Multiculturalism is a cornerstone of our understanding of Canada and has been so for at least the last 40 years. We have generally been good at integrating immigrants, no mean feat given that we have one of the highest per capita rates of immigration in the world. One in five Canadians is foreign born (2006 census) and this number is only expected to rise once the latest census figures are released.
Whatever the proportion, it’s time to interrogate our affinity for “multiculturalism”. It surely was a useful policy and word (it was coined only in 1941) to use in 1971 when Canada had flicked a virtual switch to admit the bulk of its newcomers from Asia. Up until 1961, over 90 per cent of new arrivals came from Europe. It was a dramatic shift, and in hindsight, it was wise for the government at the time to “affirm the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.” The change was transformational and Canada would never be the same again.
Few Canadian commentators write on the topic of multiculturalism with as much authority and sensitivity as Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail. In his latest column titled “Immigrants’ children find multiculturalism obsolete,” he draws a distinction between new arrivals and their children. The first generation draws comfort from the government policy, while the second generation generally sees it as a hindrance and an inconvenient label that pigeonholes them as ethnics.
Saunders’ writings on immigration are a must-read, as is his latest column (see link below). It can be argued that multiculturalism has lost its initial significance (Canadians pioneered its use as official policy) and most of the 85 per cent of Canadians who still swear by it perhaps no longer know what it means. Is it just a reflection of a “lived experience” or is it some sort of holy grail that every Canadian must aspire to? OK, so we are multicultural; what am I supposed to do about it?
Importantly, this is no semantic debate. From our perspective, it has real consequences. Lots of scholars have found a link between declarations of multiculturalism and the forming of ghettos within immigrant communities. These homogenous islands within a multicultural Canada are unlikely to disappear with a rolling back of official policy, and nor are they necessarily geographical. We can all live in spaces that are far removed from our physical surroundings, irrespective of what the government would have us to do.
Yet, it is time to begin a national conversation around the meaning and relevance of multiculturalism.