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Multiculturalism – What does it mean to be a Canadian in the 21st Century?

Professor, University of Western Ontario

The question before us, I take it, centres on how we relate to the idea of multiculturalism, whether we see it positively in terms of the first principle of liberal democracy, or negatively. The first principle of liberal democracy is about individual freedom and the rule of law designed to protect it, while liberalism is an ideology, as the economist and historian of ideas Robert Heilbroner noted, supporting “a system of perfect liberty.” 

In respect to the idea of multiculturalism, if it is for good or ill, you will decide for yourself. The title of my book Delectable Lie: a liberal repudiation of multiculturalism states my view directly and unambiguously.

Let me begin by parsing the words “multicultural” and “multiculturalism.” The world is multicultural, that is culturally diverse, plural and varied. This is an indisputable fact. “Multicultural” in this usage is descriptive, not normative, and an adjective describing an objective reality of the world in terms of the multiplicity of cultures.

But from the word “multicultural” to “multiculturalism” there is a shift, and it becomes increasingly pronounced as “multiculturalism” evolves into a system of ideas or an ideology. Such a shift is a recent development, and its origin can be precisely located in time and place, in Canada, for instance, in the years immediately following the centennial celebration of 1967. Since then “multiculturalism” has acquired a distinct meaning, turned into policy by governments, written into statutes, institutionalized, and around which there has been much public investment to graft a new meaning for liberal democracy. “Multiculturalism” as an ideology and as an official policy is Canada’s contribution for good or ill and, in my view, more ill than good, to the liberal democracies of the West.

Before considering the core assumption of multiculturalism, let me very briefly remind ourselves the context within which the idea germinated and turned into public policy. The 1960s from our present circumstances of the post-9/11 world appear distant and is remembered nostalgically as the “Swinging Sixties” of counterculture in music, art, and lifestyle as man conquered space and landed on the moon. But it was also a very troubled decade. There were superpower confrontation, social unrest, civil rights movement in the U.S. turned violent and demand for greater freedom in Eastern Europe crushed by Soviet tanks, Vietnam War and protests movements against it worldwide, wars in the Middle East and South Asia, de-colonization in Africa, assassinations of political leaders, the madness of Cultural Revolution and the appeal of Maoism beyond China. In Canada the Quiet Revolution in Quebec posed new challenges to the Canadian confederation as the country experienced rapid changes with urbanization, industrialization, and open immigration from former European colonies of the third world. In Europe and North America these developments generated tensions and a crisis of confidence in politics. The devastating world wars of the first half of the twentieth century were still in recent memory of a generation who had either participated in them, or had experienced the consequences at first hand.

The situation within Canada given the growing nationalist/separatist sentiment in Quebec demanded answers. It came in the form of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism appointed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in 1963. It was from the labours of the B & B Commission that the idea of multiculturalism originated as a policy under the new government headed by Pierre Trudeau with the Liberal party winning a majority in the 1968 election. The spirit of the times when Trudeau became prime minister was tending in the direction of reform in politics and in re-writing the rules of the existing social arrangements that visualized a colour-blind non-discriminatory society, or what Trudeau termed a “just society.” The mainstream parties in Canada came to share the premise of “progressive” or reformist politics in a society open to non-white immigrants and receptive, if not celebratory, of the differences of race or ethnicity, languages and religions. Such politics tended to be multicultural, and out of this grew the idea of multiculturalism as a public policy to be crafted for Canada as a multicultural society. But the more appropriate term for describing the Canadian society would have been multi-ethnic, instead of multicultural, with two official languages, English and French.

In October 1971 Trudeau officially launched multiculturalism as a policy of his government to support recent immigrants adapt to their new country. Trudeau’s government conceived of multiculturalism as supportive of group identity in cultural terms, and this marked the beginning of the tilt for Canada as a liberal democratic society giving recognition to group rights alongside individual rights, and of government policy designed to be supportive and protective of minority rights defined in terms of group or collective identity. Between Trudeau’s initiative of October 1971 and the passage of the Multiculturalism Act in July 1988 by Prime Minster Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, Canada became the first western liberal democracy to adopt multiculturalism as a defining characteristic of the country. It means, according to section 27 of the Constitution Act of 1982 or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that the notion of collective or group identity based on ethnic origin, language, religion and gender inherent in the idea of multiculturalism has to be taken into account by the parliament and the courts in considering the fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians as set forth in Part I of the Charter.

