The notion of “Canadian Exceptionalism” predates Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the pretensions of Kellie Leitch. It goes back at least to 2012, when the Berkeley professor Irene Bloemraad published an article entitled Understanding ‘Canadian Exceptionalism’ in Immigration and Pluralism Policy, which juxtatposed “the widespread and increasing support of immigration among Canadian citizens with growing anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to multicultural policies across Europe and the United States.” And our own Joe Heath has been workshopping a talk for a while now building on Bloemraad’s work.
So it’s not a new idea. But the basic thesis — that Canada seems to be unique in having built a stable, immigrant-driven multicultural society — has become more prevalent in the Trump/Brexit era, finding proponents both domestic and foreign. It has also drawn a predictable reaction. And so when NYT columnist Nick Kristof called Canada the leader of the free world this past weekend, it was quickly rebutted by Buzzfeed Canada writer Scaachi Koul, who said, essentially, no we’re just as biased, racist, and discriminatory as the US, we just flatter ourselves more.
So which is it? Is Canada an exceptional country, or not? And if we’re an exceptional country, is it because we’re doing something right, or are we just winging it? Are we good, or are we lucky?
That is the subject of my first annual conference as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, being held this Thursday and Friday at the Sofitel in Montreal. The aim of the conference is to interrogate the thesis of Canadian exceptionalism: What are the theoretical underpinnings of what we are trying to do as a multicultural society? And how do our efforts compare with other countries? More broadly, how worried should we be about rising populism, and how can our political elites and institutions work to mitigate the effects while channeling those energies?
To set the table for the conference, we commissioned Michael Donnelly of the SPPG at UofT to do a survey on Canadians’ attitudes towards immigrants. The results were published earlier this week in the National Post, and were picked up by a number of other media outlets. The take-away: There is nothing exceptional in our attitudes. And so if there is something going on here, it has to do with how our political culture and institutions work, and how the elites respond within that institutional context. But what exactly that means is something we need to explore in greater depth.
That’s our challenge this week. If you can be in Montreal, please join us. If you can’t make it, CPAC will be streaming it live on their site. You can also follow Martin Patriquin on Twitter — he’ll be live-tweeting the proceedings.
The full conference programme is available here.