Multiculturalism, The Redux (Kenney’s Director’s Cut): It Isn’t Broken, Time To Fix It

Posted on March 31, 2009


Jason Kenney, our present Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism, wants to reinvent Canadian multiculturalism. For some fawning National Post coverage, click here. This should comes as no surprise really, since both Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney began their political careers in the Reform Party of Canada which had as one of its founding principles the goal of abolishing Canada’s Official Multiculturalism Policy. The writing, as they say, has long been on the wall for anyone who wanted to read it.

Not surprisingly, as is so often the case, there are plenty of political commentators who are more than happy to jump onside: Lawrence Martin, for example. Martin is by no means an isolated case. When I surveyed the media’s coverage of multiculturalism and multiculturalism-related issues from Jan. 2005 – Oct. 2008, the coverage was almost always negative.

With so much consensus amongst political and media elites, surely, there must be something deeply wrong with Canadian society and our Official Multiculturalism Policy. Here’s what Mr. Kenney has to say on the matter (from The National Post): 

“We want to avoid the kind of ethnic enclaves or parallel communities that exist in some European countries. So far, we’ve been pretty successful at that, but I think it’s going to require greater effort in the future to make sure that we have an approach to pluralism and immigration that leads to social cohesion rather than fracturing [my emphasis].”

Curious that he should fail to mention the United States and its long history of ethnic enclaves and the occasional race riot, despite it’s world renown melting-pot policy for integration — the approach most often touted as the best alternative to Multiculturalism. Curious also that he should admit Canada is doing quite well — as all the evidence suggests — at avoiding the kind of internal ethnic isolation which seems to plague other countries. So, if things are working fine and better than everywhere else, why does our Multiculturalism policy need to be reinvented?

Here a possibility! Perhaps, we are doing much better than many other countries in terms of toleration, mutual understanding, and civic participation only out of blind luck. Perhaps, despite our success, the Multiculturalism Program — that is, the program through which the Federal government meets some of its obligations outlined in the official policy — is inefficient and horribly broken. Perhaps, some kind of systematic review or audit has revealed a program in desperate need of revamping. That must be it!

Quite to the contrary. According to a 2006 Corporate Review Branch evaluation of the Multiculturalism Program’s performance between 1999 and 2004, the Multiculturalism Program is effective, unique, and addresses a genuine need within government and Canadian society (The report used to be on-line but now must be requested from here). Although the report highlights areas for improvement, they are primarily administrative in focus (i.e. such as a simplified application process) and does not call into question the aims and purposes of the program itself. Moreover, the report also unequivocally indicates that the program’s level of resources are insufficient to meet the program’s objectives and the demands of Canada’s increasing diversity. In other words, the Multiculturalism Program not only works, but it will work even better if it gets more resources. 

Oh, and by the way, what are the program’s goals: 1) to combat racism in all its forms;  2) to promote inter-cultural understanding; and 3) to encourage participation in community and civic life for all Canadians. So, again, I am confused. What needs to be remade? Clearly, this program pursues admirable and legitimate goals for government policy and clearly the program is effective at pursuing and achieving them. So what’s the problem, other than a genuine and legitimate need for more resources?

Ok, maybe, Canadians just don’t like Multiculturalism. Maybe, they don’t think it represents Canadian values or Canadian identity. Maybe, it is an ideal Canadians simply don’t care about anymore and, for this reason, it is rightly discarded. After all, we are a democracy, right? Our federal policies should reflect the ideals and values of the Canadian people. Maybe, Mr. Kenney and the media are simply expressing a widely held assessment of Multiculturalism Policy that the federal government should honor and respect. 

Well, surprise, surprise, despite the almost relentless attacks in the media, the vast majority of Canadians have historically supported some understanding of multiculturalism (although there are dips here and there, as can be expected) and continue to support it. For example, a telephone poll (conducted June 12-14, 2007 and reported in the Ottawa Citizen on June 17) revealed the following: 1) 82% of those polled agree with the statement “Canada’s multicultural makeup is one of the best things about this country;” 2) two-thirds agree that “treating minorities with generosity” is a special part of the Canadian character; 3) two-thirds disagree with the claim that “the fabric of Canadians society is being threatened by the influx of visible-minority immigrants;” and 4) 54% agree (strongly or moderately) that discrimination against minorities is a problem in Canada. In other words, the vast majority of Canadians often report that they support some ideal of multiculturalism and agree there is a need for it (e.g. racism remains a problem).

So what gives? Why the persistent call to remove or revamp Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy and Program. Mr. Kenney strikes me as a bright guy and, unless his staff are totally clueless, both he and they are very much aware of the data I am citing. I can only conclude that Kenney’s motivation is purely political. Not only do the Conservatives need to throw the occasional bone to their Reform-right allies, they need to make in-roads with ethnic communities. How do you please both groups? You tell the folks on the right, hey, check it out, we are axing one of Trudeau’s legacies, and you tell members of established ethnic communities, who have already benefited from our Multiculturalism Policy, “Hey, you are more self-assured, you made it, kid, you don’t need government hand-outs anymore.” Fair enough. The Conservatives are, after all, largely where they are thanks to playing a mean game of policy Jenga (Oh, that and the incompetence of the Liberal Opposition).

Ok, but what’s with the media and the moderate right in general — why are they so against it? My guess is they don’t understand the policy, the program, or its objectives and, in the case of the media, they haven’t done their research. Instead, it is much easier to parrot unsubstantiated talking points which are routinely discredited by empirical research and to characterize multiculturalism in a fashion which simply misrepresents it as an ideal. It makes for good copy, after all. To be fair, I should also acknowledge that there are lot of advocates of “multiculturalism” who characterize it in a poor fashion and this also muddies the waters for all concerned. 

So, let me explain what multiculturalism means in Canada.  First, it should be noted that multiculturalism can refer to an ideal, a policy, and a program.

Multiculturalism, as an ideal, originates in a fundamental respect for a person’s dignity and self-esteem and emerges out of a fundamental respect for persons and their right to live as they see fit, given the necessary constraints of a free, just, and civil society. Multiculturalism is essentially an iteration of the political ideal that all humans are equal in dignity and are sufficiently competent to live a life of their own choosing and should not be illegitimately discriminated against for choosing to live in a fashion which is different from others. Multiculturalism simply articulates this ideal with respect to a person’s ethno-cultural and religious identity, practices, and beliefs. Accordingly, while multiculturalism, diversity, and any particular cultural practice and norm can in itself be good, its promotion should never come at the expense of the rights and dignity of persons. 

Canada’s Official Multiculturalism Policy enshrines this ideal as a federal policy and the Program is intended to enact some of the obligations created by that policy. Yes, some policy-makers have made bad policy choices in the name of multiculturalism, but the ideal itself, the policy, and the program, nevertheless, are legitimate policy-objectives for our government. Moreover, all evidence suggests that the program works and is a benefit to Canadians (assuming the Conservatives haven’t already totally gutted it behind closed doors and under the radar).

Finally, I simply can’t see how any person who identifies with Canada’s historic struggle to be a truly tolerant, mutually respectful, and inclusive society can have a problem with this ideal. Canadians are by no means perfect, but our conception of multiculturalism emerges from a high ideal we have shared historically and which has also shaped our identities. If the present Conservative government substantially changes our Multiculturalism Policy, they will be changing who we are and who we hope to be. From this perspective, the Conservative government’s plans to remake Canadian multiculturalism should come as no surprise. They have made it clear in the past that they want to reform Canada one carefully calculated step at a time. 

For more of my social and political commentary, click here.