Robin Higham’s What Would You Say? … as guest speaker at the next Canadian citizenship ceremony is an anecdote-based approach to understanding the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
His latest book builds upon his thoughts on integration, first expressed in his earlier work, Who Do We Think We Are, which focused on reasonable accommodation.
As before, Higham uses archetype-characters – both Canadian-born and immigrants – to express a range of perspectives, ranging from ‘old-stock’ (indigenous, francophone, anglophone) to ‘new-stock’ (East European, Latin American, Indo- and Muslim) Canadians through a conversation about the responsibilities of integration and citizenship.
While this is an effective technique to outline some of the issues involved and capture different perspectives, it has a number of weaknesses, starting with how the discussion is framed.
Complexities of integration and accommodation
Higham’s underlying bias and ideology are clear.
His choice of Gilles Paquet’s apocalyptic frame — political correctness, reluctance to confront, culture of entitlement and unreasonable accommodation — and how these are interpreted, reflect a distinctly conservative perspective, focused on social cohesion more than inclusion.
But this frame is more asserted than demonstrated through evidence, along with his underlying premise that integration is the responsibility of the newcomer. His characters all largely assert this, with the anecdotes selected to buttress his argument.
Integration is not one-way, but multi-dimensional.
In reality, there is a more complex dynamic of integration and accommodation. Integration is not one-way, but multi-dimensional. Debates over what kinds of accommodation are reasonable and what are not illustrate this.
There is an abundance of evidence from Statistics Canada, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and other international organizations that indicate Canada is remarkably successful overall compared to other countries in building an integrated society that recognizes the diversity of different groups.
It is a society most Canadians are comfortable with.
A large part of this success reflects precisely our ability to be flexible and accommodate difference, allowing integration to take place over time, but within the overall Canadian constitutional and legal framework.
A large part of this success reflects precisely our ability to be flexible and accommodate difference.
Considering old and new Canadians alike
Anecdotal evidence suggests that ‘political correctness’ and a ‘reluctance to confront’ can be seen as civility and that the alternative, as seen in the recent Canadian election (e.g., the wedge politics of the niqab), the USA (e.g., the Republican primary) and Europe is not helpful to integration or belonging.
This is not to say that Canada is without challenges, whether it be with respect to finding the right balance between integration and accommodation, or the declining rate of citizenship.
But given this, where does Higham end up on citizenship rights and responsibilities for newcomers?
- Be mindful of what wasn’t working when you left home – emigrated – and also remember why you chose to come to Canada.
- Exercise civility even towards the ‘others’ in your community. You should also find that there are many fewer ‘others’ around you once you join the ‘otherness community.’
- We need your engagement and investment in our democratic processes and institutions. They are our default complaint-management mechanism.
- Strive for low maintenance citizen status, especially, but not only, with respect to government and community-funded social support programs.
- Build trust amongst citizens, all citizens. Always talk to strangers.
- Be sensitive to those obvious ‘un-Canadian’ transgressions. Know what kinds of things it is best to avoid.
- At home, be alert to your responsibility to respect and protect each of your family members’ rights. Monitor and coach the youngsters in your entourage.
- Accept that there are limits to the capacity of society to accommodate new expressions of values, beliefs and traditions. Expect to have to make adjustments in order to prosper.
To Higham’s credit, these are expressed with respect, modelling how one can overcome the ‘reluctance to confront’ in a manner that encourages dialogue, rather than shutting it down. But it does beg the question: how would one construct such a list that applies to both old and new Canadians?
Be trustful of others and forgiving of misunderstandings.
My take, drawing on Higham’s list, suggests that this is not difficult:
Be mindful of what wasn’t working when you or your ancestors left the country of origin and chose to come to Canada.
- Exercise civility towards all, whether new or old Canadians, whether from one’s ethno-cultural, racial or religious group or not, whether male, female or transgender, whether gay or straight, etc.
- Engage and participate actively in wider Canadian political life and debates, not just ones of immediate interest to you.
- Used our social safety net when needed, do not abuse.
- Be trustful of others and forgiving of misunderstandings.
- Be understanding of others and their sensitivities, whether cultural, religious or other. Accommodate where feasible and treat accommodation requests with respect.
- Be mindful of one’s biases and prejudices before acting or opining.
- Apply these in the home, workplace and wider society.
I encourage those interested in citizenship and multiculturalism issues to read Higham’s book for his modelling of respectful dialogue. But I would also encourage all to consider how to frame such discussions in a manner that includes old and new Canadians alike, and offer my list above to continue the conversation.
Andrew Griffith is the author of Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote and Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism and is a regular media commentator and blogger (Multiculturalism Meanderings). He is the former Director General for Citizenship and Multiculturalism.