No Statues of Liberty stand in Vancouver or Halifax to welcome boatloads of refugees fleeing war, famine or persecution, or immigrants lured by dreams of a better life. However these two cities on opposite coasts of this vast land have also seen their share of immigrants and refugees throughout history. From Canada’s pre-Confederation days as a fledgling, sparsely populated colony that was the target of American invasion in 1812 through its post-Confederation trials of depressions and wars, Canada has evolved to its present place in the world as a multicultural, rights-based society rooted in the rule of law.
When the political leaders of what was then British North America met throughout the 1850s and early 1860s to discuss what form an independent Canada with close ties to Britain would take, the prospects for a new North American nation could not have been shakier. The Fenian Brotherhood – a group of radical Irish-Americans that wanted to foment civil disorder in British North America – was raiding Canadian border settlements. American squatters were crossing the 49th Parallel into what is now western Canada and staking claims to unoccupied land. Expansionist-minded U.S. nationalists thundered about how it was America’s manifest destiny that the thinly populated territories to their north would one day be American soil. The Canadian Fathers of Confederation looked south to the bloody civil war their neighbours had just fought and feared imminent invasion by the victorious Union Army. The partnership and power-sharing arrangements that the French-speaking and English-speaking inhabitants of early Canada were finally able to cobble together in 1867 did not result from any sense of destiny. There was no Canadian equivalent to Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck calling for, rather than a greater Germany for all Germans, a greater Canada from sea to sea for all Canadians. No, this early Canada was a decidedly more mundane affair created out of necessity by unlikely political bed-fellows reluctantly brought to national union out of fear.
The pragmatic compromises that political leaders of the newly minted Canada had to make, coupled with the uniquely bilingual and bicultural nature of the country, were some of the early features that would distinguish Canada from its more quarrelsome, extremist southern neighbour. Successive national governments pursued nation-building policies that included constructing a railway across thinly populated western territories to link British Columbia with the rest of Canada in the east. For the first five decades of Canada’s existence, policies encouraged waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe to settle in western Canada, thus ensuring that demographics tipped there in Canada’s favour as largely poor eastern European settlers gratefully welcomed the cheap land and the citizenship their new country offered. The tens of thousands of hungry, landless Irish peasants who fled Ireland earlier during the Great Potato Famine also left a lasting and positive mark on the country’s social and political landscape.
From 1971, when Canada became the first nation in the world to adopt an official policy of multiculturalism to encourage immigration from non-European source countries, Canada has evolved to the point where it accepts, per capita, the largest number of immigrants in the world. Although the process of cultural adaptation has not been without challenges, on balance Canadian society is richer and stronger because of its cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Among other things, there does seem to be an emergent common civic culture of a “live and let live” attitude and a respect for differences in the public square. Otherwise put, there’s a common civic culture for that amorphous mass of us who, in spite of superficial differences (so often ascribed too much importance by the more strident among us) by dint of where we live, the party we vote for or the religion we practice or don’t, will ensure that the Canada we know and love, fractious though it may sometimes seem to outsiders who were not raised in a democratic culture, will continue to thrive in the 21st century.
However, notwithstanding the apparent success of the Canadian multicultural model, the concept of multiculturalism has come under increasingly critical scrutiny, even attack. Many critics see it as a policy that promotes cultural relativism which, as an unintended consequence, undermines a common civic culture and Canadian values. But how true is that? And what exactly are Canadian values? Over November 10-11, 2011, Canadian and European experts in cultural diversity issues will meet at the University of Calgary to discuss these and other related issues. For more information, please visit: www.regonline.ca/ACLRCEURAC.
Author: Brian Seaman, Research Associate with the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre.