Identity Crisis

Multiculturalism: A twentieth-century dream becomes a twenty-first-century conundrum

Under the cover of normalcy, on July 7, 2005, the heart of London was bombed and dozens of people were killed by young Muslim men who had grown up in the same environment as their victims. The process of acculturation—at British schools and, one presumes, local pubs or Soho restaurants—had failed, and Britons were left wondering how a cluster of radicals dedicated to terrorism and to distant ideologies could spring from the nation they all share.

In another sign that all is not well in the world’s diverse cities, four months later the outskirts of Paris went mad. On the night of October 27, French police chased a group of teenagers who had ventured out of their mostly Arab and African neighbourhood into the leafy suburb of Livry-Gargan. The pursuit turned deadly when three of the youths hid in a power-generation facility and two of them were electrocuted. Within four hours of this tragic accident, the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois (and adjacent communities) erupted in violence. In scenes reminiscent of Detroit and Los Angeles during the 1960s race riots, over 9,000 cars and 200 buildings were torched. France has been on edge ever since. An orchestrated attack by a terrorist cabal had besieged London, but in France something equally ominous had occurred: entire neighbourhoods of poor and alienated immigrants had protested their sense of isolation and disenfranchisement in a binge of wanton destruction.

Six weeks after the French riots, halfway around the world, roughly 5,000 white Australians took to the beaches of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, to attack people of Middle Eastern origin. Organized through text messaging and the Internet, this was a planned assault by aggrieved whites demanding, essentially, a return to Australia’s whites-only immigration policy. The country had abandoned this openly exclusionary approach to immigration in 1973 and today Australia, along with Canada, has the most aggressive per capita immigration targets in the world. Prior to last November’s outbreak of sectarian violence, Australia also had a growing international reputation for peaceful integration. The thugs who descended on Cronulla, obviously, did not endorse this national self-image.

Canada has long considered itself immune to violence rooted in ethnic divisions. By enshrining multiculturalism in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by promoting policies of inclusion, the argument goes, our country has created a peaceable kingdom and a model for how to manage diversity. Will Kymlicka, a Queen’s University professor of philosophy and one of Canada’s foremost authorities on multiculturalism, states that while the “actual practices of accommodation in Canada are not unique, Canada is unusual in the extent to which it has built these practices into its symbols and narratives of nationhood.”

Before the 2006 election campaign got under way in earnest, Joe Volpe, Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration, sang the praises of Canadian multiculturalism, established an immigration target of 1 percent of the total population (a level equal to Australia’s and triple that of the United States), and announced a goal of attracting 340,000 immigrants per year by 2010.

With an aging workforce, declining birth rates, and concerns about retirement pensions, one might expect generalized support for increased immigration. But research conducted in 2005 by my polling and market-research firm, the Strategic Counsel, suggests that Canadians are far from sanguine about the country’s increasing diversity. Fewer than half of those surveyed believe that Canada is currently accepting “the right amount” of immigrants, and among the remainder the overwhelming view is that we are accepting “too many” rather than “too few.” Forty percent also express the view that immigrants from some countries “make a bigger and better contribution to Canada than others.” The breakdown is disturbing: almost 80 percent claim that European immigrants make a positive contribution, the number falling to 59 percent for Asians, 45 percent for East Indians, and plummeting to 33 percent for those from the Caribbean.

In his landmark investigation, Multiculturalism: The Politics of Recognition, philosopher Charles Taylor points out that equal treatment often requires treating people in a “difference-blind fashion”—that is, “the other” must be respected in his or her historical and cultural fullness. But, when asked what the focus of multicultural policy should be, 69 percent of Canadians say immigrants should “integrate and become part of the Canadian culture,” rather than “maintain their [own] identity.” To some extent, it seems that Canadians, like their brethren in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, have had their fill of multiculturalism and hyphenated citizenship.

While visitors often marvel at the multicultural mix evident on our city streets, there is growing evidence that Canada’s fabled mosaic is fracturing and that ethnic groups are self-segregating. In 1981, Statistics Canada identified six “ethnic enclaves” across the country, i.e., communities in which more than 30 percent of the local population consisted of a single visible minority group. According to a recent StatsCan report, titled “Visible minority neighbourhoods in Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver,” that number had exploded to 254 ethnic enclaves by 2001. Not all of these communities are poor—for example, Richmond, British Columbia, and Markham, Ontario, whose Asian populations top 50 percent, are middle to upper-middle class—but an alarming number of them consist of people whose incomes fall far below the Canadian average. Despite good efforts and well-intentioned policies, poverty and disenfranchisement in Canada are becoming increasingly race-based.

