“Done with multiculturalism?”: Putting Canadian Attitudes towards Immigration to the Test

Posted on May 26, 2009 by Peter Schneck, University Osnabrück

Translation: Suzanne S. Zuber

From a European perspective, and particularly the German one, Canada has always appeared to be the ‘better’ and somehow ‘more legitimate’ version of America. Even though Canada is also a rather large country, it seems (and not only to us Germans) less threatening, less formidable, and also less violent than the USA-the quintessential country of immigration-which also makes Canada appear more ‘relaxed’ and fundamentally more tolerant. Canada is thus generally perceived as a nation where different ethnicities and ideologies can live side-by-side without problems, in other words, peaceably and productively.

Moreover, Canada does not lay claim to something like the ‘Canadian Dream’ of the fabulous ascent from dishwasher to millionaire and hardly anyone would associate Canada with expansive ‘American hegemony,’ worldwide ‘nation building,’ or aggressive globalization. Canadian flags are hardly being burned in front of TV cameras; to the contrary, they mostly serve backpackers around the world as a form of symbolic protection in risky regions of political and ethnic strife.

Canada, it seems, is the exemplary country of fundamental ethnic and cultural tolerance, a culture of cultures. This is reflected particularly in the resilience of Canada’s own cultural identity when it is faced with that which is culturally different, and in its healthy immunity against a fear of foreign infiltration. While German politicians emphatically speak of the German Leitkultur (‘guiding culture’) and like to cite criminal statistics in order to emphasize the protective function of immigration laws and deportation policies, most Canadians have long defined their own identity through concepts such as cultural pluralism, ethnic diversity, and the dynamic of intercultural change.

At least since the 1970s, the idea of a multicultural Canadian identity has become an integral part of Canadians’ self-image-its universal acceptance ultimately became the basis for the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988, which made Canada the world’s first nation to explicitly use multiculturalism as a foundation for ethnic as well as ethical consensus in its society and in its culture.

But by the mid nineties, menacing rifts began to appear in the carefully tended façade of Canada as the multiculturally tolerant and open-minded land of immigration. Of course, Canada’s multicultural (self-) image was already coming to be at the center of critical self-scrutiny and political conflicts on the domestic front in the 1970s, triggered in particular by its political instrumentalization. While Canadian nationalists of various ilk were agitating against the ‘prescribed tolerance’ while at the same time attempting to implement their own visions of autonomous culture and politics with what were sometimes radical means, many representatives of ethnic and cultural minorities criticized the official politics of multiculturalism as being pure eyewash. For, although the state was eager to celebrate the diversity and verve of Canadian culture with generously endowed programs that demonstrated the country’s cultural equality and tolerance, the reality of socially and economically disadvantaged minorities had hardly changed.

From this perspective, the politics of multicultural Canada have always functioned like a placebo: for those who believed in it, it was substantially more effective and real than for those who had always been skeptical of such therapeutic prescriptions. Still, the basic principles of multiculturalism were not earnestly questioned until the end of the 20th century.

The particular resistance that Canadian citizens have shown increasingly towards the principle of multicultural tolerance over recent years has, however, a different quality to it. Even though the number of immigrants has remained at a steady high-alone in 2005, there were more than a quarter million immigrants-there is a marked opposition against the continual political promotion of multiculturalism, which, in the eyes of many Canadians, is much too tolerant in its support of the needs of immigrant populations that, in turn, show no signs of assimilation to an ethics of cultural diversity and tolerance and that tend to isolate themselves from the Canadian mainstream. The German misnomerParallelkultur (‘parallel culture’) may as yet be unknown in Canada: however, the recent heavy conflicts between the official politics of equal rights for all cultures on the one hand, and the reactions of many citizens from all different parts of the country on the other, are governed by reactions and ressentiments similar to those which have been more characteristic of the European and German debates.

It was a small, inconspicuous community called Hérouxville, about 200 miles northeast of Montreal, which unwittingly became a world famous symbol for this new attitude. On the basis of a questionnaire, which was filled out by 196 of the 1300 inhabitants, the city council of Hérouxville enacted a list of so-called ‘community standards’ in early 2007, which went on to create enormous national and international commotion. The small brochure, which the well-meaning councilmen had conceived merely as a way of communicating the principles of Canadian culture to new citizens, pointed out, among other things, that a full masking of the face was only customary at Halloween, that stoning and public castigations were prohibited, as was the carrying of symbolic weapons.

In addition, the brochure cautiously pointed out, the local fitness centers would have women practicing sports in plain view, wearing customary sports clothing, and that in the schools, biology would be taught according to the most recent scientific standards. This well-meant introduction for new Canadian citizens triggered an intense political debate that has made it clear that the widespread acceptance of multiculturalism in Canada is in a state of crisis.

While the media immediately predicted the imminent demise of the Canadian model solution for a diverse and multicultural society, a commission was convened upon short notice, and it created a general poll showing a more differentiated result. While the majority of Canadians still believe in cultural tolerance and diversity, their disillusionment with the official politics, and their criticism of it, is becoming more and more clear.

Does this mean that multiculturalism is ‘on its way out’ in Canada? Has the Canadian experiment of creating a culture of diversity finally failed?

For M.G. Vassanji, one of the most important Canadian authors of our time, whose stories and novels frequently illustrate the historical contexts of different post-colonial immigrant populations in Canada, the answer is a decisive ‘no’. If anything, the often serious disputes about the possibilities and limits of cultural diversity and tolerance are for Vassanji a painful but also necessary and inevitable form of negotiation in the continual re-definition of Canadian identity. Canadian literature-which has always poignantly portrayed these conflicts and critically commented on them-has thus become a most significant medium in which Canadian culture can reflect upon itself.

Consequently, Vassanji’s novels have been awarded numerous national literature prizes-even though they are located for the most part not in Canada, but in Africa or India, the critics and the public both think of them as predominantly and genuinely Canadian literature. And even Vassanji himself refuses to be labeled a ‘multicultural’ writer. He, too, considers himself a Canadian author who merely describes historical and contemporary forms of experience that may differ from what is supposedly mainstream Canadian experience, yet which he nevertheless shares with a large portion of Canadian citizens. This allegiance to concrete experience which insists on its potential common currency and value across cultures while resisting to become tagged as ‘multicultural’ may well be one of the significant strengths of Canadian literature and culture in comparison to German concepts of Leitkultur and Integration.

Canadian contemporary literature thus offers, on the one hand, a critical perspective on multiculturalism as a political program and ideological project, and on the other it provides a rather realistic view of both the historical contexts and the current Canadian experience of cultural diversity in all its complexity.