By Philip Carl Salzman, Oct. 24, 2016
Today’s Canadian youth are great partisans for multiculturalism. They favour minorities in Canada maintaining the customs and languages that they brought from around the world. Only a small percentage supports the assimilation of cultural minorities into mainstream Canadian society.
This is even more true among Canadian university students, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, as I have seen first-hand at McGill University. Many of these students will go on to law school, medical school, and business school, and some will likely be our leaders of tomorrow. Will they then continue to advocate a fragmenting of Canada into multiple cultural splinters?
Teachers and professors have taught Canadian students well the ideology of cultural relativity — the notion that all cultures are equally valid and equally good. Thus, the belief that immigrants and minorities should give up their old-country cultures for Canadian culture is deemed “ethnocentric.” Likewise, the idea that there might be beliefs, values, customs, and practices in some cultures that should not be welcome in Canada is anathema. Such an idea is ethnocentric at best and probably “racist”, a favourite epithet of the “progressives” and “social justice” advocates who dominate the professoriate and shape opinion among students. Avoiding being called racist is a strong motivation these days.
However, the fear of cultural fragmentation is longstanding in the discourse about multiculturalism. In response to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1971 statement in Parliament that he was declaring “a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework,” and that “there is no official [Canadian] culture,” Quebec MP Réal Caouette argued that, “If there is no official culture in Canada, I do not see how we could succeed in really becoming a nation while we would be endowed with only a few cultures unable to get on among themselves or at war with one another. I am positive that we have in Canada a culture peculiar to us …We have our own Canadian culture.”
Nonetheless, the Canadian Multicultural Act of 1985 inscribed multiculturalism in law. The act stated in part that the government of Canada’s policy is to “recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance, and share their cultural heritage …”
Since the first exchange between Trudeau and Caouette, there has been vigorous debate among representatives of ethnic groups, academics, and Canadians at large about the relative weights that should be given to diversity versus unity, differences versus commonalities, separation versus engagement, and the collective freedoms of ethnic groups versus the constraints of bilingualism. The spectre of ethnic enclavement and separation is weighed against the fear of Anglo-French domination. Does Canadian multiculturalism as encoded offer too little, or too much?
A further issue in multiculturalism is to what extent the benign-sounding “cultural customs” compromise basic human rights. Established cultural practices from some regions, such as wife beating, female genital mutilation, forced sexual relations, forced marriages, imposition of religion-based law, outlawing of criticism of religion, the execution of apostates, “honour” killings, etc., are contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Are Canadians willing to compromise on human rights in order to accommodate the cultural customs of minorities?
The constitutionally based two founding peoples and two official languages inevitably marginalize other cultures. The official Canadian structures mandate that public life take place in French and English, and within the strictures of civil and common law. Other cultures find their places in the families, homes, and hearts of their children, and their cuisines in the stomachs of other Canadians grateful for the sharing. The pattern is clear: public life (other than restaurants) takes place in the two founding cultures. To succeed in Canada, people of minority cultures must find their way in the founding cultures.
The theoretical debates are endless, but what do most Canadians today think about multiculturalism? The Angus Reid Institute has been testing Canadian public opinion for decades, and has recently offered a set of comprehensive findings. Among them are the results of questions on diversity. Respondents were asked to choose one of the following statements:
- Minorities should do more to fit in better with mainstream Canadian society.
- We should encourage cultural diversity with different groups keeping their own customs and languages.
Testing opinion on diversity in 1993, Angus Reid found that 57 percent of Canadians thought minority groups should “try to change to be more like most Canadians”. The findings of the 2016 survey showed a larger consensus — 68 percent of Canadians thought that “minorities should do more to fit in better”. Furthermore, this position is the strong majority view in voters (2015) for all three of the major political parties: Conservative Party of Canada, 86 percent; Liberal Party of Canada, 61 percent; New Democratic Party of Canada, 60 percent. The notable contrast is with the “melting pot” Americans, only 53 percent of whom opt for assimilation, while 47 percent support separation, with supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton having extreme reverse preferences.
While Canadians at large felt strongly that “minorities should do more to fit in better with mainstream Canadian society”, this view was not held equally by all age groups. Only 47 percent of respondents 18-34 years of age held a preference for assimilation, while 69 percent of those 35-54, and 83 percent of those 55 and over favoured it. The views of my students at McGill University are closest to the youngest cohort in the survey, although they favour encouraging cultural diversity even more. Cultural discourse in our education system is dominated by relativism. Should we be concerned that our education system is inculcating views, such as cultural relativism, that most Canadians do not share or approve of?
Do Angus Reid’s findings indicate that Canadians at large reject multiculturalism? The 2012 poll found that 58 percent of Canadians prefer the melting-pot model of minority assimilation, while only 30 percent support the “mosaic” separation model. However, 62 percent of Canadians thought that multiculturalism was good for Canada. It appears that Canadians are in favour of a multiethnic society, but they want minorities to assimilate into mainstream Canadian culture. By multiculturalism, Canadians mean: “We welcome people from all cultures to come to Canada and become Canadians.”
Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He has served as Senior Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Open Society International Scholar at the American University of Central Asia, Erasmus Mundus International Fellow at the University of Catania, and visiting professor at the University of Sydney. His latest book is Classic Comparative Anthropology: Studies from the Tradition. He is a member of the Academic Council of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, a Fellow of the Middle East Forum, and a board member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.