In Toronto, after a run of black-on-black violence and the random Boxing Day murder of fifteen-year-old Jane Creba, poverty advocates and ethno-cultural groups insisted that unequal access to jobs, a lack of community-based programs, and racism were plaguing the black community, especially its young men, who, seeing no future, were lashing out. While politicians treaded gingerly around the notion of race-based violence, on the streets and in homes anxious city dwellers were saying enough was enough, demanding tough justice for anyone caught with a gun, and asking whether young black men would ever be capable of integrating into mainstream society.

When, it appears, dramatically disenfranchised groups—whether they be in East London or on the periphery of Paris or in Toronto—cease to have a stake in, or feel responsible for, their country’s civic culture, they are at risk of turning to violence. Over the coming years, Canada’s ability to accommodate diversity is sure to become a central issue. As is the case in England, France, and other advanced liberal democracies, national unity in Canada is threatened by the growing atomization of our society along ethnic lines.

Consider the pattern in Britain. Following World War II, the United Kingdom granted “unlimited right of entry” to former colonial subjects. Its Nationality Act allowed over 300,000 West Indians to enter Britain between 1948 and 1962, with similarly large numbers coming from India and Pakistan. While the policy was generally assimilationist, visible inequality and violent outbreaks in “coloured communities” fed concerns that the complexion of British society was changing too rapidly. This led to the passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, which severely restricted the flow of new arrivals from former British colonies. But numerous ethnic communities had already put down roots, expanded, and, as the years went by, attempted to establish themselves in British society. In 1981, riots in the Brixton area of south London (followed by more race-based riots in Birmingham and other English cities) contributed to more restrictive immigration.

Clearly, the integration of visible minority groups was posing special challenges, but Britain remained reliant on immigrant labour and could not simply close the doors. In the early 1990s, it addressed the issue by shifting toward Canadian-style multiculturalism, and by promoting the virtues of ethnic identity and diversity to mainstream society. More and more, mosques, temples, and other icons of ethnicity began sprouting up in British cities as visible minorities were encouraged to retain their customs and traditions. Grumblings about ethnic neighbourhoods continued but, as international markets soared and people spoke openly of the advantages of a new cosmopolitanism, criticism was muted—until last summer. Since the London bombings, British politicians across party lines have suggested that the traditional explanations for unrest and violence—poverty, inequality, etc.—cannot explain the suicidal rage of the bombers. Many argue that, within the context of a wholesale re-evaluation of citizenship and loyalty to state, the answer must lie in the very policies designed to encourage multiculturalism and celebrate diversity.

But the French situation undermines this interpretation. France has remained staunchly assimilationist. While it has opened its doors to immigrants (and former colonials) from North Africa and the Middle East—again, largely in response to shortages of unskilled labour—the emphasis on speaking French has been resolute, and little truck has been given to the construction of ethnic shrines or the wearing of foreign cultural iconography. Often criticized for being rigidly chauvinistic, France nonetheless established a relatively firm contract with new arrivals and refused to accept notions of hyphenated citizenship. One would therefore expect that if outbreaks of violence did occur, they would not be so clearly rooted in ethnicity. And yet France—like Germany, Holland, and other European countries—is now riven by colour-line politics, and the engrained sense of alienation among ethnic groups is profound.

In England and France, it appears that the recent violence is rooted in second-generation visible-minority groups with little fealty to their adopted state (and in Australia, in what immigration policy is doing to the nation). And there is growing concern that a similar sense of alienation is developing among the same class of people in Canada.

From the beginning, and for generations, immigration to this country was based on our most fundamental need—to populate and settle the unwieldy geographic mass that was to become Canada. The nation was not born of a revolution or forced to recreate itself after an empire’s passing. Rather, it was perceived as a blank slate where, owing to a harsh climate and endless land, nation-building itself became the founding mythology. Formed after the US Civil War, or the “war between the states,” Canada was organized around weak provinces and a strong federal government—a source of benevolence at the centre that would knit the regions together through massive projects such as the national railway. Immigration was one of Ottawa’s chief responsibilities; its policies were openly integrationist and designed for those eager to assume Canada’s monumental challenge. So, early in the twentieth century, Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government set out to populate vast territories by importing “men in sheepskin coats.” Ukrainians, Norwegians, Germans, and other almost exclusively European immigrants responded to the call and began descending on Canada’s ports, eager for the long trek to the West. This flood reached its peak in 1913, when 400,810 immigrants—the equivalent of 1.5 million today—arrived on our shores.

