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Molding a nation of nations.

Long before the first European settlers arrived, Canada was a multicultural society. The country was home to hundreds of different tribes of Aboriginal people speaking many different languages. Some tribes got along with each other well, some were at each other's throats. Whatever the state of their relationships, Canada was certainly multicultural and multilingual.

However, many centuries passed before it was felt necessary to enshrine multiculturalism in the law.

At the start of the 20th century, Canada was overwhelmingly peopled by members of its three founding cultures -- Native, French, and English. As waves of immigrants from other cultures began to arrive, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier seems to have outlined the idea of multiculturalism that was to come much later. He described visiting a magnificent cathedral in England that was "made of marble, oak, and granite. It is the image of the nation I would like to see Canada become. For here, I want the marble to remain the marble; the granite to remain the granite; the oak to remain the oak; and out of all these elements I would build a nation great among the nations of the world."

Fifty years later, another prime minister, John Diefenbaker, used different imagery to express a similar idea. He said that Canada is not "a melting pot in which the individuality of each element is destroyed in order to produce a new and totally different element. It is rather a garden into which have been transplanted the hardiest and brightest flowers from many lands, each retaining in its new environment the best of the qualities for which it was loved and prized in its native land."

During the time that Lester Pearson was prime minister (1963-68), Canadians were as preoccupied as ever with a debate over national unity.

In 1963, Mr. Pearson set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to examine ways in which to counter the growing separatist movement in Quebec.

Six years later, the Bi and Bi Commission, as it was popularly known, brought down its report. Its major recommendation was that French and English be declared the official languages of the Parliament of Canada, of the federal courts, and of the federal government. The proclamation of an Official Languages Act (1969) would be a rock-solid guarantee of what was already general, but unofficial, practice.

While it concentrated on relations between the English and French, the Bi and Bi Commission also looked at where other ethnic groups would fit into the Canadian mosaic.

These groups were now growing rapidly in number and joining the Ukrainians, Italians, Poles, and others already here. Was a bicultural society going to make these Canadians feel like second-class citizens? It was a tricky point and one that then Secretary of State Gerard Pelletier tackled in 1970: "We are talking about the development in Canada of a multicultural society. The government refuses to sacrifice, in the name of unity through conformity, any of the cultures that are represented in our population."

In 1971, the concept of multiculturalism was proclaimed as government policy by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and subsequently by a number of provinces. All his life, Mr. Trudeau had been a foe of nationalism; he saw it as a force that created division, not unity. In the minds of nationalists an us-and-them mentality develops; "Us" equals good, "Them" equals bad. Multiculturalism was to be a weapon to overcome the aggression division of nationalism.

Pierre Trudeau outlined this idealistic view in a speech to a Ukrainian group in 1972: "Our image is of a land of people with many differences -- but many contributions, many variations in view -- but a single desire to live in harmony ... On a planet of finite most desirable of all characteristics is the ability and desire to cohabit with persons of differing backgrounds, and to benefit from the opportunities which this offers."

In 1982, multiculturalism was guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Trudeau said multiculturalism meant "...encouraging cultural diversification within a bilingual framework."

That's a tough concept for the average mind to grasp. Multiculturalism in a bilingual country? Hmm -- doesn't one seem to contradict the other? How can these apparently contradictory ideas get along together? The federal government, in introducing the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988, said it is, "A concept under which diverse groups and communities are free to retain their respective identities while joining one another as equal partners in a united country." Clearer, but still not crystally so. Most people still would have to do some mental gymnastics to grapple with the idea of bilingualism and multiculturalism existing side by side at the same time.

Perhaps, we can get a better handle on the vision by seeing how it plays out in the community. To start with, the most visible part of multiculturalism (and the most often criticized) has been the doling out of money through the Multicultural Grants Program.

