• Beyond Multiculturalism

    Beyond Multiculturalism: Seeking Unification in a Diverse Canada

    Op-ed originally published in The Vancouver Sun on February 2, 2015. Photograph by: Mark van Manen

    I will never forget my first lesson about being Canadian.

    I was 10 years old and it was my first day in my new country called Canada. I woke up and looked out the window to see a middle-aged Caucasian man walking down the street. Excited, I called out to my father, “Look! There’s an Englishman.” My father gave me a stern look and said “What makes you think he is English? You don’t know if that man is from England; he could be French, or German, or Italian!”

    I was shocked. In that moment I learned you must not make assumptions, and that a person’s outward appearance does not define their identity. But what does define the Canadian identity? Despite all of the diversity here, is there something that unites us besides the flag or hockey? Should we be seeking such a connection?

    There is no doubt Canada is multicultural. It was the first country to implement an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971, and the cultural mosaic project has been largely successful. Canada is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, with one of the highest per capita immigration rates. The last census revealed 24 ethnic groups with at least 100,000 members each, and one in five Canadians reports speaking a language other than English or French at home.

    But there have been problems with the multicultural experiment. We have seen the formation of ethnic enclaves in which certain groups keep to themselves, and the clashing of cultures when one group’s practices offend another. Should signs in languages other than English and French be allowed in store windows? Should women be allowed to cover their faces in public? How do we balance competing languages, and cultural and religious values?

    Being Canadian means valuing individual freedoms, including the freedom to practice one’s language, religion, and traditions, but this must absolutely be balanced with the rights and responsibilities that come with being a citizen of a liberal democracy.

    Some come to Canada because they know the country will offer them freedom, but do not necessarily extend this right to all others; they still believe in control over their family members, over women, over other minorities. Some who have been in Canada for many generations have sexist, racist, homophobic, islamophobic and other intolerant attitudes.

    This is not okay and neither is the continuing marginalization of Canada’s First Nations. The descendants of the original inhabitants of this land have been largely left out of the diversity experiment. While various immigrant groups have thrived and prospered in Canada, this is not the case for many First Nations who have been stripped of their lands, languages, and cultures.

    Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson has claimed that what makes us unique in Canada is our acceptance of many identities; that we value each person’s uniqueness and work together in diversity. I don’t think we are quite there yet. We still have work to do in defining ourselves as a nation, in finding that something Canadian that unites us all. How can we build a caring, compassionate Canada in which people have the freedom to honour their language and culture but are bound together in a common cause for social justice and prosperity for all?

    What we need is a concerted effort to foster collaboration across provincial, international, and cultural borders. Arvind Gupta, president of UBC, has suggested that to strengthen the country, we should create a mobility fund for university students to spend one semester in another province. Facilitating such a process would be a fantastic way to help Canadians connect, learn from each other, and build on these relationships.

    Similarly, we might consider an international mobility fund to allow students to go abroad to learn other histories, politics, and world views, returning with ideas for best practices back in Canada. Both at home and abroad, we must seek to draw on the best from each world, learning to navigate different traditions and practices, and bringing together that which allows for innovation and progress.

    This type of intercultural, inter-religious, and inter-linguistic co-operation might be the key to Canada’s future. On my first day in Canada, I learned not to judge a person by the colour of their skin, that white does not mean English or Canadian. I still seek something more, something that does make us Canadian, something that unites us all.