Since there was no body of prior existing political or social theory setting forth the idea of, and the need for, multiculturalism as there was with arguments for nationalism, liberalism, and socialism derived from or based on some clearly set principles of a political theory, the public policy initiative was driven by the circumstances of societal changes in western liberal democracies. And, this needs to be noted, this idea of multiculturalism found and perhaps could find expression only in a liberal democracy in the West and nowhere else. There was the need to construct a political-cum-social theory supporting multiculturalism as public policy, and this theory-building came to ride the slipstream of the public policy initiated and crafted in Ottawa making Canada a pioneering country in this effort. The core premise of this idea of multiculturalism as official policy based on the equality principle then came to mean all cultures are of equal merit and deserving of equal respect.

This premise upon which multiculturalism as an ideology and official policy rests is false. Cultures are not equal, and in the history of civilizations we do not find any claim advanced that suggests all cultures are equal. It is individuals who are born equal in terms of possessing unalienable rights of life, liberty and property in Lockean terms, or the pursuit of happiness as the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed. This ground-breaking idea that “all men are created equal” – in our contemporary language the phrase would read “all individuals are created equal” – is a unique gift of the West to the rest of the world even though in practice, and in some cases on the grounds of religion or culture, this idea is rejected in many parts of the world. The basis of liberal political philosophy is the equality of individuals, and since only free people can be equal to one another freedom then takes precedence over equality. The assertion that all cultures are equal and deserving of equal respect can only be arrived at, if such an assertion is to be convincing and demonstrably valid or defensible, on the basis of some independent standard or criterion by which to measure or judge how cultures are equal. And what can that standard be? There are established criteria making it possible to judge the achievements of all cultures, whether in the arts and literature, religion, philosophy, technology, modes of governance, or science; but the primary criterion that makes possible all human achievement is freedom, and freedom is meaningless unless it means individual freedom. On the basis of any criterion chosen to judge cultures, what we find is the indisputable reality of inequality among cultures. This is why I contend that multiculturalism is a delectable lie, a pleasing idea that is ultimately destructive of the West’s liberal democratic heritage, tradition, and values based on individual rights and freedoms.

We have now had four decades of experience with the official policy of multiculturalism, and two generations of Canadians have come of age receiving instruction on the virtues and necessity of multiculturalism. What do we find as a result? Is Canada, and other liberal democracies, in any measureable way better today than it would be otherwise? Are we more tolerant, more accommodating, more free politically speaking as a society than were those generations of Canadians for over a century in a liberal democracy as was Canada before Trudeau initiated the policy of multiculturalism?

Since 9/11 we are less secure, our society is more divided, our freedom, especially freedom of speech as the mother of all freedoms more constrained, the prevailing political correctness more suffocating of critical thought, ethno-religious differences more inflamed, and the push for accommodating those cultures as equal to the culture of liberal democracy – mind you liberal democracy is a culture – that are more or less averse to individual freedom and gender equality has meant the host culture does all the accommodating and the immigrant cultures do all the pushing.

Trudeau died a year before 9/11. A few years before his demise in the mid-1990s Trudeau made one final visit to the parliament in Ottawa on invitation to a special luncheon hosted by the Speaker of the House to which only a handful of selected members were invited. He was asked by one of the members in attendance what were his thoughts on multiculturalism since he was its main architect. Trudeau admitted, as reported much later by the member who posed the question, former Liberal MP now Senator John Bryden, his disappointment that it had not turned out as he expected.

We will never know what Trudeau would have said if he had witnessed 9/11 and other suicide-bombings and terrorist attacks in Madrid, Bali, London, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Mumbai and the list goes on, the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in the West, and how Islamism poses the newest totalitarian threat to freedom and liberal democracy globally. We will never know what he would have said on learning, for instance, of Canadians arrested for aiding, abetting and planning terrorist acts against their fellow Canadians and that many of them were born in Canada or had come at a very young age and grew up in a country that had adopted multiculturalism as an official public policy.  We have the last major book of Trudeau besides his Memoirs, which he edited with Tom Axworthy, Towards a just society: the Trudeau years, published in 1990. In it there is only one passing mention of multiculturalism without any discussion and it comes about in Trudeau’s essay, which otherwise focuses heavily on arguments in defence of individual freedom invoking the name of Lord Acton among other classical liberal thinkers and political philosophers. It was not whimsical of Trudeau to mention Lord Acton, for Lord Acton was one of the most important liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century for whom liberty, i.e. individual liberty, was not a means to some other ends but an end in itself. Trudeau viewed his legacy in terms of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms he enacted as part of Canada’s constitution brought back from London in 1982. He believed the role of the Charter is in spirit and substance to protect individuals against tyranny. He wrote, “In the grand tradition of  the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the 1791 Bill of Rights of the United States of America, it [the Charter] implicitly established the primacy of the individual over the state and all government institutions, and in so doing, recognized that all sovereignty resides in the people.” And I might add here Trudeau understood, as his own life and living illustrated, that the ultimate minority in any society is the individual standing alone against the rest in asserting his freedom to think, to speak, to believe, to earn his livelihood and protect his property, and in a good or just society free individuals come together to establish a system of government that is protective of individual liberty. This is why multiculturalism as an idea he proposed was an anomaly. In the end he could not deny as a political philosopher that ideas have consequences, and so he came to admit late in life when asked his disappointment with multiculturalism as a public policy.