Mennonite choirs, Punjabi dancers, Hungarian weavers, Filipino boy scouts -- they all went to Ottawa looking for a grant for their groups. Heritage language classes that allowed students to take lessons in their mother tongue received funding. So did programs helping immigrant women to integrate into Canadian society and a group of Montrealers making a film about black history. These hand-outs were good for the cultural groups, but was this what was meant by multi-culturalism?

The government of Brian Mulroney, which came to power in 1984, thought not. Racial tensions and discrimination seemed to be rising; funding quaint folklore activities didn't seem to be cutting through these obstacles to harmony. The Mulroney government decided to review multiculturalism policy and programs.

One result was the Employment Equity Act of 1986. This required that federally regulated employers give improved access to employment opportunities for women, Aboriginal people, the disabled, and racial minorities. At the same time, a similar program was launched within the government itself over the hiring and promotion of people from those groups. Money was to go to Canadian universities to study multiculturalism. Help was to be given to immigrants to develop the skills needed to participate fully in Canadian society.

In 1988, Canada became the first nation in the world to pass a Multiculturalism Act. It was based on three principles:

"Multiculturalism is a central feature of Canadian citizenship;

"Every Canadian has the freedom to choose to enjoy, enhance, and share his or her heritage;

"The federal government has the responsibility to promote multiculturalism throughout its departments and agencies."

The act was aimed at increasing tolerance and cultural co-existence. It seems to have gone some way towards achieving those goals. Reginald Bibby is a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge who has researched multiculturalism extensively. He gives it a passing mark in some areas: "It has heightened our awareness of cultural diversity and contributed to more just and fair conditions for cultural minorities. In the face of claims of accelerated racism, my research shows that, since the 1970s, there has been a decrease in prejudice in all regions of the country."

Where Professor Bibby faults multiculturalism is where it has failed to stimulate interaction between newcomers and their hosts. He says Canadians have not come together "for the dialogue, reflection and evaluation that are so essential to producing -- in the words of Mr. Trudeau -- `a richer life for us all.'" This failure is crucial, otherwise multiculturalism is just a matter of ethnic foods and festivals.

The government counters this by saying that the bulk of funding from the Multiculturalism Directorate now goes to anti-racism activities and programs that help newcomers settle in to Canada.

One of the ideas behind the Multiculturalism Act is leadership. Ottawa promised to take "positive measures within its jurisdiction so that every citizen, regardless of origin, has an equal chance to participate in -- and contribute to -- the social, economic, cultural and political life of the country."

So, the government created the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Its job is to find ways of reducing and eliminating racism. Meanwhile, Ottawa has worked on finding ways to improve relations between police and minority groups. It has taken a close look at school curricula to find ways of promoting racial tolerance.

Also, the multiculturalism of the late 1980s was more outward looking than the nation-building device of the early 1970s.

Aside from all the warm fuzzies about loving our neighbours, the government had commercial success on its mind too when it passed the Multiculturalism Act. Here's what a parliamentary committee had to say: "Canada's bilingual and multicultural heritage represents an asset, offering a capacity to relate naturally and with understanding to almost every country in the world. It can be especially valuable in developing trade links."

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney echoed this when he spoke at the 1986 "Multiculturalism Means Business" conference: "...Our multicultural nature gives us an edge in selling to [the] world ... Canadians who have cultural links to other parts of the globe, who have business contacts elsewhere are of the utmost importance to our trade and investment strategy."

Putting dollars into the pockets of exporters is really a side effect though. The core of multiculturalism is an attempt to increase acceptance. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut came to Canada with his family from the United States in the early 1960s. He is a scholar of immense international stature and has quite clearly given Canada more than he has taken from it. Rabbi Plaut is a fan of multiculturalism.

"Multiculturalism is more than giving children the opportunity to learn Ukrainian or Yiddish or Finnish or Vietnamese. It means to make them into secure citizens, knowing that the traditions of everyone, including their own, are to be respected and cherished; that Canada is a nation that accords dignity to everyone, rather than suppressing people's identities and thereby detracting from their full sense of humanity.

