Misunderstanding Canadian Multiculturalism

FEATURES | March 24, 2014     

Misunderstanding Canadian MulticulturalismIt is unreasonable to accommodate those who refuse to do so. But it is reasonable to accommodate those who wish to integrate. Quebec’s Values Charter gets this logic wrong

Over the past three decades, a small number of Western countries have opened themselves up to very large-scale immigration flows. While the percentage of foreign-born residents in the US has increased from its historic lows in the 1970s, it remains little more than 13 percent. By contrast, in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada, it is now over 20 percent. Moreover, since these countries have all abolished ethnic preferences in immigrant selection, the result has been a dramatic increase in internal cultural and religious pluralism. This has, in turn, put pressure on each of these countries to develop policies for managing pluralism and for defining the types of ‘accommodations’ that immigrants can reasonably expect from the host country.

None of this has been easy. Canada, which was the first country to adopt an official policy of ‘multiculturalism’ in the 1970s, was roiled by enormous controversy in the 1990s, as the demographic consequences of large-scale immigration began to be felt in earnest. There was, at the time, much concern that “the centre cannot hold.” In the end, though, the centre did hold: crime rates declined, immigrants continued to achieve impressive educational results, labour market participation rates were high, and immigrants chose to become Canadian citizens in large numbers. Over time, much of the anxiety about multiculturalism in Canada faded away.

Or at least it seemed to fade away. In fact, problems were simmering in the province of Quebec. They came to a head in November 2013, with the introduction of a bill in Quebec’s Assemblée Nationale aimed at banning any display of “ostentatious” religious symbols by public sector employees. If history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, then this bill seems to mark the second return of the great debate over multiculturalism that preoccupied Canadians throughout most the 1990s. The element of farce has been contributed by the rather unfortunate infographic, published by the Quebec government, showing the type of ornamentation that will no longer be tolerated among employees of the province: hijabs, niqabs, turbans, kippahs, as well as oversized crucifixes.

It is, of course, very difficult to produce big posters showing the type of clothing that is no longer welcome without suggesting, at the same time, that the people who wear such clothing are no longer welcome. Thus the Quebec government’s own communications strategy has effectively framed the policy in ways that make it seem – to the world more generally – as an expression of the crudest species of xenophobia. The expressions of pained alarm and sullen resentment that have greeted these accusations, by representatives of the Quebec government charged with defending the policy, have lent a surreal, idiosyncratic quality to the entire debate.

The underlying tragedy, however, is never far from the surface. In a country where almost the entire health care and education systems – including the universities – are squarely in the public sector, the ban may affect as much as 20 percent of the Quebec workforce. This puts many members of religious minority groups in the unenviable position of having to decide – should the ban actually be passed and implemented – whether they wish to yield and abide or else pack their bags and move to a more hospitable province (or indeed out of country). This is a particularly agonizing choice for many members of Quebec’s Jewish community, which has deep roots in the province – going back well over two hundred years.

All of this comes just a few short years after the Canadian federal government created an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, with a mandate to “protect, and advocate on behalf of religious minorities under threat” and to “promote Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance abroad.” This was all done on the assumption that Canada had its own house in order, and so could easily assume the moral authority to lecture other countries on these matters.

In many ways, the creation of this office shows how unprepared Ottawa was for the recent move by Quebec. Most Canadians had come to regard the major debates over ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘reasonable accommodation’ as having been settled. Indeed, the ‘Canadian model’ of multiculturalism has been widely touted internationally as the most successful approach to the management of cultural pluralism created by large-scale immigration flows. So what happened? Is the Canadian model of multiculturalism in crisis?

The brief answer is no. But understanding why requires a deeper appreciation of both the political context in which Quebec has introduced the bill, as well as the history of the multiculturalism policy in Canada. Quebec’s proposed charter (officially the Charter Affirming the Values of State Secularism and Religious Neutrality and of Equality between Women and Men, and Providing a Framework for Accommodation Requests, but known more informally as the Charter of Values) does in fact raise important questions about how the concept of state neutrality is to be interpreted with respect to religious pluralism. At the same time, one must not overlook the element of raw political calculation involved in its introduction. The Charter was introduced by the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ), which currently holds a minority government in the Assemblée Nationale. (A provincial election is scheduled for early April 7th.) The bill represents, on the one hand, a shift in strategy for the sovereignty movement, and at same time an important step on the road to securing the ‘winning conditions’ needed to hold another referendum on secession from Canada. Thus, beyond the substantive provisions of the Charter, there is also in the background a willingness to provoke a fight with the Canadian government, or at least to show that francophone Quebecers have a vision for their society that is so incompatible with the one found in the rest of Canada that the two groups cannot coexist within a federal state.