Other political leaders and heads of government in liberal democracies have been compelled by events since 9/11 to rethink multiculturalism, and we have heard from some of them. Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain, former President Nicolas Sarkozy in France alongside members of various political parties in the Netherlands and in Australia have spoken out against multiculturalism and the need to pushback, even repeal it.

The reason for awakening to the ill-effects of multiculturalism is simple, though it came to be admitted by politicians belatedly and only after the undeniable reality of what 9/11 signified. All good things in terms of social relationships among people – one may just list them – are to be found, acquired, accommodated, enriched, enhanced, shared, celebrated and protected only in a liberal democracy. The shortcomings are not of liberal democracy and its functioning, they are instead reflections of the people’s own limitations due to human failings that can be ameliorated or improved upon through education. But the key premise of liberal democracy in terms of individual freedom means that no bundle of goods whatever they are in terms of equality, justice or any other principle can be acquired by subtracting from, or sacrifice of, the principle of individual freedom. Sir Isaiah Berlin noted any sacrifice of individual freedom for any worthy cause or the amelioration of any form of misery, does not bring an increase of freedom since “a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.”

Hence, the proposition that multiculturalism as an idea is an improvement over or reform of liberal democracy is balderdash and redundant. On the contrary, the ill effects of multiculturalism by giving recognition to collectivities and conceding group demands undermine the principle of individual freedom and corrode liberal democracy from within. In defending the French law against wearing of the “burka” – the entire covering of the female body by Muslim women on the basis of cultural or religious requirement – Bernard Henry-Levi wrote, “This is not about the burka, it’s about Voltaire. What is at stake is the Enlightenment of yesterday and today, and the heritage of both, no less sacred than that of the three monotheisms. A step backwards, just one, on this front would give the nod to all obscurantism, all fanaticism, all the true thoughts of hatred and violence.”

In effect, the defence of republican principle and Enlightenment value that Henry-Levy offered by invoking Voltaire was also logically a clear and straight-forward affirmation of the fundamental values of liberal democracy. Once we assert that individuals are free and equal irrespective of their ethnicity or beliefs, we then have arrived at the summit of political philosophy since Plato and Aristotle as to how society might arrange its legal and political order. From this summit of individual rights and freedoms, any so-called advance in the name of multiculturalism or socialism or any other “ism”, ironically, can only mean going downward to an inferior or relatively degraded political arrangement.

In summing up, liberal democracy as an open society and the rule of law protective of individual freedom are not the natural state of man but historical achievements that have come about at great expense. Though their values are universal, they have been realized, if not in their entirety, at least in great measure only in the West against the indefatigable opposition of those who decry the role of reason over religious doctrines, loathe openness and freedom in favour of the closed circle of tribal and collectivist values, and denounce democracy as a recipe for anarchy. A liberal democracy does not exist as an island unto itself, secure and distant from other cultures in our increasingly interdependent world. Consequently, the culture of liberal democracy is not immune from the illiberal values of other cultures inimical to the values of individual freedom and, therefore, much precaution is needed to protect the culture of liberal democracy. Individual freedom is always vulnerable to the collective threat, and its protection requires great care and vigilance. Multiculturalism is one such threat, more pernicious because it is more insidious as people of seemingly good will in a liberal democracy are easily smitten with the idea of all cultures being equal and deserving of equal merit. Since multiculturalism detracts from liberal democracy instead of adding anything of value to it, since it corrodes the principle of individual freedom by accommodating group rights and collective identity, and since it undermines the secular principle of a liberal democratic state in which politics and religion are kept separate, I entertain the hope that enough people in a liberal democracy, such as ours, will awaken to the redundancy of multiculturalism as an idea, and also the peril it poses to individual freedom as the bedrock principle of liberal democracy, and revoke it.

Multiculturalism – What does it mean to be a Canadian in the 21st Century? was a speech delivered in a symposium organised by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Posted on on August 30, 2012

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Salim Mansur
By Salim Mansur

Salim Mansur is an associate professor in the faculty of social sciences at the University of Western Ontario, where he also teaches in the department of political science. He is the author of Islam’s Predicament: Perspectives of a Dissident Muslim and... (Read next)

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