New Internationalist

No room for bigots

Issue 422

How have Canadians managed to make a go of multiculturalism when it’s in trouble almost everywhere else? Haroon Siddiqui on the reasons to cheer (and what bothers Muslims most about the country).

ILLUSTRATION: Stephen Munday / www.threeinabox.com
ILLUSTRATION: Stephen Munday / www.threeinabox.com

Multiculturalism is being trashed in Europe. My Canadian view of that is:

a) Europeans are abandoning what they never had; if, by multiculturalism, we mean the official recognition and promotion of the equality and dignity of all groups and cultures, rather than a feel-good policy which celebrates urban cosmopolitan exotica but camouflages the domination of majority mores on minorities – politically, economically, culturally and socially, and:

b) Multiculturalism, long a lightning rod for nativists against immigrants, is the smokescreen Islamophobes use to demonize Muslim minorities and Islam.

Canada has not been immune from Muslim-bashing or some of the excesses of the war on terror. But being the world’s only constitutionally multicultural country, it has withstood such attacks well.

All the familiar, facile charges against multiculturalism – that it allows importation of unacceptable alien practices; erodes common values; encourages ethnic ghettoes, dual loyalties and fifth columnists; compromises national security; increases political correctness and constrains free speech; blurs the distinction between church and state, by permitting increasing religiosity in the public square; etcetera, etcetera – have been wrestled to the ground more successfully in Canada than in Europe.

As Canada’s leading expert on multiculturalism, Will Kymlicka, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University, has written: ‘Too often these debates have been initiated by right-wing commentators as thinly disguised strategies for attacking immigrants, particularly Muslims, accompanied by apocalyptic predictions about how Canada’s experiment in multiculturalism is on the verge of collapse.’ It isn’t. On the contrary, it has emerged stronger, as we shall see.

Unlike Europe but like the US, Canada considers itself an immigrant nation, in need of immigrants (current intake: 250,000 a year, on a population of 33 million). Given that more than 60 per cent of our skilled labour requirements are being filled by the foreign-born, Canadians recognize that we invite immigrants because we need them, not because we want to do them a favour (that, we could say, we do with refugees, about 15,000 a year).           

Respect for difference

Unlike the US, Canada never did separate church and state, and it also recognized group rights. The 1867 British North America Act (BNA), the defining document of the Canadian dominion, codified specific rights for our Aboriginal peoples, and also English-speaking British Protestants and French-speaking Catholics – on the basis of race, religion and language. The DNA of BNA being diversity, its natural outgrowth was the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 27: ‘This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians’), and the 1988 Multiculturalism Act (‘Multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage’).

Canada has since developed considerable case law on what constitutes ‘reasonable accommodation’ between the majority and minorities. Even more significantly, multiculturalism has nudged Canadians of long-established ancestry into making the difficult psychological journey towards accepting all Canadians as equal.

The debate over ‘Who’s a Canadian’ or, more controversially in secessionist Quebec, ‘Who’s a Quebecois’ has long been resolved. A Canadian is one who lives legally in Canada, and a Quebecker is a Canadian who resides in that province, period. There are no second-class citizens.

A minority of Canadians have found this hard to swallow. Periodically, some float such hare-brained ideas as ‘a social contract’ between ‘the host society’ and ‘the newcomers’, setting out some ill-defined ‘limits’ on this or that immigrant religious/cultural behaviour. But we already have a social contract: the rule of law. That and that alone is our common holy parchment. There can be no arbitrary limits set by self-appointed busybodies on what minorities or new Canadians can or cannot do. How far can respect for difference go? As far as the law allows and no further. This is not a negative assertion. Rather, it is one of the core constitutional values of modern Canada: the strong shall not dictate to the weak on what is, or is not, acceptable. The power to define citizen conduct rests only with the people’s parliaments – federally, provincially and municipally.

As Canadian as…

Canadians generally recognize that:   

• Immigrants cannot be expected to develop amnesia the moment they land in Canada. The nation is the richer for their imported memories, ideas and cultures, so long as these do not violate the law.

• Immigrants have always congregated with their own kind, in so-called ‘ethnic ghettoes’, where they find help in the initial settlement process, thereby reducing the burden on the state.

• In an immigrant nation, tensions are inevitable between the native-born and the foreign-born, older and newer immigrants, and the ancestral practices of immigrant parents and their Canadian-born or -bred kids. The push-pull of ‘old country’ values and new is the alchemy of a living, breathing culture, as opposed to an ossified one. National identity is constantly evolving, as each generation feels free to redefine the country and does, for the better.

• The best tool of integration is a job commensurate with one’s skills. Employers who discriminate on the basis of race or religion should be prosecuted.

There is no forced nationalism/patriotism. A national competition on CBC-Radio, asking listeners to finish the phrase ‘As Canadian as…’, produced this winning entry: ‘As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.’ Despite that, or because of it, some of the most moving tributes on Canada Day rallies come from new Canadians. The proportion of immigrants who become citizens is higher in Canada than anywhere else, as also the proportion of members of Parliament who are foreign-born. No racist, anti-immigrant party can hope to win a national election. 

The Canadian approach to Quebec separatism is instructive as well. Joe Clark, Conservative Prime Minister for a brief period (1979), used to say that the best way to deal with Quebec was to resist the temptation to define the relationship; better keep it vague. That wisdom found its way in to the Clarity Act (1999), which says that Quebeckers have a perfect democratic right to separate, so long as they vote in a referendum on a clear question and approve it with a clear majority, left undefined, to be argued as and when the occasion arises. In the meantime, separatists can and do contest national elections, winning a sizeable bloc of seats in Parliament where they passionately argue against Canada – and get paid for doing so. Polls show that Quebec separatism is now at its lowest in 40 years.

