Multiculturalism done right

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently declared that the policy of multiculturalism in Germany has “utterly failed.” This comes as many European countries are dealing with the tensions and difficulties resulting from immigration and immigrant populations combined with current economic hardship. Here in Canada there has also been renewed discussion of multiculturalism, with The Globe and Mail featuring it as one of the eight topics of discussion in its “Our Time to Lead” series and with the continuing debate, especially in Quebec, over “reasonable accommodation.”

Multiculturalism has been for many years a national value in Canada, but concerns over integration of new immigrants, the formation of ethnic enclaves and the accommodation of different cultural and religious practices have led some to share Merkel’s negative assessment. Some of this criticism is justified. But rightly understood and enacted, multiculturalism is a worthwhile and just policy.

Essential to this issue is what is meant by “multiculturalism.” Chancellor Merkel put it this way: “This multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and live happily with each other has failed.” This is reminiscent of former Prime Minister Joe Clark’s comment that a multicultural Canada is a “community of communities.” The idea here is that each cultural community keeps mostly to itself while attempting to live harmoniously beside other communities. There is, it seems, no requirement of interaction or common life in this picture. If this is what multiculturalism is, then Merkel is right, it is a failure. One can see how this can lead to isolationism, antagonism, unjust practices and an absence of national unity. It is true that multicultural policies in Canada have occasionally slipped towards this perilous state ­– multiculturalism at its worst. But such cases have been in the minority. It should be, and can be, so much better.

As Pierre Trudeau said in his speech introducing official multiculturalism in Canada, multiculturalism at its best is simply the full expression of individual freedom and the right of a person to live in a manner of their choosing according to principles of their choosing (within appropriate limits). It should not mean that people live in ethnic communities in Canada as if a small piece of their home country had been transplanted to their new one. Living in a country means participating in its social, economic and cultural life. This is perhaps what is meant by “integration.” The flaw in most discussions of integration, however, is that it is often contrasted with multiculturalism, as if retaining one’s cultural heritage is incompatible with participating fully in the life of one’s new country. In certain extreme cases, it may be, but this should not lead us to abandon multiculturalism. Instead we should improve and strengthen it.

Retaining one’s cultural heritage and practices is possible while becoming part of a new country. Of course certain practices, for example female circumcision, honour killings and so on, will not be tolerated. There must be, among cultural differences, shared values. Respect, tolerance, compassion and openness are among these values, as are recognition for the fundamental rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And it is no imposition to ask that all newcomers to the country undertake to learn English or French if they cannot already speak one of these languages.

The recent Quebec court decision regarding the wearing of a niqab during court testimony (they must be removed if the fairness of the trial is jeopardized) struck a compromise solution which, while not perfect, is exactly the kind of approach that should be taken with issues of accommodation. Matters of culture are matters of conscience and though we cannot accept just anything, a diversity of lifestyles, world views and practices can be accommodated, encouraged and debated within a framework of shared basic values.

The reality is that the problem situations are the exception, not the norm, but are magnified by media attention and the finger-pointing of demagogues. They are a serious concern, but it is always important to highlight the successes, strength, dynamism, and possibilities for innovation that diversity produces, just as much as we strive to address the serious problems.

Europe was perhaps less prepared for multiculturalism than Canada was, and we can use our experiences to assist other countries in developing sensible policies. Here at home, however, we must not cease trying to build the pluralistic yet cohesive society which we desire. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has said, multiculturalism is always a work in progress. But suitably understood and enacted, multiculturalism is a virtue of liberal democracy which should not be abandoned.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.