My year in Spain was definitely the best year of my life. Yet, towards the end, I really looked forward to coming back to Canada. One of the things that made me uncomfortable in Europe was the negative rhetoric around the issues of immigration and multiculturalism. As a historian specialized in European history and a special interest on cross-cultural contact I understand well the history behind European attitudes towards the other but that doesn’t mean I accept or support them. My feelings about the issues were shaped by my own experiences as an immigrant to Canada and my life here. I’ve been meaning to write a more detailed post about it for quite a while but it looks like Haroon Siddiqui, a columnist from the Toronto Star, beat me to it and said most of what I’d have said so why not replicate it here?
“How Europe gets the mosaic wrong: the fairness and tolerance of newcomers built into our country’s legislative DNA keep bigotry in check”
by Haroon Siddiqui
Multiculturalism is being trashed in Europe. My Canadian view is:
(a) Europeans are abandoning what they never had, if by multiculturalism we mean the official recognition and promotion of the equality and dignity of all groups and cultures, rather than feel-good urban cosmopolitan exotica that camouflages the domination of majority mores over minorities – politically, economically, culturally and socially, and:
(b) Multiculturalism, long a lightning rod for nativists against immigrants, is the smokescreen Islamophobes use to demonize Muslim minorities and Islam.
Canada has not been immune from Muslim-bashing or some of the excesses of the war on terror. But being the world’s only constitutionally multicultural country, it has withstood such attacks well.
All the familiar, facile charges against multiculturalism – that it allows importation of unacceptable alien practices; erodes common values; encourages ethnic ghettos, dual loyalties and fifth columnists; compromises national security; increases political correctness and constrains free speech – have been wrestled to the ground more successfully in Canada than in Europe.
Unlike Europe but like the United States, Canada considers itself an immigrant nation. Canadians do recognize that we invite immigrants because we need them, not because we want to do them a favour.
Unlike the U.S., Canada never did separate church and state, and it recognized group rights. The 1867 British North America Act (BNA) codified specific rights for our aboriginal peoples, and also English-speaking British Protestants and French-speaking Catholics – on the basis of race, religion and language. The DNA of BNA being diversity, its natural outgrowth was the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 27: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians”), and the 1988 Multiculturalism Act (“Multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage”).
Multiculturalism has nudged Canadians of long-established ancestry into making the difficult psychological journey toward accepting all Canadians as equal – white or not, Canadian-born or foreign-born, recent arrivals or those who migrated here decades ago. Canada is a Christian-majority but not a Christian country.
The debate over `Who’s a Canadian’ has long been resolved. A Canadian is one who lives legally in Canada, period. There are no second-class citizens. A minority of Canadians has found this hard to swallow. Periodically, some float such hare-brained ideas as a social contract between the host society and the newcomers, setting out some ill-defined limits on this or that immigrant religious/cultural behaviour. But we already have a social contract, the rule of law. There can, therefore, be no arbitrary limits set by self-appointed busybodies on what minorities or new Canadians can or cannot do.
How far can respect for difference go? As far as the law allows and no further. This is not a negative assertion. Rather, it is one of the core constitutional values of modern Canada: The strong shall not dictate to the weak on what is, or is not, acceptable. The power to define citizen conduct rests only with the people’s parliaments.
Canadians also recognize that:
Immigrants cannot be expected to develop amnesia the moment they land in Canada. The nation is the richer for their imported memories, ideas and cultures, so long as these do not violate the law.
Immigrants have always congregated in so-called ethnic ghettos, where they find community help in the initial settlement process, thereby reducing the burden on the state. As Toronto pollster Michael Adams, notes: “Groups that live in ethnic enclaves can be more economically successful than groups that do not; this was true for the Jews and the Italians and it is true for the Chinese and the South Asians today.”
In an immigrant nation, tensions are inevitable between the native-born and the foreign-born, older and newer immigrants, and the ancestral practices of immigrant parents and their Canadian-born or -bred kids. The push-pull of “old country” values and new is the alchemy of a living, breathing culture. National identity is constantly evolving.
The best tool of integration is a job that suits one’s skills. Employers who discriminate on the basis of race or religion should be prosecuted.