Righting wrongs

None of this is to pretend that Canada has been free of controversy over multiculturalism – far from it. Rather, it is to assert that the pendulum does often swing back to the moderate middle, even in this era of tough security provisions at the expense of civil rights.

Canada alone among Western nations established a judicial commission to probe a post-9/11 tragedy, the torture of Ottawa software engineer Maher Arar in a Syrian jail. He was passing through New York airport in the fall of 2001 when American officials, after consulting their Canadian counterparts, put him on a secret CIA flight to Damascus, where he was held for 374 days. The commission exposed Canadian and US complicity in his ‘extra-rendition’ and torture. Ottawa was forced to offer him an official apology and Canadian $10 million (about US $7.75 million) in compensation.

Similarly, a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, appointed to inquire into the plight of three other Arab Canadians who allegedly suffered the same fate as Arar, found that they were indeed tortured in Syria and Egypt, with Canadian complicity, albeit indirect. 

These cases solidified the principle that naturalized Canadians are as entitled to the full protection of the law and vigorous Canadian diplomatic representation as native-born Canadians.

Similarly, Islamophobic rhetoric, much in evidence in several public policy debates, has been exposed for what is: bigotry that could not be allowed to drive decision-making.

There was the highly charged 2005-06 debate in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, about the possible introduction of so-called sharia law. It was pointed out that no sharia law could possibly have come to Canada, even if some of its proponents foolishly thought so and its critics gleefully echoed them. Rather, the crux of the matter was Ontario’s 1991 Arbitration Act – specifically, whether it applied equally to all religions. Since Christians and Jews had been practising religiously informed arbitration in business disputes and such family matters as divorce and the distribution of marital assets, why not Muslims? It could not be credibly argued that Muslim women faced any more pressures to conform than women of other faiths. The Ontario government, therefore, had no choice but either to allow such arbitration for all faith groups or to allow none at all. It opted for the latter. Those hoping to penalize Muslims alone were defeated.

Hijab hysteria

Then there was the 2007-08 ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate in Quebec which was anything but. The municipal council of the town of Herouxville passed a code of conduct for immigrants – thou shall not stone women to death or circumcise them, nor wear the hijab or carry the kirpan in public, nor expect employers to provide a place or time off for prayers. The popular press was in a tizzy over incidents involving Orthodox Jews and Muslims. A downtown Montreal yeshiva (traditional Jewish school) had got the next-door YMCA to agree to tint its windows, so as not to tempt the young students to gawk at women exercising in tights. Some public swimming pools were setting aside women-only hours for Muslims. Montreal Jewish General Hospital had ejected an ambulance driver from its cafeteria for eating a ham sandwich. So on and so forth.

This prompted the establishment of a commission, co-chaired by eminent academics Gérard Bouchard and McGill University professor Charles Taylor, Canada’s pre-eminent philosopher and an architect of our multiculturalism policy. After months of public hearings, the commission tabled a bluntly-worded report. Calm down, it told Quebeckers, there was no crisis. Minorities were not making unreasonable demands. ‘Trivial incidents’ had been blown out of proportion, mostly by the sensationalist media.

The commission laid down some general rules: ‘the responsibility for integration is the responsibility of all,’ not just immigrants. ‘The desire for sameness is authoritarian.’ ‘The right to freedom of religion includes the right to show it.’ The display of religion in public spaces, in fact, advances the common good, by compelling all citizens to ‘get to know those of the Other rather than deny or marginalize them’. The hijab is fine in schools and elsewhere, as are the kippa, turban and kirpan; none violates anyone else’s rights. Opposition to the hijab, from both right-wingers and leftist feminists, is ‘often irrational’. The hounding of hijabis ‘should cease’; a democracy could no more proscribe the hijab than ban a nun’s habit, or a cardinal’s skull cap or, for that matter, a bikini.

Universities and schools should offer temporary space for prayers, while permanent spaces may be needed at ‘penitentiaries, hospitals or airports, since those there are not free to visit a church’. Requests for non-Christian religious holidays are legitimate.

However, the duty of accommodation is not limitless. ‘A request may be rejected if it leads to what the jurists call “undue hardship”, which can take different forms such as unreasonable cost, upsetting an organization’s operation, infringing the rights of others, or prejudicing the maintenance of security and public order.’ But, overall, the guiding principle should be: the more accommodation the better. Otherwise, ‘the rejection of certain requests risks producing the effect dreaded, that is, encouraging certain individuals to withdraw from public institutions and cease to interact with the common culture.’

Sound Canadian principles, all. The commission’s report fell on receptive ears, and the so-called crisis disappeared almost overnight. The moral of the story was that a liberal society must confront bigots, not cower to them.

As for the much-derided Muslims (580,000 in the 2001 census, but now estimated at 750,000) – they are a satisfied lot, according to a poll done for the Trudeau Foundation in Montreal. They register higher levels of pride in Canada than the population at large. They are less likely than Muslims in Britain, France, Germany or Spain to feel that their fellow citizens are hostile to Islam. They did cite discrimination as a problem, but ‘the thing Muslims least like about Canada is the cold weather’, just like all other immigrant groups.

If the weather is the top complaint of new Canadians, they and the nation must be doing just fine, thank you.

Vive le Canada.

Haroon Siddiqui is editorial page editor emeritus and columnist for The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and a director of International PEN. He’s the author of Being Muslim (Groundwood Books, 2006), which deconstructs post-9/11 politics. He was named in 2002 to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour, for helping to redefine the national narrative.

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