to immigration have in common is the use of the word “multiculturalism.” The closest parallel in Canada to Germany’s Turkish problem is our treatment of Aboriginals, where, as with Germany’s Turks, the official policy has long been to encourage cultural insularity and socio-economic isolation.

So why do worries over the balkanizing effects of immigration, and the very idea of the “multiculturalism cult,” continue to have such resonance with Canadians? One of the most pervasive and enduring myths about Canada’s immigration policy is that while America is a “melting pot” where new arrivals are encouraged to assimilate to the dominant values and cultural norms, Canada is a “mosaic” that encourages immigrants to maintain their old values and traditions.

It’s a story that sprang up almost as soon as the federal government launched its policy of official multiculturalism in the early ’70s, and it persisted and even strengthened over the ensuing 40 years. Ottawa went to great lengths to encourage the idea that we were building a uniquely Canadian “mosaic.” This served two useful political functions: one was to flatter insecure Canadians that our society was morally superior to the United States, and another was to flatter immigrant communities and build support in their ranks for the government of the day. But this way of talking was also catnip to conservatives who delighted in turning the pro-diversity rhetoric back on itself. Unfortunately, neither side seemed to realize that the debate bore no serious relation to how Canadian multiculturalism actually functions.

It was only in the 1990s that Canadians figured out just what sort of country they’d been building, thanks largely to the efforts of a cohort of young academics who spent a great deal of time writing and talking to ministers and to federal bureaucrats about it. The key figure here is the Queen’s political scientist Will Kymlicka, who smartly observed that while Canada was not assimilating immigrants, it wasn’t offering a mosaic either. Rather, the institutions and policies we had designed were aimed at the middle path of successful integration: allowing newcomers to keep as much of their cultural traditions as possible, while providing the means for their full participation in civic life.

The classic example here is the debate over the Sikh Mountie who asked for permission to wear a turban instead of the usual stetson. While the idea made assimilationists want to chew leather, they failed to understand that the whole point of permitting the turban was to integrate the Sikh community into one of Canada’s most visible and important institutions. The alternative—banning the turban—would have the perverse effect of alienating the Sikh community from the national police force, contributing to the very cultural isolation that assimilationists claim to abhor.

This is the underlying structure of every debate of this kind that Canada has had over the years. From kirpans in schools to the use of sharia in family law, the goal has never been to turn the country into a land of isolated communities. Instead, it has been to find a reasonable accommodation of cultural difference that integrates newcomers into a shared civic space.

When it comes to multiculturalism in Canada, the only real menace stalking our political landscape are the dinosaur conservatives who continue to fight battles that are best left forgotten, and that never made any sense to begin with.