With respect to separatist strategy, the Charter is widely seen as a sign that the PQ is ‘going for broke.’ The party has, in effect, decided to write off the so-called ‘ethnic vote’ – in a way that it hopes will be more than offset by increased support among so-called pur laine francophone Quebecers. This, of course, is all based on a relatively straightforward calculation. On two previous occasions, PQ governments have held referenda in Quebec in order to secure a mandate to negotiate secession from Canada. The most recent secession referendum – in 1995 – lost by less than 50,000 votes. Subsequent analysis suggested that approximately 60 percent of francophones in the province had voted for secession, while non-francophones had voted against it at a rate of over 90 percent.

Historically, the PQ had gone to great lengths to present itself as an open movement, claiming that its brand of ‘civic’ nationalism was inclusive toward both English speakers and immigrants (while hotly denying that it was just another ‘ethnic’ secession movement). To be sure, this represented the open-mindedness and liberalism of the founders, but it also betrayed a recognition that, with pur laine Quebecers deeply divided and uncertain about the sovereigntist project, it would be necessary to attract the support of at least a portion of the English-speaking and immigrant communities in order to overcome the 50 percent threshold in any referendum. (Constitutionally speaking, this 50 percent threshold for a secession referendum is highly contested; it may well be higher in Canada.) Furthermore, the combination of a declining provincial birth rate and a steady flow of new immigrants has been changing the calculus in a way that is increasingly unfavourable to secession – unless, of course, the PQ can attract significant support among immigrants.

The problem with open-minded cosmopolitanism is that it risks undermining the visceral sense of ‘blood and belonging’ that animates the political base of any separatist movement. The PQ eventually pushed it too far by electing a young, American-educated, telegenic gay man as its leader, then proceeding to lose, in the 2007 provincial election, a very high number of the rural ridings that had once constituted the party’s heartland. The current premier, Pauline Marois, was elected specifically to undo the damage done during this period – in effect, to reconquer the party’s own base.

It is not an exaggeration, therefore, to say that the PQ is, with its Charter, courting the xenophobic vote. The calculation is that, with its policy of openness and tolerance, the party was losing more pur laine francophone votes than it was gaining immigrant votes. As such, the party decided that it was time to cut its losses and focus on energizing the group that PQ leaders now refer to as “nous” – an intentionally ambiguous phrase that, in the way in which party members have been using it, can best be translated as “people like us.” The Charter of Values is, on this logic, not the product of earnest legislators getting together to develop and offer, in good faith, a solution to a pressing social problem. It is, instead, intended at least partly as a provocation – both to the other political parties in Quebec and to the government of Canada.

Since the PQ has a minority government, there is no assurance that the Charter will be approved by the provincial legislature. And if it did pass, many experts consider it very unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge (although one former Supreme Court judge has publicly disagreed with this assessment). Neither of these outcomes would be unwelcome to the PQ. If the other parties refuse to pass the bill, it gives the PQ a strong wedge issue on which to fight a provincial election in order to secure a majority government. And if the Supreme Court of Canada were eventually to strike down the Charter, this could easily be portrayed in Quebec as the sort of high-handed interference by outsiders that can only be avoided through secession.

These subterranean political calculations are not the public face of the Charter of Values. Officially, the Charter is presented as a response to the failures of multiculturalism. However, none of the PQ leaders has been able to cite any conspicuous deficiencies in Canadian multiculturalism as a motivation for the policy, or indeed any evidence supporting the idea of the Charter as a remedy for such deficiencies. Instead, Marois has pointed to problems in the UK, while her officials have cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pronouncement about multiculturalism having been a failure as evidence of the need for a new approach.

The result has been somewhat baffling to Canadians outside of Quebec – that is, to see a debate that is ostensibly about Canadian multiculturalism being carried out with reference to events in Berlin, London, Paris and Istanbul, with no mention of Toronto or Vancouver. This may well reflect a studied indifference on the part of Quebec nationalists to what goes on in the rest of Canada. But it also reflects – to be sure – genuine confusion about the nature of the federal multiculturalism policy.

The history of multiculturalism in Canada begins with the adoption of the Multiculturalism Act by the government of Pierre Trudeau in 1971. The impetus for the act was the change in Canada’s immigration policy in 1967, with the abolition of the ‘nationality preference system’ that had effectively excluded all non-white immigrants from the country. Soon afterward, Canada began to see large numbers of non-white, non-Christian immigrants. This made it obvious that the bilingualism-and-biculturalism framework, which was the official government position at the time, would need to be modified in order to recognize a changing reality.

