The Deity of Multiculturalism

The Deity of Multiculturalism
by Andrew Cohen
November 2, 2006
The Ottawa Citizen

So the government of Canada and the Aga Khan are going to create the Global Centre for Pluralism. So it will give new life to the elegant old war museum on Sussex Drive, the country's ceremonial thoroughfare. So it will celebrate Canada's commitment to diversity and tolerance. So, what's not to like here?

Nothing, superficially. It is only when you look at this enterprise more closely that it looks dubious.

Let us be clear here. The Aga Khan is a wise and an honourable man. As leader of the Ismaili Muslims, he has preached accommodation and moderation for decades. As a leading philanthropist, his projects in the developing world are innovative and progressive.

The Aga Khan admires Canada. As he said here the other day, he is fascinated by “Canada's experience as a successful pluralistic society.” It is why he is building a $200-million art gallery and spiritual centre in Toronto.

But this isn't about the Aga Khan. It is about Canada, its priorities and its self-image. In principle, there is nothing wrong with establishing a Global Centre for Pluralism. For Canadians, its raison d'etre is motherhood itself: to act as a forum for education, advice, and the dissemination of our values of compromise and conciliation in the world. Its new home will have classrooms, a research library and a theatre.

It is very nice and all very vague.

What is clear is that the federal government will contribute $30 million and the Aga Khan will contribute $10 million. Is this necessary? Canada is already promoting “good governance, peace and human development,” as Stephen Harper puts it, through its foreign aid programs.

If the Aga Khan wants to finance this admirable if ambiguous enterprise, God bless him. But the government of Canada, which has just cut $1 billion in spending, can use its resources more creatively.

Finding $30 million for this would be less offensive had the government not recently cancelled (apparently) the National Portrait Gallery in Ottawa. Or had its predecessor not killed the Canadian History Centre. Here were two badly needed institutions designed to celebrate our history and enhance the capital of a major power.

Indeed, while the government was endorsing this centre, it was cancelling scholarships that send young Canadians on internships to the United Nations or help them to study abroad. Instead of investing in education or emphasizing culture in bricks-and-mortar, the government offers a prime spot to a foundation that is already constructing its national headquarters down the street. Strange. (Nearby, let us note, are the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. That we have given these two illiberal kingdoms pride of place on Sussex Drive is just another example of a national capital with no sense of identity.)

So why do this? Probably because the Conservatives see political rewards in this kind of largesse in the country's polyglot cities. This is why the government was happy to pretend the centre was its idea, although the Liberals signed the deal in 2005. More important, the Conservatives seem to have fallen in love with Canada as the great dominion of diversity, the last, best hope of humanity. Now, they also seem to see Canada as “citizen of the world,” which has become our favourite moniker.

But while we go out to “teach” and “inspire” the world with the ethic of pluralism that the Aga Khan so cherishes, our experiment is unfinished at home. In fact, it is fraying. Novelist Yann Martel aptly calls Canada a hotel. Visitors rent rooms, go out in the day, and come back at night. Many never lose their prejudices. No one here challenges them.

That sense of alienation is playing out in demands for Shariah law, or, even more grievously, in the ethnic gangs of Canada's dim urban corridors.

Our devotion to the deity of multiculturalism is creating a people ignorant of their past, oblivious to the duties of citizenship, and unsure of what Canada represents beyond a passport, a safe haven, an area code and an Internet address. This is why we need scholarships, museums, galleries, and other institutions demonstrating the superiority of civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism.

As historians Norman Hillmer and J.L.Granatstein tell us in their fine new anthology, The Land Newly Found: Eyewitness Accounts of the Canadian Immigrant Experience, Canada is built on immigration. It has created a rich, complex country. This is something to cheer. But as we become increasingly diverse — no country welcomes as many new citizens per capita as we do — there is an urgent need to create more common space for us to gather and get to know each other.

There we must explain our past, our principles, and the meaning of Canada. We speak so much of the notion of global citizenship — Canadians as exemplar of harmony in our big, empty land — that we have forgotten the essence of Canadian citizenship. Our promise to the world begins at home.

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.