Multiculturalism may be one of the tenets of Canadian national identity, but it may be doing more harm than good, said Irshad Manji, best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today, at a sold-out event last week at the Toronto Public Library. “It’s time to declare the policy of multiculturalism as having had its day,” she said. “For the last 40 years, multiculturalism has been a good policy, but we have to transition to an era of global citizenship. We can’t participate openly, fully if you’re afraid of what somebody is going to pounce on you for.” The event, moderated by TVO host Steve Paikin, was titled “Is multiculturalism bad for women?”
Ms. Manji’s suggestion to dismantle the multiculturalism policy made famous during Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s leadership goes against one of the core attributes of what it means to be Canadian, but she said this multiculturalism policy is hurting the most vulnerable of our population – women and children.
Mr. Trudeau’s multiculturalism vision is nothing like we have today, she argued. “Instead, we have group think. We have fear of being non-conforming, fear of being told that what you just said is racist or bigoted.”
Ms. Manji moved to Canada from Uganda when she was four. Now based in New York, she grew up in Canada, and experienced the effects of Canada’s multiculturalism policy first hand. Instead of encouraging people of different races, faiths, and skin colours to get to know one another, she argued that the policy made people afraid to ask questions about others for fear of offending them, and because of that, people see others according to the labels or preconceived notions we have, rather than as individuals.
Former Prime Minister Trudeau announced that multiculturalism and bilingualism would be official Canadian policies in 1971, respecting and recognizing the many customs, religions and languages of diverse Canadians. In 1988, the Multiculturalism Act was passed into law. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also maintains that the rights should be interpreted in light of multiculturalism – and a respect towards one’s customs. This, Ms. Manji argued, is the real problem.
The problem with multiculturalism
“The vast majority of cultures around the world are patriarchal. Let’s couple that reality with the policy of multiculturalism. The chief aim of the policy of multiculturalism is to preserve cultural traditions from which immigrants came,” she said. “(Because of this), the ideal of gender equality bumps up against the ideal of multiculturalism.” In this sense, multiculturalism policy encourages respect for some patriarchal traditions. “Cultural sensitivity, if taken to thoughtless extremes, winds up being the opposite of cultural sensitivity, which is tolerance for abuse of power,” said Ms. Manji.
Instead of seeing one another as unique individuals with unique stories to share, the multiculturalism attitude has encouraged Canadians to pigeonhole people of other faiths and backgrounds, make judgments based on labels, and has made people fearful of asking real questions about other religions and customs for fear of offending someone. “What we don’t get are vibrant conversations,” she said. “Why is comfort the standard for what we say or don’t say?”
Transition to global citizenship
Instead of existing under a multiculturalism policy, Ms. Manji argued that it’s time to transition to global citizenship. This transition would focus on diversity – of thought, of different points of view, and appreciating others’ beliefs.
“Offense, taking it and giving it, is the price of honesty. In order to liberate thinking, we have to risk it, every once in a while,” she said.
Ms. Manji is not the first to criticize the effects of multiculturalism policy. In Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism, author Brian Barry similarly argues that multiculturalism actually distances different cultures, rather than bring them closer together.
Ms. Manji also pointed out that the problem with multiculturalism is not unique to just Canada, but is a similar problem occurring in many Western countries, which is evidenced by the writings of BBC broadcaster Kenan Malik, who also critiques the failures of multiculturalism, in an essay called Multiculturalism and its Discontents. “Today multiculturalism is seen by growing numbers of people not as the solution to, but as the cause of Europe’s myriad social ills,” said Mr. Malik. “I am hostile to multiculturalism not because I fear immigration, despise Muslims or want to reduce diversity but, on the contrary because I favour immigration, oppose the growing hatred of Muslims, and welcome diversity.”
A new beginning
Over 20 per cent of Canada’s population is born abroad – the highest proportion of foreign-born citizens out of all the G8 countries – and this number is expected to increase. That’s why Canadians have an opportunity to start getting to know the many people that make up Canada, argued Ms. Manji. “Instead of waiting for other people to learn something new about you, be up front,” she said.
“Because they see my gender, or see my skin colour, that’s where they pigeonhole me, and guess what? I’m about so much more than that.”