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Legion Magazine – March/April 2004 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – March/April 2004

“If France embraced North American multiculturalism it would lose its soul.”
—President Jacques Chirac of France, December 2003

What follows is about multiculturalism in Canada. Criticism of the concept and as governmental programs is dicey. Why? Because it has become one of the most politically correct of all major national themes.

Multiculturalism is a policy, initiated to some extent in the 1960s by the government of Lester Pearson, then given legislative and bureaucratic substance in 1972 by the government of Pierre Trudeau and its appointment of the first minister for multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism had been much advocated as a long-delayed recognition of the contribution to Canada of ethnic citizens and their associations, such as Ukrainians or Italians, whose roots were neither in the United Kingdom nor in France, but who had brought their energies and culture to a country which became constitutionally committed in the 1980s to ethnic diversity and equality.

At its initiation as a responsibility of the federal government it was emphasized that multiculturalism complemented previous legislation and programs for official English and French bilingualism which had been established by the federal government in the mid-1960s in response to a surging enthusiasm for provincial autonomy, even unto full sovereignty for Quebec.

In the nub of official, federal multiculturalism—a policy quickly mimicked by most of the provincial governments—was the thesis that immigrants to Canada could and should count on having their respective religions, languages, and customs continued and respected in Canada.

The integration of ethnics and their respective religions, customs, and values into the Canadian whole was not to be our goal. Canada would now be a world model, indeed a mirror of the globe’s human variety. In retrospect one divines that view arose and firmed into a respected axiom of Canadian politics from the outstanding global leadership our federal heroes of diplomacy like Mackenzie King, Louis Saint-Laurent and Pearson contributed as WW II was ending in the formation and aims of the United Nations.
I would not claim I had much company in the country in thinking at its launching that multiculturalism was a poor policy to enshrine in Canada but probably it was considerable, even though strident protests were rare, and notably not from those active in partisan politics. Politicians (as I once was) knew and still know how minority ethnic groups in Canada, as elsewhere, tended and still tend to pull together at ballot-marking time.

Along with the installation of multiculturalism policy came a decision in Ottawa that we had to put our money where our mouth was and radically broaden our immigration intake from countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean which we had always given short shrift. Immigration was to swing away—and it surely did—from focusing on Europe and white people to opening the way to brown, black, and yellow people.

My antagonism to multiculturalism as a concept for our country through the decades and centuries ahead came not from being against immigration or wanting to limit it within the established pattern that favoured white migrants. Rather my doubts grew from two demographic realities which I knew something about and valued, and from some apprehension that the more diverse the cultures we have, with their religious and linguistic ideas and traits, plus the long-held rivalries and antagonisms in their regions of origin which had shaped them, the more we had to be aware of the entrenching here of enmities imported from far away.

Canada has had ongoing problems with rivalries and tensions, say during the 19th century between the Irish Roman Catholics and Irish Protestants here or between Serbs and Croats, Greeks and Macedonians, Pakistanis and Indians, Ukrainians and Russians.
Let me note the annual commemoration of the infamous Air India plane bombing which killed several hundred Canadian citizens, victims of old country hatreds transferred and seething in Canada.

A policy which emphasizes the right of immigrants post-arrival to hew to their customs and values is a huge challenge to the public school systems in Canada. The policy also tends to sustain the concentration of ethnicities in clusters and so slow acceptance and integration with Canadian-shaped practices and values, most of which have been infused through British and American and, to a lesser extent French, exemplars. Think of the separation of church and state or the equality of men and women.
On the matter of demography, firstly there was and is our basic, perpetuating division of English-speaking and French-speaking citizens, with the latter mostly concentrated where they are by far the majority of Quebecers.

Multiculturalism as a federal policy and enshrined constitutionally and confirmed by Charter decisions of the courts has had little if any appeal to most French Canadians concerned with where they stand in terms of the survival of their culture and language. Of course, another distinctive grouping, the aboriginals who are scattered by and large across the country in relatively small and geographically isolated bands with reservation land also have their distinctiveness and rights in perpetuity. These are based on a right of blood and/or of registration, confirmed by the constitution.