Growth through immigration continued until the combined impact of the Depression, racism, and World War II caused Canada to effectively shut its doors to outsiders. But, as was the case with Britain, the war had depleted our store of labour. With millions across Europe seeking safe haven from poverty and starvation, and Canada overdue to restart its nation-building project, by the mid-1940s the immigration taps were turned on once again. Bolstered by its reputation as a liberator, Canada attracted Italians, Portuguese, Greeks, and other Europeans to its flourishing urban centres. As is reflected in the 1952 Immigration Act, entry into Canada was deemed a privilege and individuals could be barred based on ethnic affiliation. Immigration was now clearly controlled through country-of-origin quotas, which actively restricted non-white immigrants and implicitly validated the notion that nation-building requires assimilation. While still diverse, Canada grew as a white, European, and Christian nation of immigrants grateful for the opportunity to start over in a new land. And, most crucially, the federal government retained its role as central provider, thereby encouraging immigrants to develop a strong sense of civic nationalism.

By 1961, 97 percent of all immigrants came from Europe, but Canada’s openly assimilationist approach began to shift in 1967, when country-of-origin quotas were replaced by a more meritocratic points system. The impetus for this change came from many quarters, including Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s early 1960s criticism of South Africa’s apartheid regime, Lester Pear-son’s peacekeeping initiatives, and Canada’s increasing involvement in the Commonwealth. Within a few short years, the impact was dramatic. West Indian immigration to Canada, for instance, ballooned from 46,000 and 3 percent of the total (many of whom were white) in the 1960s to nearly 160,000 and 11 percent in the 1970s (almost all of whom were black). But, despite its growing diversity, to a large extent Canadian-style multiculturalism emerged less out of a sense of global citizenship than from a need to deal with a pressing domestic issue: Quebec.

Alarmed at the rise of nationalist sentiment during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, in 1963 the federal government launched the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Its thinly veiled objective was to dissipate Quebecers’ sense of being a conquered nation and replace the notion of “English Canada” with a bold new pact between two founding peoples. Canada would be defined by two languages and two cultures, co-existing within a federalist framework. This approach might have tempered the flames of separatism had the process not been hijacked by swelling numbers of non-British and non-French immigrants, who failed to see themselves reflected in the new vision. As Will Kymlicka wrote in 2004, “[New Canadians] worried that government funds and civil service positions would be parcelled out between British and French, leaving [white] immmigrant/ethnic groups on the margins.”

Confronted by an organized ethnic lobby, the government changed the terms of reference of the commission and, in the end, declared that Canada would be a multicultural society within a bilingual framework. The commission promoted the view that immigrant groups would overcome the obstacles posed by a new home and, over time, integrate, just as they had always done. Indeed, the entire genesis of the 1971 official Multiculturalism Policy suggests some ambivalence or confusion about embarking on a new national concept and a certain naïvet in the assumption that settlement would proceed largely as it had historically.

Our Centennial celebration, Expo 67, drew the world’s attention to Canada, a progressive, modern state that promised universal health care, low university tuition fees, and jobs. This, combined with suggestions of a cultural mosaic, attracted large numbers of immigrants throughout the 1970s. The recession of the early 1980s stemmed the tide, but the notion of Canada as a cosmopolitan, caring, and multicultural society became even more concrete in 1988, when Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. Aggressive immigration targets and multiculturalism gained non-partisan support and became politically unassailable.

In 1984, Canada admitted only 88,239 immigrants, but the years following saw increased numbers, and by 2001, some 5.4 million Canadians aged fifteen or older were foreign-born—18.4 percent of the population. This represented the highest rate of diversity in seventy years; in Ontario and British Columbia, the figure reached nearly 35 percent.

