Multiculturalism Under The Microscope

REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION: Multiculturalism under the microscope in Quebec

Oct 17, 2007 04:30 AM
George Abraham

OTTAWA Think of Canada as a huge social experiment with 32 million people. New people are being introduced every year at the highest rate in the world and predictably, there is concern about how the new and old get along.

Thirty-five years after defining multiculturalism for the world, Canada is having second thoughts. It's no longer about what Canadians can do for new immigrants; it's about what new immigrants should do to fit in. The new mantra might well be “reasonable accommodation.”

The cradle for this shift is in Quebec where a government-appointed commission on the obligations of society toward new immigrants is changing the terms of the debate. Headed by a renowned sociologist-philosopher duo, the Bouchard-Taylor Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences is travelling across the province tapping public opinion.

In one of its first hearings, the commission heard from a public servant who was clearly tired of what she saw as the Canadian tendency to bend over backward. “We took Catholicism out of our lives, but left all this room for all the other religions … apparently, it's not going both ways. People are expecting to arrive here and still live like they are in Baghdad,” she lamented.

More recently, a 67-year-old retired engineer in Saguenay said, “I fear that foreigners will impose their values on us, so we'll lose our place. It's like I invite someone into my home and he slowly shows me the door.”

They seemed to echo Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who framed the issue with the following words: “Our charters have always aimed to protect minorities against abuses by the majority. They were never designed to allow the contrary.”

The leader of the separatist Parti Qubcois went even further. “Let's stop being afraid … Afraid to seem intolerant,” Pauline Marois told her party.

Similar thoughts are being expressed elsewhere, particularly in much of Western Europe, the U.S. and Australia. But besides being a prelude to a wider, national debate across Canada, it is happening in a country that gave the world the concept of multiculturalism and itself stands as a poster child for its merits. Canadians rarely thump their chests, but when they do they like to crow about their invention of the policy of multiculturalism.

The word itself is open to interpretation and means different things to different people. It can mean tolerance, a “mosaic” model for assimilation, pluralism, but above all, the equality of all cultures. According to Janice Gross Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto and a contributor to the recently published Uneasy Partners: Multiculturalism and Rights in Canada, “Canadians of all backgrounds and cultures are free to be themselves.”

That is what the author of the policy, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, probably had in mind when he legislated it in 1971. But the world has changed since then. With Chinese and Indian nationals dominating new arrivals that constitute the highest rate of immigration in the world, making a fifth of the population now foreign-born, newcomers have become a more visible presence in Canada. Importantly, the majority of them are not of English or French stock, and few see the need to “fit in,” that is, narrow the differences between themselves and the native-born.

In Uneasy Partners, Stein sees a natural evolutionary process unfolding. “Now, I would argue, we are in a second stage, where a deeply embedded culture of individual rights is challenging cultural and religious practices that infringe on our concept of equality. Our perpetual dialogue on these issues has shifted direction.”

And shifted it has, most dramatically in Quebec, which has been quite literally on the rough edge of tensions between old and new Canadians. As one of the commissioners, Gerard Bouchard, said before the show hit the road, “It's clear that there's a minority, maybe a tiny minority, here in Quebec that has reached a point of exasperation.”

Bouchard has said that Quebecers themselves may be a tad insecure about their future as a secular, French-speaking nation. Unlike the people of other provinces, the people of Quebec “were not raised with a vision of plurality,” he surmised.

While there is no general angst over the number of immigrants Quebec receives 59 per cent of Quebecers said in a recent survey that they are happy taking in 45,000 of the 250,000 arrivals to Canada every year there is clearly an attitudinal shift underway.

If Quebec chooses to change its terms of endearment, it cannot be long before the rest of Canada begins posing exactly the same questions that Quebec is confronted with today.