Trudeau made the seemingly sensible move of shifting the official position to one of bilingualism-and-multiculturalism. Unfortunately, and for somewhat complicated reasons, this move was interpreted by many Quebec nationalists at the time as an attempt to demote the status of French Canadians to ‘just another ethnic group’ within the country – this despite the fact that the multiculturalism policy was clearly aimed at immigrants, and that Trudeau went on to aggressively promote the bilingualism framework in Canadian institutions outside Quebec. Regardless, the policy was subject to vituperative denunciation in Quebec. Since no one was willing to stand up and defend it, it came to be seen as a dead letter in the province.

The official ideology of Canadian multiculturalism was that it promoted a ‘mosaic’ model of immigration, where people can come and keep their cultural practices, in contrast to the supposed ‘melting pot’ model in the US, where everyone is expected to arrive and become an ‘unhyphenated’ American. In actuality, over the last four decades, the two policy paradigms have had the exact opposite effect. The Canadian model, by being extremely accommodating toward cultural difference, was far more successful than the American (or the European) model at integrating new immigrants into mainstream national institutions. Indeed, the thrust of Canada’s multicultural legislation was always pro-integrationist. By generating the presumption of fair treatment in all public institutions (sometimes through exaggerated, bend-over-backwards gestures of accommodation), the multiculturalism policy encouraged immigrants to venture out of their communities – to join political parties, participate in mainstream institutions, and get jobs in places where everyone speaks the language of the majority.

The defining debate for the Canadian policy was triggered in 1990, when a Sikh officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) requested a modification of the official uniform so that he could wear a turban instead of the traditional Stetson hat. While this created an enormous backlash in English Canada, observers were quick to point out the good news – to wit, that Sikhs in Canada wanted to join the national police force. The accommodation that was being requested – which the multiculturalism policy was broadly understood to license – was quite different from the type of accommodations requested by many Aboriginal groups, or indeed by the province of Quebec, which wanted to opt out of the RCMP entirely and create its own police force.

This revealed an important ambiguity in the concept ‘reasonable accommodation.’ The kinds of accommodations requested by national minority groups, such as French Canadians and Aboriginals, were aimed at changing things so that they would not be required to integrate into majority institutions – that is, so that they could instead create their own, parallel set of institutions. The demand for modification of the RCMP uniform, however, was a sign of an immigrant group wanting very much to participate in majority institutions, and requesting a change in the dominant practices in order to remove a barrier – conscious or inadvertent – to its full integration. The fact that such demands were being made was a sign that the multiculturalism policy was in fact working.

The results of granting such requests also proved salutary. As mentioned, Canada soon became, by several measures, the most successful country in the world in integrating immigrants and achieving peaceful management of cultural diversity. There was – to be sure – considerable hand-wringing along the way – particular in cities like Toronto, which underwent massive changes in the 1990s as immigrants came close to outnumbering native-born Canadians. Still, over time, the obvious absence of any signs of social breakdown or disorder led to a sharp decline in the level of anxiety.

In Quebec, however, the demographic changes were delayed because the province imposes a secondary ‘filtre’ on immigration, which results in the province accepting far less than its per-capita share of immigrants to Canada. As such, the big changes that could be felt in Toronto in 1990 only began to be felt in Montreal a decade later. But when they did start to happen, Quebecers arguably also began to discover the virtues of the basic approach underlying Canadian multiculturalism.

Unfortunately, no Quebec politician was in a position to stand up in the Assemblée Nationale to say: “We were wrong, Trudeau was right. Multiculturalism turns out to be a great idea.” This is what led to the adoption in Quebec of what is called the ‘interculturalism’ policy – typically presented as an alternative to multiculturalism. Even though proponents of this policy make much noise about how different it is – on the grounds that interculturalism rejects the ‘mosaic’ model that supposedly underlies the Canadian approach – the two policies are, in practice, identical. Bref, the fact that Quebecers have settled on a different word has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with saving face.

Thus the status quo ante (prior to tabling of the Quebec Charter of Values) was that all of Canada had roughly the same policy toward cultural pluralism, even if it was called something different in Quebec and many people in Quebec believed that their own policy was different. That might have been the end of the story, but for one little wrinkle, which reflects an important difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Unlike English Canada, which was never a religiously homogenous society, French Quebec was, until quite recently, both uniformly and publicly Catholic. The precipitous decline in religiosity in Quebec that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s was one of the most rapid secularization processes ever recorded. This extremely abrupt and radical change was experienced by many as a cultural trauma – not least because they felt that it was coercive, as if they had no choice but to abandon their religious heritage.

