Archive for April 2nd, 2011

Debate requires clear thought

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Multiculturalism has been described as failed policy by various European leaders; most recently, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. However, as Canadians debate the issue, care must be taken to distinguish our experience from Europe’s.

France has banned hijabs and niqabs from public facilities and spaces. Switzerland has banned the construction of minarets. European Union agencies charged with learning why African, Arab and Turkish immigrants aren’t fitting in well identify poverty and racism as barriers to integration. Politicians bemoan this lack of integration. Racist skinhead louts or ultra-rightist thugs clash with their darker complexioned counterparts on the streets of Paris, Amsterdam and Milan. Such is Europe. Such was always Europe, cynics say.

As Canadians discuss the merits of multiculturalism, we must look first with pride to the fact that we were first with our policy of multiculturalism in 1971, which affirmed the equality and contributions of all Canadians irrespective of ethnic, national or linguistic backgrounds or religious beliefs. Section 27 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires courts to make decisions “consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canada.” The final instrument in the trilogy is 1988’s Multiculturalism Act which gave legal status to the policy of multiculturalism.

However, critics say multiculturalism promotes moral relativism; i.e. the notion that all cultural practices are inherently valuable so practices such as female genital mutilation or “honour killings” are beyond reproach. Another favourite theme of multiculturalism’s critics is that by allowing Muslims and Sikhs to wear religious attire in public buildings, we encourage a diminished sense of loyalty to Canada. That these critics never question the loyalty of habit-wearing nuns or Orthodox Jews and their garb should show the speciousness of the criticism.

When newcomers know they are free to practice religious rituals and the trappings of their culture here, without fear of persecution, surely this must be a critical factor in the long process of adapting. Of course, religious and cultural practices are subject to the constraints of the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For example: the Pashtun immigrant family which arrives thinking it is acceptable in Canada to beat up or kill their daughters to enforce a dating restriction will find they are subject to the same criminal laws and penalties as anyone else. There’s nothing relativist about that.

Much of the multicultural discourse centres around the notion of Canadian values and culture. Although there is nothing inherently wrong in this, the discourse tends to become unhelpful at some point, even harmful. Many of us who self-identify as so-called “mainstream Canadians” (please insert the name of whichever ethnicity, nationality, or religion you want to devalue here), feel a moral superiority over those who are struggling with issues of identity and acceptance.

For example, take the hot button issue of “honour killings.” Barbaric as the practice admittedly is, it is tritely obvious too that dozens of Canadian women who are white and of Anglo-Celtic or other European backgrounds die each year at the hands of their boyfriends, husbands or exes in a domestic example that could attract the label of barbarity.

A claim of moral superiority is even more untenable when you ponder the following: until amendments to the Divorce Act and Criminal Code barely a generation ago, a husband could force sexual intercourse on his wife in Canada without fear of any criminal repercussions. How many of us had that in mind when we learned a few years back that Afghanistan’s lawmakers had failed to include a clause in their own criminal code that would make it illegal for a man to rape his wife?

At a Chumir Foundation symposium last fall addressing gender equality in the context of religious practices, one speaker offered a theory about multiculturalism that I’d heard before. The speaker was broadcaster and self-anointed multiculturalism critic, Tarek Fatah. The theory was that former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had brought in multiculturalism 40 years ago to win votes in ethnic communities and dilute the demographic strength, and thus the political power, of Quebec’s francophones. Like so many others these days in our information-saturated world, he of course offered nothing to substantiate this categorical assertion. It didn’t matter, as his words won a lot of applause and support from his Calgary audience.

However, as Canadians suss out how we are to live and work together, I think it behooves all of us to engage in more honest discussion. Peace in that public square depends on it.

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