Canada has been multicultural in the past, but it is not multicultural any more
My neighbour Jiwani immigrated to Canada from Africa with her husband and three children. A medical doctor, she was barred from practising in Ontario. Jiwani set up her own business, giving classes in traditional African arts. Last summer Jiwani and her husband were awarded a prize by an association in Toronto devoted to promoting the culture of their country of origin. When I congratulated Jiwani on the award, she grew restive.
“I was very uncomfortable,” she said. “It was our country this and our country that. They called us ‘ambassadors to Canada.’ But we live here! I’m proud of where I come from, but what we need to do now is make all these different people come together to form Canada. We all made a choice. I’m Canadian now.”
Jiwani’s children regard the continent where they were born as being, in the parlance of young people in my neighbourhood, “background”: “What’s your background?” The word is telling: it suggests that national or ethnic origin, although not forgotten, is of secondary importance to the role the individual plays in the present. This is a far cry from the old Canadian mosaic, in which people were presumed to cling for generations to their cultures of origin.
In the late 1990s I lived in London, England. With its rigid class structures, suspicion of foreigners and absence of rags-to-riches immigrant mythology, Great Britain takes centuries to assimilate newcomers. In East London, the differences between old-stock Cockneys, Bangladeshi Muslims and West African Christians were irreconcilable; the different groups disdained each other’s customs. By contrast, suburban southern Ontario, where I now live, combines multiracialism with cultural uniformity. Everyone, except for older immigrants, speaks with the same accent; everyone hangs out at the mall and watches American television. The espousal of “multiculturalism” by the media, as the new banner of Canadian identity, feels like a sham. Canada has been multicultural in the past. But it is not multicultural any more.
“The mosaic was the precursor to multiculturalism,” Jean Burnett writes in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Yet it may also be true that the mosaic was multiculturalism. The great multicultural societies—seventeenth-century Mexico City, late Hapsburg Vienna—are multilingual arenas in which disparate cultural elements, each retaining its shard-like specificity, collide. Canada has experienced such societies in the past. After the Laurier-Sifton migration, when the country’s population increased by forty percent between 1900 and 1910, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Swedes and other Europeans who settled on the prairies retained their differences, both from each other and from pre-existing populations of First Nations, Métis, French and British origin, far longer than would have been possible had they known television and shopping malls. This coexistence of difference persisted for decades. A few years ago I attended a panel in Montreal where writers commented on the city’s cultural identity. Refuting a question that claimed multiculturalism as a hot new development, Mavis Gallant said: “It’s always been a cosmopolitan city! Why do you think I got interested in Europe? Because I constantly met Europeans on the streets of Montreal.”
Early twentieth-century Canada, already becoming racially diverse, contained a mixture of cultures. In No More Parades (1925), the second volume of Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy of novels charting the disintegration of the British aristocracy during the First World War, the protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, is put in charge of a company of Canadian soldiers. He is startled by the Canadians’ hybridized, democratic culture: “[Tietjens] wrote a report on the extreme undesirability of lecturing his men on the causes of the war, since his men were either graduates of one or other Canadian university and thus knew twice as much about the causes of the war as any lecturer the civilian authorities could provide, or else they were half-breed Micmac Indians, Esquimaux, Japanese or Alaskan Russians, none of whom could understand any English lecturer.” In Britain, where universities were elite preserves, infantrymen who were well-informed university graduates were unimaginable. If Ford’s initial treatment of Canadian cultural diversity is ironic, his tone modulates into a kind of wonder as Tietjens surveys his men. He marvels at the hybridized Scottish-Canadian-Australian culture of a certain Private Logan, who stands next to “a lumpish, café-au-lait, eagle-nosed countenance: a half-caste member of one of the Six Nations, who had been a doctor’s errand boy in Quebec . . . Behind him, very black-avised with a high colour, truculent eyes and an Irish accent, was a graduate of McGill University who had been a teacher of languages in Tokyo . . . The man with slow, broad, brown features [ . . . ] was perhaps half-Chinese, half-Finn.”
Coming from a highly stratified, racially monochrome society, Ford’s character is struck equally by the Canadians’ hybridization and the comparative equality of opportunity they enjoy. It is the dovetailing, however irregularly, of these two elements that creates multiculturalism, which is why present-day Canadian society might be described as multiculturalism’s deathbed. In spite of currents of middle-class racial mixing, particularly between Europeans and East Asians, today’s differences don’t merge into distinctively Canadian forms of cultural syncretism, because immigrants who succeed economically mark their rise by embracing a consumerism that erases cultural distinctness. Poor immigrants, by contrast, enjoy limited access to the institutions of civil society that integrated earlier generations: public schools attended by all, good public libraries, ethnically diverse working-class districts and workplaces, reliable social programs, universities with affordable tuitions. Ethnic identity may be “background” in my middle-class neighbourhood; in high-rise towers where second-generation children face meagre employment prospects and meet few people from ethnic groups other than their own, “background”—meaning separation and poverty—is the future as well as the past and the present. Neither group’s experience could be described as multicultural.
The Canada encountered by Ford’s protagonist suffered from social inequality between university graduates—including those who were “black-avised with a high colour”—and “half-breed Micmac Indians, Esquimaux, Japanese or Alaskan Russians”; yet by the 1930s the country began to implement a social safety net and projects fostering national communication, such as the cbc. These promoted the goal of “making different people come together to form Canada.” The 1971 Multiculturalism Policy recognized a reality that was already in decline. From the oil shock of 1973 it was a short hop to the state-destroying revolutions of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, hardened by their ideological offspring, Blair, Bush, Martin and Harper. Multiculturalism was the product of an active state that created spaces in which people could imagine a shared future on their own terms. Contemporary Canada, with its aggressive ideological preference for private enterprises over public institutions and stock markets over civil society, cannot complain that multiculturalism, like many other traits of our common culture, is moribund.