The most significant change over the past two decades has been the increase in visible-minority immigration. In 2004, only 20 percent came from Europe, while nearly 50 percent came from China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Korea, or Iran. For the moment, non-white Canadians represent approximately 16 percent of the population. But with more inflow, and with first-generation immigrants raising families, this figure will increase significantly in the coming years.

Recognizing that visible-minority groups faced unique obstacles to integration, the Heritage Department conducted a formal review of multicultural programs in 1996. The result was a more assertive mandate: “to foster an inclusive society in which people of all backgrounds, whose identities are respected and recognized as vital to an evolving Canadian identity, feel a sense of belonging and an attachment to this country, and participate fully in Canadian society.” The new thrust was directed at non-immigrant society, at getting it to respect and encourage diversity. In fact, through the 1990s, the government directed funding to ethnic organizations and insisted that public institutions such as the civil service and the crtc reflect the ethnic diversity of the country through their hiring practices. Whereas the goal of past initiatives was clearly integration, Canada had evolved into a state that promoted hyphenated citizenship.

The changes were controversial. Over and above critiques that hiring quotas inevitably lead to reverse discrimination, there were questions about whether encouraging the retention of ethnic identity would drive visible-minority groups away from mainstream society. Examining the United States, American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote of a “cult of ethnicity” that “exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonism, drives even deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities. The endgame is self-pity and self-ghettoization.” Schlesinger’s critique resonates in Canada. Recent settlement trends suggest that so-called ethnic box settlements are becoming prevalent.

In the Canadian context, as Ottawa continued devolving powers to the provinces, the sense of nationhood receded in significance. When the issues directly affecting people’s lives—health care, education, cities—are overwhelmingly controlled by the provinces and there is an absence of large-scale, nation-defining projects (to follow the historic examples of the railway, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, medicare), the creation of a coherent national vision becomes difficult in the extreme.

Twenty years ago, roughly half of the immigrant population gravitated to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. Today, nearly 80 percent does—and this is 80 percent of a much larger total. Within these growing urban centres, immigrant groups are clustering in tightly knit, ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods partly because, according to the government’s own studies, many ethnic groups feel out of place in Canada. Their first loyalty is to their group, and, against a history of the children of immigrants “moving out,” today there is an increasing concentration of visible-minority groups “staying home,” staying alien to host cultures and having little sense of civic nationalism.

How can this situation change? For multiculturalism to work, the native-born must accept immigrants as equals and new arrivals must demonstrate a willingness to join mainstream society by adopting the fundamental mores and values of the prevailing culture. There must also be cross-fertilization between ethnic groups and civic nationalism has to be clearly defined. According to University of Toronto sociology professor Jeffrey Reitz, recent evidence casts serious doubt that this is occurring in modern Canada. Reitz has spent his career studying the Canadian immigrant experience and, considering data on both income levels and attitudes, he believes that “multicultural policies are simply not working as well for visible minorities.” Despite targeted programs to ease adjustment, Reitz’s research shows that, unlike post–World War II immigrants, Canada’s newest arrivals are not only failing to catch up financially, but the gap between them and non-immigrant groups is widening. Social disparities are most pronounced among visible-minority groups, and Reitz’s data indicates that while “satisfaction with life” increases from the first to the second generation for white immigrants, it actually decreases among non-white immigrants.

Voting behaviour is one of many indices researched by Reitz to gauge rates of societal participation and involvement. A scant 20 percent of first-generation immigrants (that is, the foreign-born), regardless of colour, exercise their franchise. By the second generation, however, white immigrant participation rates almost quadruple, while among visible-minority groups it only doubles. Surprisingly, it appears that first-generation non-white immigrants actually enter Canada with a greater sense of belonging than white immigrants, but within a generation that feeling diminishes among visible-minority groups, while white immigrants report a growing sense of belonging and involvement.

Because immigration is most often push driven—that is, homeland conditions motivate emigration—in the main, immigrants are satisfied with their adopted country. Early on, their sense of belonging derives principally from involvement within their own ethnic communities, which Reitz reports is much higher among non-white minorities. But by the second generation, that involvement diminishes, as cultural ties loosen and expectations of their adopted home increase. According to Reitz, it is with the second generation, the same demographic responsible for the London bombings and the riots outside Paris, that ethnic tensions and alienation most clearly reveal themselves.

