Is Multiculturalism on Its Deathbed? (By Daniel Munro, University of Toronto)

Is multiculturalism on deathbed?

The Multiculturalism Act aims to integrate newcomers into the mainstream through ethnocultural identity, not offer unqualified preservation of those identities, by Daniel Munro

The London subway bombings in July have prompted much hand-wringing over the wisdom of multiculturalism. While questions about whether and how to integrate newcomers into mainstream liberal democratic political life have been debated for decades, the importance of that debate has increased significantly in light of the discovery that at least three of the London bombers were British citizens of foreign descent.

Indeed, many now regard multiculturalism as a liability, rather than a strength, and an especially deadly liability in light of recent events.

David Davis expected by some to succeed Michael Howard as thee leader of the British Conservatives places much of the blame for the London bombings on the British policy of multiculturalism.

In a recent interview with the London Telegraph, Davis stated that the British policy of multiculturalism has allowed “people of different cultures to settle without expecting them to integrate into (British) society.” As a result, he says, multiculturalism permitted the “perverted values of suicide bombers” to take hold in British society.

The seemingly obvious conclusion is that multiculturalism must go and efforts to integrate newcomers into a British identity should be stepped up. No more of the rose-tinted tolerance that has characterized political life for the past three decades.

While Canada has been fortunate thus far to escape terrorist attacks on the scale of the London subway bombings, that hasn't deterred many Canadians from adopting Davis's view about our own multicultural condition.

A recent poll conducted by The Strategic Council, which found that nearly seven of 10 Canadians believe that immigrants should be encouraged to integrate into broader Canadian society rather than maintaining their ethnic identity and culture, might be seen as confirmation that Canadians are fed up with multiculturalism.

Supporters of multiculturalism are pressed to offer a stronger case for a besieged policy.

Some cling to the idea that special protections for ethnocultural groups are necessary to ensure that members of those groups feel that the larger political society respects them and regards them as equals.

Multiculturalism, the defenders argue, is not the problem, but the solution to ethnocultural diversity and the need for integration.

This debate about whether multiculturalism should stay or go, however, is a false debate. Ethnocultural diversity is a fact of democratic political life that will not change anytime soon and ignoring it is not an option.

We need policies to deal with the conditions of our social and political lives as we find them rather than a nave wishful thinking about an imagined homogeneous past.

As anyone who has taken a serious look at Canada's 1988 Multiculturalism Act knows, integration, rather than simplistic protection of ethnocultural minorities, was its central aim.

Examining the multicultural record in his 1998 book, Finding Our Way, Queen's University philosopher Will Kymlicka notes that the Multiculturalism Act aimed not merely to “support the cultural development of ethnocultural groups,” but also “to help members of ethnocultural groups overcome barriers to full participation in Canadian society; to promote creative encounters and interchange among all ethnocultural groups; and to assist new Canadians in acquiring at least one of Canada's official languages.”

These are goals of integration, not ghettoization as critics have suggested.

The aim is to integrate newcomers into the mainstream through their ethnocultural identities, not to offer unqualified preservation of those identities.

To argue that multiculturalism is dead or should be abandoned, then, is to argue against a policy of integration.

But if multiculturalism is not dead, perhaps it should be revised.

It's time we adopt a more democratic approach to dealing with our multicultural reality. We should focus on improving the representation and participation of ethnocultural groups in the mainstream political process rather than offering protections or exclusions from that process.

A more democratic multiculturalism would be deeply skeptical of faith-based arbitration courts, for example, but would require a mainstream democratic process more open to the claims made by ethnocultural groups.

Democratic multiculturalism will require a shift in our ideas about representation. We must encourage ethnocultural groups to elect representatives from their communities who will negotiate the terms of participation and integration with the broader society.

And we must be prepared to accept those representatives as legitimate participants in the mainstream political arena.

Democratic multiculturalism will also require fresh thinking about the role of the media in politics.

Through a combination of regulation and incentives, we must encourage the media to devote more prime time and space to political discussions about ethnocultural concerns. Moreover, we must encourage the media to increase the participation of ethnocultural representatives in mainstream programming rather simply offering late night or early morning time slots to individual cultural groups.

But perhaps the most important change we will need to make is a change in our attitudes and behaviour as citizens.

If a democratic policy of integration is to succeed, Canadian citizens will have to be much more open than we are now to sincere and careful consideration of the political claims made by all ethnocultural groups.

We will have to recognize a responsibility to devote more time and energy than we currently do to political deliberation about what is fair and prudent in a multicultural democracy.

Indeed, if multiculturalism is feared because of its potential for marginalization and exclusion, then calming those fears will require greater recognition and inclusion.

In the end, whether democratic multiculturalism succeeds in reducing real or perceived threats depends on how well citizens fulfil their responsibility to politically engage with fellow citizens of different ethnocultural backgrounds.


Daniel Munro teaches political science at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.