Unity in Diversity: That’s Canadian Multiculturalism and it Works

Multiculturalism is an inherent feature of Canadian society. Arguably, the contours for multicultural Canada are found in the early days of our country’s history. The pre-eminent political leaders of pre-Confederation Canada, John A. Macdonald and George Etienne Cartier, looked with alarm to the political and social divisions in the United States which brought that country to civil war. Determined to avoid political deadlock and civil strife, they and the other framers of our legislative, judicial and administrative branches of state created a system of government that has worked remarkably well at preserving the unity of our immense land.

Cobbled together from four diverse colonies by pragmatic politicians well-versed in the subtle arts of negotiation and compromise, Canada faced a doubtful future on July 1, 1867. Land-hungry American squatters were migrating north into the western territories and staking claims to land, sometimes at gunpoint. The Fenian Brotherhood, a radical Irish-American group that wanted to foment sectarian strife among Canada’s large Irish population, was raiding Canadian settlements along the border. There was worry that the large United States’ Union army, infused with pride from its recent victory over the Confederacy, would simply roll north and occupy the cities of its fledgling, sparsely populated northern neighbour. Simmering tensions along linguistic and religious lines in Quebec had made that province only the most reluctant of partners in the national union. Aversion to national union was not confined to Quebec. Just 10 weeks after Confederation, Nova Scotia’s voters elected an openly secessionist party to govern them.

In the decades since those grim, uncertain times, Canadians have engaged in many debates about the nature of this country, its institutions, its identity, and its role in the global community. The current discussion about multiculturalism – how our openness to those in need can continue to inform our immigration and refugee policies without sacrificing legitimate national security concerns – and what our identity is as a people, occurs within a historical context where rhetoric and ballots, not guns and bullets, have prevailed. These debates have not always been pretty. At times, they’ve resembled a dysfunctional family’s drunken reunion rather than a civilized affair run in accordance with Robert’s Rules for Order.

Unfortunately, the current public discussion about what multiculturalism means has been fueled by misinformation.  Multiculturalism’s critics and political enemies have argued that it undermines Canadian values. They’ve argued multiculturalism promotes cultural relativism in which Canadians are asked to accept without question the following premise: if all cultures are inherently equal, then no one culture can dominate the national consciousness. Thus, critics go on, if all cultures are inherently equal, one must accept otherwise abhorrent acts such as honour killings or female genital mutilation because these actions are features of certain cultures in the Arab-speaking world, and parts of Asia and Africa.

However, that premise is false. It is nothing more than a flawed and fuzzy straw man’s argument.  Does Canadian multiculturalism really demand that we accept all facets of any culture uncritically, including those that would see girls and women murdered in the name of some perverse patriarchal code of honour? Not at all. Thankfully, everyone in Canada – citizen, permanent resident or new arrival alike – is subject to the laws of the land, including the supreme law, our Constitution with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Therefore any claim for privilege of cultural freedom over a cultural practice is subject to critical examination through the filters of rule of law and constitutionally protected gender equality. There is nothing relativistic about that.

The astute political engineers of the 1860s who built the constitutional framework for this country recognized the importance of bilingualism, provided for power sharing among provinces large and small and ensured that the rights of religious and linguistic minorities of the day were protected. The social and demographic composition of Canada has changed in the ensuing decades with the arrival of immigrants from every country on the planet. The process of transition has rarely been easy as immigrants have faced varying degrees of prejudice and hostility as they struggled for a place at the table of equality of opportunity. However, the arc of history has, thankfully, favoured evolution toward a society of equality of opportunity free of prejudice and hatred.

Author: Brian Seaman, Human rights/civil liberties researcher with the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre.

The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre recently hosted a conference that brought together multiculturalism experts from Canada and the European Union.

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