Multiculturalism as a promotion of the state has largely developed and had its greatest effect in English Canada. Both where I grew up in the bush towns of northern Ontario and among soldier comrades in the army in WW II there was a remarkable diversity in origins. My home region’s population in the 1940s was roughly split in half—one half of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh stock, the other half largely of Ukrainian, Polish, Finnish, Scandinavian, Italian, German, Greek, Serb, Slovak, Cree and Ojibway stock.
Several times during the war when I had access as a clerk to the nominal rolls of the companies in our regiment, my canvass through them showed me something like this split, although it tilted towards a 60-40 proportion, the edge going to United Kingdom and French sources. It is fair to say the Canadian scenario was already a swatch of ethnicities, although with far less variety than we have now in variety of colours and clothing.

A notable aspect of the ethnic splits as I saw them then was how relatively little they mattered in relation to the impulses towards the integration into Canadian life of both the immigrants from Europe and their first generation offspring here into the economic and social life of our towns or within such a symbolic institution as the wartime Canadian Army. Integration was going on, largely unobtrusively, all the time without notice or dispute. And so was a rising, vigorous, self-aware Canadianism which I took to be a maturing of the Canadian identity taking place in each of the military services. Indeed, after nearly a million volunteers came back to civilian life in 1945 and 1946, both my own experience and hopes told me most of them were prouder and more aware of Canada as a whole—its regions, landscapes, and people.

And then, personally and mostly through both postwar study and years of teaching of Canadian history I also appreciated much more that in firming a Canadian outlook our WW II generation had figuratively stood on the shoulders of the Canadians who served so aggressively in the slaughterhouse of the Great War.

And so, generation by generation a commonality of outlook emerged in Canada and bonded into something hard to define except by negatives. Clearly it was largely North American, but not American; very much British in its parliamentary and legal adaptations but made much more complex by the diversity which federalism requires; and even more French in Quebec than the rest of Canada was British. And since the Loyalists turning away from the American Revolution came to Canada there has always been a continuing interest in and a wariness among Canadians of the United States, its politics and economy and their prime importance to us all. Despite the power and magnetism there has always been—and I think continues to be—a sturdy reluctance for closer juncture or a merging into the American identity.

This column began with a multicultural scenario wrenching away in France, and France from my reading and visits is uniquely, strongly, and devotedly inspired by a sense of history and the identity forged over centuries. France has something like five million people of the Muslim faith, and its girls and women wear scarves or semi-hoods. When I first read of President Chirac’s concerns that this practice, expanding through births and immigration, was dividing the unity and common outlook of France, I thought of the fierce defence by the governments of Quebec of the French language against domination by English, the federally so-called other official language.

Chirac, with some support from spokespersons for Christian and Jewish institutions, sees the Muslim headdress for females as a religious matter in a nation where church and state are separate, so Muslim girls should not be witnesses for a religion in state-supported schools. Further support of the Chirac position has come from the feminists of France, who oppose Muslim customs such as the headdress and the continued practice of female circumcision.

Now, add to this rather unusual outcry against the headdress in France the global problems seething in the Middle East and into the states of southern Asia which have large populations of Muslims critical and increasingly bitter and hateful towards the West, and in particular against the United States.

What to do about multiculturalism in Canada in what promises to be a long era of terror? Not terror through possible wars between major powers but through conflicts generated in long-running antipathies around or across the globe. The most sobering example is the one in which the Christian crusades to free the Holy Land from infidels in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries are still an issue.

My summary of all this is admittedly crude and over-simple. It is so conscious of what we have always had to be careful about in terms of our unity and our inheritances.
To be more explicit, keep in mind what follows from: (a) the fact of our French minority; (b) the fact of our aboriginal minority; (c) the fact of American social, economic, and cultural penetration and influences; (d) and the prop to imported enmities and divisiveness which has been strengthened by an immigration intake over three decades that has been by the idealism of official and practised multiculturalism.

Like most veterans of WW II, my age precludes any personal fears affecting me as our identity as Canadians withers in the heat of ethnic strife or through the younger generations’ growing absorption in American concerns and values which, colloquially speaking, is where so many believe our bread is buttered.

In ourselves and in those who have gone there was a broad recognition of a distinct sense of community across our huge geography which I believe the touting of ethnic remembrance and practices suborns.

May there be resurgence in both a concerned advocacy for the identity and integration of Canada and in a theme that Canadians do best by the world by being themselves before being ethnics.