Thirty Years of Multiculturalism

2012 is a year of anniversaries for Canada. From the War of 1812 to the signing of the Constitution Act of 1982, this year we will look back and reflect on what the country has become. Perhaps most notably, 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the official recognition of multiculturalism as an enshrined Canadian value. Yet now more than ever, we must use this period of reflection to consider how much farther we have yet to go.

Racism isn’t openly discussed very often in Canada. Indeed, many Canadians believe that it simply isn’t a problem in our society. Canada is widely seen, both at home and abroad, as one of the most tolerant and integrated nations in the world. It’s understandable: we are a country built by immigration, by people who have come from all over the world. Multiculturalism as a phenomenon is largely due to its successful implementation as official government policy.

Multiculturalism is a defining trait of Canada and the Canadian identity. For decades it has been a source of pride and inspiration for us, a successful experiment in which different cultural traditions have come together to create a unique national mosaic. Rather than letting this tradition slowly erode, it is more crucial than ever that we strive to promote our cultural diversity and teach its value to young Canadians.

Unfortunately, our ostensibly harmonious utopia still struggles with prejudice and hate crimes. From the uproar over the Shafia family and “honour killings” and contentious Afro-centric schooling, to the ever-present tension among French Canadians and their latent fear of being swamped by outside forces, Canada still has work to do. Much like the United States, islamophobia and distrust of Muslims as a group exists here—some studies suggest that up to a third of Canadians hold such views.

As younger demographics become more and more detached from the political process and the history of Canada’s evolution, we risk a generation of Canadians growing up unappreciative of what these policies strove to create and why they were important. People tend to fear what they don’t understand; if our young people do not understand the richness that multiculturalism adds to the national identity, we risk that intolerance might find a foothold in their minds.

Quebec is, unsurprisingly, a special case. The relations between Quebec and the English-speaking provinces has always hinged on differences rooted in culture. The current debates on the reasonable accommodation of religious and cultural minorities highlight the levels of xenophobia that pervade much of Quebec’s society. In terms of immigration and multiculturalism, successive Quebec governments have greeted newcomers with uneasy acceptance or even outright hostility.

Quebeckers, ever mindful of encroachment on their culture, have set up limits on who can come to Quebec, largely based on language and whether or not they are likely to assimilate into the francophone majority. Some politicians have even charged that multiculturalism poses a threat to Quebec, and is a “Canadian value—not a Quebec one.” For young Quebeckers who are unsure of where they stand on the question of national unity, such statements only boost the potential for prejudices to find root. As Quebec’s political power in the federation wanes in favour of the western provinces, complacency cannot let the issues the province faces be ignored—they must be tackled with a more fervent aggression than ever before.

As Canada continues to mature, the ways of the past must be adapted to create a prosperous future. In 2012, while we glorify wars and triumphs of bygone years, the quieter events—when we built the foundations of our society—must be celebrated as well. A memorial for the War of 1812 is well and good, but where is the pomp and ceremony for our social and cultural successes as a nation? Where is the push to educate children and new Canadians on values like respect, liberty, diversity and intercultural exchange? We have a government willing to spend billions of dollars to lock people up, but not to teach children and immigrants about what makes Canada great.

With 30 years of multiculturalism as policy behind us, the next 30 will be just as crucial in guiding Canadians forward. Fostering those values is the key to stopping the negative effects of racism and prejudice in their tracks, and creating a brighter future for all Canadians, regardless of their origins.

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