Here's how multiculturalism has failed people like me

Non-white immigrants are constantly being warned not to disturb Canadian culture instead of being encouraged to contribute to it.


I have a complicated relationship with multiculturalism. The truth is that I wouldn’t be in this country were it not for the immigration policies that led to multiculturalism becoming a signature part of the Canadian brand. My parents came to Canada in the 1970s, after the government introduced a points-based immigration system that guaranteed applicants would be selected based on the skills they offered rather than denied because of the colour of their skin.

When Pierre Trudeau introduced the idea of multiculturalism in 1971 (the policy became law in 1988), it was part of an ambitious human rights agenda that included decriminalizing homosexuality and developing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Today, multiculturalism is often seen as our country’s gift to the world: This is how you welcome non-white people, promising integration without demanding assimilation, offering equal opportunity with zero tolerance for discrimination. It’s the reason foreign media can’t stop gushing over Canada's defence of liberal values in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world. But what makes multiculturalism successful? Is it our prime minister greeting Syrian refugees at the airport? The annual ethnic summer festival in your neighbourhood?


Canada Project

This post is part of The Canada Project, a representative survey of Canadians from across the country. You can find out more right here.

In many ways, multiculturalism was an economic policy, and it's worked out reasonably well for Canada, helping the country meet its need for labour, growing our population and keeping us young. But for immigrants, it's a bit more complicated. First generation immigrants are selected for their skills, but arrive to massive barriers to entry to their fields, such as the requirement of Canadian credentials to work and a bias against lack of Canadian experience. The first 10 years can be especially tough.


Despite all these challenges, many immigrants likely share my parents' attitude toward their adopted home: unequivocally grateful. And I understand why — for my parents, coming from Pakistan where there were no guarantees when it came to the rule of law being exercised or elections being fair, Canada is comparatively a pretty great place to live. I’ve benefited from their decision to come here: I grew up in safe neighbourhood; I've never had to worry about a hospital bill; I’ve had access to education and managed to earn two master’s degrees, and now, I get paid to do what I love.

While my parents aren’t blind to the indignities they’ve endured because of their identity — large ones like being grossly underpaid and smaller ones like complaints at work about how their lunch smells — they have always believed that my older sister and me would be seen, by everyone, as full Canadian citizens. And it's true that my experience in Canada has been different from theirs: I don’t face barriers some first generation immigrants have to overcome, like speaking with a non-Canadian accent, or not having Canadian education or work experience. As a child, my father would often tell me that I could do anything I wanted, be anything I wanted.

Still, my parents’ unwavering faith in the Canadian dream irks me, because I’ve never really felt like all doors were open to me — there are too many everyday reminders, subtle and not-so-subtle, that I’m not fully Canadian. For instance, if I’m really Canadian, why does my passport specify I was born in Karachi? If hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their descendants are truly Canadian, why does the media still have to count how many non-white politicians are elected every political cycle? Why is there heated controversy over whether Muslim high school students can write their own Friday prayer sermons? Why are there people who only want to be treated by white doctors?

These are the kinds of questions second and third generation immigrants tend to ask, says David B. MacDonald, a political science professor at the University of Guelph. People like me are asking whether they see themselves reflected in all aspects of Canadian society — the police force, the courts, the House of Commons — or whether Canada remains a "white settler society."


“The answers to those questions generally are that a lot of [second-] don’t feel that the state reflects [Canada] growing diversity,” Macdonald says.

And yet, these points are inconsequential to some who prefer to mythologize Canada’s great immigration story. Author and Esquire columnist Stephen Marche has argued that multiculturalism is the reason Canada “escaped the populist manias” of the U.S. and the U.K. “We made multiculturalism a public good and regulated its application assiduously,” Marche wrote in an essay about Canadian “exceptionalism,” attributing our attitudes toward immigrants as one ingredient in our secret sauce.

Keith Banting, a leading expert in multiculturalism at Queen’s University, says the main distinction between Canadian attitudes toward newcomers and those of the Americans is that immigrants here aren’t seen as an economic drain — relying on welfare or stealing jobs from Canadians. An Environics survey that tracks attitudes towards immigration confirms this: 78 percent surveyed agreed that "overall, immigration has a positive impact on the economy of Canada.” 

While immigrants are not seen as an economic nuisance by Canadians, I think they're seen as a cultural nuisance.


We like to think of multiculturalism as a celebration of difference, but let’s be honest, not everyone is even willing to accept difference. The latest figures from Statistics Canada show an increase in hate crimes from 2014 to 2015, with 83 percent motivated by hatred of race, ethnicity or religion. The number of events targeting Muslims fuelled this rise, in a year in which Stephen Harper played political football with the niqab. And although Marche acknowledged this in his essay, he ultimately dismissed it: “The appetite is very small for divisiveness based on race or religion in Canada.”

The reality, however, is that 32 percent of people voted for Harper, despite the fact that his campaign cultivated a mistrust of Muslims — or maybe because of it. Those sentiments didn’t disappear just because Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways edged the Conservatives out. Just six months ago, we saw six Muslim men gunned down in a mosque in Quebec City. Is this truly what an exceptional country looks like?