There is no forced nationalism/patriotism. A national competition on CBC-Radio, asking listeners to finish the phrase “As Canadian as… ” produced this winning entry: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” Despite that, or because of it, some of the most moving tributes at Canada Day rallies come from new Canadians. The proportion of immigrants who become citizens is higher in Canada than elsewhere, as is the proportion of members of Parliament who are foreign-born. No racist, anti-immigrant party can hope to win a national election.
None of this is to pretend that Canada has been free of controversy over multiculturalism – far from it. Rather, it is to assert that the pendulum does often swing back to the moderate middle, as we have seen time and time again, even in this era of tough security provisions at the expense of civil liberties.
Canada alone among Western nations established a judicial commission to probe a post-9/11 tragedy – the torture of Ottawa software engineer Maher Arar in a Syrian jail. Ottawa was forced to offer him an official apology and $10 million in compensation. Similarly, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, appointed to inquire into the plight of three other Arab Canadians who allegedly suffered the same fate as Arar, found that they were indeed tortured in Syria and Egypt, with Canadian complicity, albeit indirect.
These cases solidified the principle that naturalized Canadians – in this instance, all non-whites and Muslims – are as entitled to the full protection of the law and vigorous Canadian diplomatic representation as native-born ones.
Similarly, Islamophobic rhetoric, much in evidence in several public policy debates, has been exposed for what is: bigotry.
There was the highly charged 2005-06 debate in Ontario about the ostensible introduction of sharia law. No sharia law could possibly have come to Canada, even if some of its proponents foolishly thought so and its critics gleefully echoed them. Rather, the crux of the matter was whether Ontario’s 1991 Arbitration Act applied equally to all religions. Since Christians and Jews had been practising religiously informed arbitration in business disputes and such family matters as divorce and the distribution of marital assets, why not Muslims? It could not be credibly argued that Muslim women faced more pressures to conform than women of other faiths. The Ontario government, therefore, had no choice but to either allow such arbitration for all faith groups or to allow none at all. It opted for the latter.
There was the 2007-08 “reasonable accommodation” debate in Quebec, which was anything but. The municipal council of the town of Herouxville, about 270 kilometres northeast of Montreal, passed a code of conduct for immigrants – Thou shall not stone women to death or circumcise them, nor wear the hijab or carry the kirpan in public. The popular press was in a tizzy over incidents involving Orthodox Jews and Muslims. A downtown Montreal yeshiva had got the next-door YMCA to agree to tint its windows, so as not to tempt the young students to gawk at women exercising in tights. A group of Muslims had ostensibly forced a rural maple syrup farm to take the ham out of pea soup, Quebec’s culinary Holy Grail.
This prompted the establishment of a commission, co-chaired by eminent academics Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. After months of public hearings, the commission told Quebecers: Calm down; there was no crisis. Minorities were not making unreasonable demands. “Trivial incidents” had been blown out of proportion. And the commission laid down some general rules:
“The responsibility for integration is the responsibility of all,” not just immigrants. “The desire for sameness is authoritarian.” “The right to freedom of religion includes the right to show it.” The hijab is fine in schools and elsewhere, as are the kippah, turban and kirpan; none violates anyone else’s rights. Opposition to the hijab, from both right wingers and leftist feminists, is “often irrational.” The hounding of hijabis “should cease;” a democracy could no more proscribe the hijab than ban a nun’s habit or, for that matter, a bikini.
Universities and schools should offer temporary space for prayers, while permanent spaces may be needed at penitentiaries, hospitals or airports. Requests for non-Christian religious holidays are legitimate.
However, the duty of accommodation is not limitless. “A request may be rejected if it leads to what the jurists call `undue hardship,’ such as unreasonable cost, upsetting an organization’s operation, infringing the rights of others, or prejudicing the maintenance of security and public order.” But, overall, the guiding principle should be: The more accommodation the better.
The commission’s report fell on receptive ears, and the “crisis” disappeared. The moral of the story was that a liberal society must confront bigots, not cower before them.
As for the much-maligned Muslims (an estimated 750,000), they are a satisfied lot, according to a poll done for the Trudeau Foundation in Montreal. They register higher levels of pride in Canada than the population at large. They are less likely than Muslims in Britain, France, Germany or Spain to feel that their fellow-citizens are hostile to Islam. They did cite discrimination as a problem, but “the thing Muslims least like about Canada is the cold weather” – just like all other immigrant groups.
If that’s their biggest complaint, they and the nation must be doing just fine. Vive le Canada.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star‘s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday. Email email@example.com