"There is more to multiculturalism. At its best and most successful, it diminishes the kind of racism that still exists in the land, the kind of religious prejudice that has not gone away...

"To me it is this vision that sets Canada aside from other nations and gives its citizens a wonderful reason to be proud of their country. Is it a small thing to build a nation in which persons respect each other, both for what they are and what they were? That is the kind of nation I hope will emerge in the 21st century."

There's no question that multiculturalism has given immigrant groups self-confidence. Don Miller is head of a company that surveys minorities across Canada. He says that people from ethnic minorities "can be themselves. They don't have to live by other people's values, because they have strength in numbers. The others have to pay attention to them."

This self-confidence has translated into lobbying for ethnic broadcasting licences and the opening of community newspapers. Some have founded human rights groups to document discrimination. Others have won the right to have their children educated in their mother tongues in elementary school. Shopping areas devoted to one ethnic group have sprung up.

As with all things, multiculturalism doesn't stand still. It is a changing concept for a changing Canada. Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri has been an advisor to the Ontario government on multiculturalism issues. He supports the concept and has some ideas for change that he believes will make multiculturalism more relevant in the next century:

* Stop financing heritage language. We can't possibly pay for the upkeep of more than 100 languages spoken within our borders, however valuable they may be. Instead, we need a national language plan in the provincial educational systems. English and French would remain as official languages, but modern-languages curriculum would require that students take at least one other language. This would link our multicultural reality to our future on the world stage.

* Refocus our refugee policy. Let's face it, we can't be the dumping ground for all the woes of the world. Admitting that our system is being abused doesn't mean we've lost our compassion.

* The courts need a jury-selection process that ensures minorities take an active part in the delivery of justice. There should also be a realistic plan for appointing more minorities to judgeships.

* Appoint some Members of Parliament and provincial MLAs to represent minorities until they can be elected through the political process. Sri Lanka has done this for a long time to ensure the representation of European interests.

* Include a spiritual component into multicultural policy. This would draw on the wisdom of all religious faiths, Eastern and Western, old and new, in building a just society.

Dr. Sugunasiri also has some advice for members of minorities. "Stop crying racism at every turn ... Minorities may still feel discrimination, but have they ever thought about what a hard time members of the majority have had in the past 20 years? They're even starting to call themselves TWASPs -- Tortured WASPs -- because they feel they're forever being asked to give in.

"At the same time, look inward at the racism and discrimination within your own ranks. You assume WASPs are racist, but what about Korean Christians in Canada who avoid Korean Buddhists like the plague? Or West Indians from different islands who treat each other like dirt? Or Orthodox Jewish rabbis refusing to recognize Reform rabbis?"


1. Canada's Constitution guarantees Catholics the right to set up publicly funded schools. Today, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and other religious groups are seeking similar rights. Given that multiculturalism is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, should religiously based schools of non-Christian faiths be granted government funding to set up their own schools? Discuss.

2. Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri is a former member of the Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism and Citizenship. In an article in the Globe and Mail he wrote that: "The monarchy must go, because it is a racist institution. Only a white English person can occupy the throne; doesn't this contravene our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?" Discuss Dr. Sugunasiri's idea.

3. Prepare a family tree of both sides of your family back to the point when predecessors emigrated to Canada. Bring family trees to class for a comparison of dates, countries of origin, experiences on arrival here, and changes in location, occupation, etc. since arrival.

4. Almost all immigrants to Canada settle in one of four provinces -- Ontario (55%), British Columbia (17%), Quebec (14%), or Alberta (9%) -- with most living in large urban centres. How would you go about encouraging skilled new Canadians to live in areas away from the main centres where they could aid economic development and cultural understanding? Would you use compulsion or persuasion? Discuss.
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Title Annotation:multiculturalism in Canada
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Pluralism and the Canadian mosaic.
Next Article:Balancing act.

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