Cultural difference continues to be a great source of anxiety here. This was revealed this past year, once again, when the great “Canadian values” debate was resurfaced by Conservative Party leadership candidates Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier. Leitch, for instance, came up with a list of questions prospective immigrants should be asked as part of their application screening process, including: “Is it ever OK to coerce or use violence against an individual or a group who disagrees with your views?” Bernier left no doubt about where he stood, saying in his campaign platform: “Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want.”

They lost. But before we cast aside Leitch and Bernier as anomalies in our utopic mosaic, consider that 68 percent of Canadians surveyed by a CBC Angus Reid poll last year agreed with the statement that “minorities should do more to fit in better with mainstream Canadian society.” An Environics survey that has tracked a similar question every year since 1993 reveals that this year, 54 percent of Canadians agreed with the statement that “there are too many immigrants coming into this country who are not adopting Canadian values.”


Why are we still evaluating “minorities” on the basis of their ability to “fit in” in 2017, a half-century after Pierre Trudeau said “there is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian”? The fact is, despite Trudeau’s commitment to human rights during the period that multiculturalism was introduced, Canada was — and remains— a colonial country. Multiculturalism emerged shortly after British and French biculturalism and bilingualism were institutionalized, and in the minds of many, entrenched as the only legitimate expressions of Canadian identity — despite the fact that there were non-white people here long before the British and French arrived.

In fact, multiculturalism is seen by some as a tool used to erase indigenous identity. Tara Williamson, an Anishinaabe/Nehayo musician, writer and scholar, wrote about this in an essay in Monitor. “Multiculturalism was sort of this marker saying we are not the way we were before,” says Williamson. “We are no longer a colony, we are no longer colonial, we are no longer racist.” The multiculturalism policy was introduced just two years after Trudeau championed a White Paper calling for the abolition of the Indian Act, an attempt to take away distinct legal status from indigenous people. It coincided with the "Sixties Scoop” where thousands of indigenous kids were forced out of their communities to be adopted or fostered by white families. It happened at a time when residential schools, designed to assimilate indigenous children, were just starting to be closed, the last one not shuttering until the 1990s.  The focus on celebrating culture seems absurd in this context.

But the celebration marched on, without much thought given to the framework created by the country’s colonial legacy. Instead of recognizing that people on this land were either indigenous or settlers, indigenous people were “relegated to a space of general non-whiteness within the policy of multiculturalism,” in the words of Williamson. Non-white newcomers were told they didn't have to leave their culture behind, but they had to make it work within this fraught framework, while immigrants of European descent who weren't English or French were assumed to fit into this model easily. Implicit in conversations about Canadian culture is the idea that non-white immigrants and their descendants either accept or disturb the status quo — contributing to or shaping Canadian culture seems out to be of the question. No matter how many generations live, work and are buried on Canadian soil, people of colour have not been woven into the social fabric of this country.

Sunera Thobani, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, puts it this way: “Multiculturalism is important in recognizing difference but it traps people in that difference, and makes it the only frame in which you can possibility understand them.” In other words, immigrants never shed the identity of newcomer or outsider. Thobani argues that even communities that have been here four or five generations are imagined as immigrants, fixing them in the position of alien: Why aren’t values from the Chinese Canadian community, here for generations, or black Canadians, here since the 17th century, considered Canadian enough? “Once you start unpacking those questions you realize we are really talking about race,” Thobani says.


Sadly, it seems that it's just that basic. Maybe it’s not surprising given the fact that multiculturalism was a policy built upon a colonial foundation where racial domination over indigenous people was key to creating the Canada we know today. And, as Thobani notes, relegating non-white Canadians to the realm of “culture” means we don’t think about their political or economic position in Canadian society.

Of course, Canada’s vision of multiculturalism has netted some benefits for non-white newcomers and the generations that followed, but nearly 50 years since recognizing that a diverse society is valuable, seeing people as representatives of “their” culture rather than as contributors to Canadian culture is, for me, a huge disappointment. For people like me to truly be full citizens, Canada needs to move beyond just recognizing culture.

And what might that future look like?

First of all, we’ll no longer feel the need to obsessively document how well-represented “diverse” groups are in the highest echelons of power — the Supreme Court, the House of Commons, corporate boards  — because we’ll trust the system to naturally reflect contemporary Canada. Which will also mean we’ll no longer see headlines like this one from CBC: “As Jagmeet Singh steps forward, is Canada ready for a non-white federal leader?”


We won’t need initiatives like name-blind hiring for people to get a fair shot at not just public sector jobs, but jobs in any industry. Religious accommodation won’t be up for debate — if teenagers want to pray at school, instead of initiating panic around foreign tongues being spoken, parents and teachers will just be grateful those kids aren’t skipping class and getting drunk in the parking lot.

And I can stop scanning political party platforms for dog-whistle tactics, and I won't have to monitor the latest statistics on immigrants’ economic outcomes and hate crimes. Hopefully, I won't have to write any more pieces like this one.  


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