As a consequence, many Quebecers latched on to France’s more aggressive ‘laïcité’ policy, which consists in enforced secularism in the public sphere rather than mere state neutrality. Part of this dynamic was motivated by nothing more than the persistent tendency, in colonial societies, to imitate the former métropole. Quebecers look to Paris – more than to any other city – for guidance on a wide variety of intellectual, cultural and policy questions, from how to design their subways to how to manage immigrant affairs.

In Quebec, however, laïcité has an extra edge to it. Secularism is not just about controlling the Catholic Church, but also about spreading the pain. “We weren’t able to keep our religion,” Quebecers say, “so why should you get to keep yours?” One can see this logic reflected in the backlash against demands for accommodation, where the outrage is being generated not by any actual concessions that have been made but by the mere fact that they are being requested in the first place. The reaction is clearly “Who do you think you are?” – as though immigrants should simply know better than to seek any public expression of their faith.

It is not difficult to see the source of this anger. No visitor to Canada can fail to be impressed by, on the one hand, the vibrancy and enthusiasm of religious communities in immigrant groups – particularly Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus – and on the other hand, the obvious signs of decline in the traditional Christian churches. This is even more noticeable in Quebec, where evangelical Protestantism (the only form of Christianity that is not in long-term decline in North America) is practically non-existent. The province of Quebec is today littered with once-beautiful but now decrepit churches and convents, being sold off to the highest bidder because no one can pay for their upkeep. The temptation to privilege Christianity, on the grounds that it is not religion but rather ‘patrimoine,’ is an expression of this sense of cultural loss. In such an environment, it is not surprising to find a certain measure of resentment directed against the enthusiastic religiosity of new immigrants.

At this juncture, the prospects for the Quebec Charter of Values are uncertain. Perhaps the best that can be said is that its future will be determined by politics – in the most raw or pejorative sense of the term. Since the proposed policy is not a response to any pressing social problem, but is rather a part of a broader political strategy, much will depend on the way in which that strategy plays out. Nevertheless, it is important not to lose sight of the underlying reality: Canada as a whole benefits from a number of highly fortuitous conditions that contribute to its capacity to successfully integrate large numbers of immigrants. First of all, Canada draws immigrants from all over the world, with no one ethnic, linguistic, or religious group predominating. This dramatically increases the incentive to integrate and learn the language of the majority, since no ethnic ‘ghetto’ is large enough to serve as a plausible basin of attraction. This makes the situation confronted by immigrants in Canada completely different from that faced by, say, Turks in Germany, or Mahgrebians in France.

Second, Canada has no problem with illegal immigration, because its only land border is with the US, while its maritime borders are remote from any populated areas. Thus it is in a very different situation than, say, the US in its relations with Mexico, or Australia vis-à-vis Indonesia. The near-total absence of illegal immigrants makes it more difficult for xenophobic nativism to gain political traction, as there is no credible basis for casting the aspersion that foreigners are ‘breaking the rules’ or somehow illegitimately taking advantage of the country.

Third, there is the fact that non-Aboriginal Canadians cannot claim to have been in the country for very long, since most can trace their ancestry back to a group of immigrants often only one or two generations removed. This makes it difficult for non-Aboriginal Canadians to claim the moral high ground when demanding that immigrants conform to the folkways that happen to have been established by early European settlers.

Finally, there is the fact that Canada has been binational (French-English) since its modern founding in 1867. It has therefore never been able to develop political institutions that presuppose a ‘thick’ shared culture, much less a shared religion. It follows that the country was already much closer to the ideal of liberal neutrality than any European country, given that it had to provide an institutional framework within which English and French could coexist; and coexist they have.

These factors no doubt contribute to the fact that even Quebecers retain very positive attitudes toward immigration, despite being up in arms about the issue of religious accommodation. But they also suggest that the structural factors all lean in the direction of a more relaxed attitude toward religious pluralism. There are some problems that, if ignored, will actually go away, and there is reason to think that, in the Canadian context, certain kinds of religious tensions are among them.

The fate of the Charter of Values will be determined by the next Quebec election. If the PQ is able to use the issue to get itself a majority government, then it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which it would let this issue go. The ball will then be in the court of the federal government, which despite having shown extreme timidity on the issue so far, is very unlikely to accept the Quebec government’s extraordinary and surprising claim that questions of minority rights should be decided by simple majority rule. If this happens, then we will be hearing about the Charter for a very long time to come.


Joseph Heath is Director of the Centre for Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

(Illustration: Thom Sevalrud)

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