Unlike Britain and France, however, which began accepting visible-minority immigrants after World War II, Canada did not do so in any real numbers until the 1970s. Consequently, second-generation immigrants represent only 14 percent of Canada’s current visible-minority population. But today, two-thirds of all native-born visible minorities in Canada are under sixteen years old. Their numbers are destined to swell and, given current settlement trends and growing income disparities, Canada may indeed face the kinds of ethnic conflicts that have beset England and France. Instead of having more effective multicultural policies or greater societal tolerance, Canada has avoided these problems to date largely because it got into the visible-minority immigration game a generation later.

Political theorist Charles Taylor has analyzed the issue of achieving common objectives in a multicultural society that places a primacy on respecting difference. He concluded that Canadians can “be brought together by common purposes [but] our unity must be a projective one, based on a significant common future rather than a shared past.” Some have suggested promoting diversity itself as a rallying call for all Canadians, but, again, drawing attention to difference can undermine attempts to forge an overarching national identity. The situation has been further complicated by the emergence of intensive globalization and the necessarily diminished role of nation-states (and hence of national mythologies) that globalization has ushered in.

Canada, Britain, France, and Australia share a common dilemma. All are stable constitutional democracies that are based on the primacy of individual rights and all share secular-humanist leanings. Each recognizes the need for immigration and is coping with growing visible-minority populations, and each is struggling in a post-nation-state world where well-defined national purposes are less certain. Without grand designs or defining national projects, new immigrants run the risk of arriving and going about their business with little sense of the roles they can play in their adopted homeland. With no national mythology to adhere to, they naturally retreat to the familiar, seeking out their own communities.

Throughout Europe, nations known for their liberalism are now engaged in vigorous debate around one central question: what is more important to our national direction, inclusion under the umbrella of a unifying nationalism or the celebration of uniqueness and difference? Defenders of multiculturalism argue that these two options are not mutually exclusive and that both can be achieved by open, tolerant, and just societies. But in Britain, the decision to encourage uniqueness drove certain second-generation groups away from the mainstream and its values; in France, assimilationist policies have led to feelings of intense isolation.

In Canada, we may live in a multicultural society, but the evidence suggests that fewer and fewer of us are living in multicultural neighbourhoods. Furthermore, the tradition of immigrants clustering in a community for one generation before the next generation moves on and “melts” into mainstream culture seems to be breaking down. Large districts are evolving into areas dominated by individual ethnic groups that have chosen to live apart from those who do not share their ancestry. Meanwhile, most white Canadians would confess that the vast majority of their friends look a lot like they do and that they tend to stay within their own communities, rarely venturing into the ethnic enclaves that are burgeoning, especially in suburban Canada.

This growing sense of separateness can have troubling consequences for national identity. Just as the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated that separate can never be equal, the history of segregation teaches us that the notion of citizenship cannot survive in modern liberal societies that become atomized. The absence of interaction between groups of different backgrounds invariably perpetuates cultural divisions, breeds ignorance, and leads to stereotyping and prejudice.

It is true, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought grievances from distant lands to our doorstep. But they were perpetrated by foreigners, and it was their very “foreignness” that made their motivations impenetrable to the Western mind. When we learned, however, that the London bombers could have grown up playing soccer on the same pitches as the people they murdered and that entire neighbourhoods were burning only a bus ride from Paris’s tonier cafs, a new face of ethnic conflict came knocking on the Western door.

The events of the last year have presented the West with a conundrum: can liberal democracies, lacking a unifying ethos, satisfy the needs of societies that are increasingly heterogeneous? Bernard Ostry, one of the principal architects of multiculturalism under Trudeau, has voiced anxiety that the experiment has gone wrong and must be reviewed. Mindful, one suspects, of the example of Australia, which also opened its arms to non-white immigrants in the past few decades, Ostry is demanding a travelling royal commission. At the beginning of the last century, Wilfrid Laurier answered the question of immigration and identity by telling new arrivals, “Let them look to the past, but let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children.” The events in Sydney, as well as those in London and Paris, suggest just how imperative it is to heed his words, as inspiring today as they were 100 years ago, when a young nation trembled before the twentieth century and wondered how it would find its way.

The Montreuil suburbs of Paris, mostly inhabited by Malian Muslims / Alexandra Boulat/VII
A policemant stands alert near the Finsbury mosque in East London on July 8,
2005, one day after the terrorist attacks. / Alexandra Boulat / VII
Allan Gregg