A backgrounder on Canadian multiculturalism

One of the most baffling features of the debate about the Charter of Values in Quebec is the number of politicians and commentators who have lined up to defend the Charter by denouncing multiculturalism in Europe, but without showing even the faintest notion of how multiculturalism functions in Canada. Consider, for example, the bizarre lede of Jean-François Lisée’s op-ed in the New York Times:

Angela Merkel deemed multiculturalism — the idea that social harmony is best achieved through celebrating our differences — a complete failure in Germany. David Cameron claimed it facilitated the rise of radical Islam in Britain and called for “stronger societies and identities at home,” along with a “much more active, muscular liberalism” that “believes in certain values and actively promotes them.” Last fall, the European backlash against multiculturalism crossed the Atlantic and landed in Quebec…

A reasonable person might wonder why a European backlash against multiculturalism might land on the shores of Quebec. In what way is the German experience, or the British experience, relevant to the situation in Canada? What about the experience in, say, Toronto, or Vancouver?

If the policy is so terrible, shouldn’t there be an Ontario backlash as well, or a British Columbia backlash? It’s not even obvious that when Merkel or Cameron talk about multiculturalism, they are using the word in the same way that it is used in Canada. And yet the Quebec Charter of Values is a rejection, first and foremost, of the Canadian multiculturalism policy. As such, it seems to me incumbent upon the critics of multiculturalism to point to at least some specific consequences, in cities such as Toronto or Vancouver, and explain what they find so terrible about them.

So why no backlash in English Canada? There is one line of argument I’ve heard (from Bernard Drainville, among others), about the lack of dissatisfaction among Canadians with the supposedly disastrous multiculturalism policy. There will be a backlash, he claims, it just hasn’t developed yet. That’s because Quebec is in the vanguard with respect to secularism, or because English Canadian politicians are simply too timid to talk about what the people are really feeling. Eventually though, the rest of Canada may find the wisdom or courage to follow in Quebec’s footsteps.

It’s here that I would like to step in, just quickly, to correct the record. There was actually a gigantic backlash against multiculturalism in English Canada, but it happened a long time ago — in the 1990s to be precise. The sort of hand-wringing that went on then can be seen in books like Richard Gwyn’s Nationalism Without Walls, and Neil Bissoondath’s Selling Illusions (“The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada”). That’s why the dominant response to the debates in Quebec, among those of us in the rest of Canada, has not been “look at those Quebecers, in the vanguard as usual,” but rather “been there, done that.”

So what happened to the great Canadian multiculturalism backlash? The answer is that it all went away. Partly this was for pragmatic reasons — all of the “centre cannot hold” doom and gloom simply failed to materialize. But partly it was for intellectual reasons. And here it is essential to understand the contribution that Will Kymlicka made to the debate. To say that he dealt a crushing blow to the critics of multiculturalism would be to risk understatement. Not only did he demolish critics like Gwyn and Bissoondath, he also clarified the policy in a way that has permanently changed the Canadian debate — specifically with his distinction between “ethnic” and “national” minority groups, which not only specified the scope of the multiculturalism policy, but also (incidentally) paved the way for recognition of Quebec as a “nation.”

That is why, when it comes to the world of “multiculturalism policy wonkdom,” there are basically two classes of people: those who have read Kymlicka and those who haven’t. My suspicion is that the intersection set of “people who have read Kymlicka” and “people who sincerely believe that Quebec’s Charter of Values is a good idea” is practically zero.

I cannot do justice to Will’s view here. To get the full force of the argument, one needs to read his book Multicultural Citizenship. But by way of a sampler, and to provide a sense of his contribution to the debate in ’90s, I’ve taken the liberty of linking here to a short essay that didn’t get nearly enough readership when it was first published: Setting the Record Straight. The rest of the book is good too, but this paper gives a good sense of the kind of reasoned tone, along with exceptional clarity, that he brought to the discussion.


A backgrounder on Canadian multiculturalism — 2 Comments

  1. Of course, the intersection of those who share Kymicka’s views and those supporting the Quebec charter ought to be pretty slim. That’s precisely the point. The Quebec charter is nation building instrument designed to create a wedge with Canada’s own nation-buidling project, namely multiculturalism. And I would suggest this was made easier in recent years precisely because of the evolution of Canadian multiculturalism in response to its 1990s critiques.

    Let’s keep in mind that multiculturalism -as a policy- did not simply “won the day” in the 1990s. It also adjusted to its critiques, significantly. For better or for worse, multiculturalism in the 2000s in Canada is at least as much about promoting national identity, social cohesion and a shared sense of citizenship than it is about the recognition of cultural diversity and minority rights. As you know, recent changes to the citizenship acquisition process are only the most recent step in tightening the conditions -and expectations- of membership in the Canadian community, creating a far more substantive understanding -including in terms of “share values” (whatever that means) – of what it means to be Canadian. I therefore don’t think the critiques (and the debate) simply “went away” in Canada. Rather, the policy was (quite successfully) adjusted, with greater emphasis now put on what critiques considered its main weakness (cohesion/unity). Whether this ‘”cohesion turn” in Canadian multiculturalism is good or bad is another debate, but it certainly reinforced the perception, amongst Quebec nationalists, that this model wasn’t for them.

  2. How do you square your claim with the CPC’s recent citizenship guide? It’s about promoting a shared sense of Canadian values rooted in large part in our Anglo heritage – Parliament, the common law, the military, the monarch, and two founding nations (or at most three), not many. It’s hard to imagine the post-68 Liberal party basing its understanding of what it takes to be a Canadian on such an account.