Donald H. Oliver was
appointed to the Senate in 1990. The article is based on a speech given at the
67th Annual Couchiching Conference on
Re-thinking Canada for the 21st Century
on Sunday, August 9, 1998 at Orillia, Ontario.
article argues that to be truly Canadian in the 21st century means we must find within ourselves a new
tolerance. We must fight a latent desire or need to be racist. Federal
politicians who have responsibility for immigration and multicultural policy
must ask how can we lead a physically diverse collectivity of Canadians from a
mutual recognition of a shared relationship to something called “a nation”.
For Canada to survive as a
united country, radical surgery is required in two major public policy areas –
immigration and multiculturalism. There must also be a massive re-thinking of
who we are and what we have become.
Canadians must find the courage
to re-evaluate the very notion of what it means to be Canadian, the very fabric
of our identity – our symbols, our values, our legacy. We must abandon the
established traditions of white, anglo-franco dominant culture. We must accept
an identity that includes “difference”– an identity that is fluid, changing,
migrating and that reflects the lives of all Canadians, and not just of a white
Migrancy is a fact of life for
Canadians. We move for jobs, for better schools, for better communities. Many
of our children move between two or more homes. Canada is a country settled by
immigrants, first from a predominantly European origin, then from all corners
of the globe. Each one of us comes from a tradition of courage and faith and a
common future. Our stories tell the stories of Canada. Some are over 100 years
old, and others a day.
One problem is that we are
reluctant to let go of our European British/French heritage. This tenacious
attachment to European traditions is manifested in our history of immigration
In the 1930s, non British immigrants,
including Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were denied entry on the grounds their
admittance would alter the essentially “British character” of the country. This
sentiment was endorsed by Prime Minister Mackenzie King who said: “We must
always remember that Canada is a white man’s country”. After the war came
change in Canada’s immigration policies and with that change, a new generation
of immigrants. Canada continues to change toward a population that is
multi-ethnic and migratory.
Statistics Canada reports that
Canada was home to some 3.2 million visible minorities in 1996. One in three of
these visible minorities were born in Canada. Similarly, 18.3 million people
(64%) reported one ethnic origin, while 10.2 million (36%) represented more
than one. These numbers are growing. A recent poll claimed that visible
minorities would become the majority in metropolitan Toronto shortly after the
But change has not been easy. In
fact, EKOS Research conducted a poll in 1993/94 for the federal government. Its
findings, as reported in the Globe and Mail, were that “four in ten
Canadians believe there are too many members of visible minorities in Canada,
singling out Arabs, Blacks and Asians for discrimination. Toronto, which at the
time had an immigration population of 38 percent, was found to be the most
intolerant. Indeed, 67 percent said there were too many immigrants, up 21
percent from a poll conducted just two years prior.
The city’s visible minorities
are growing so quickly that unless the problems they face are addressed,
tensions with the white population is likely to increase. Although the city
currently does much to help its diverse population, more must be done to meet
the special needs of the non-white population, which will become the majority in
about 18 months. The study, titled Together We Are One, predicts that
visible minorities will make up 54 percent of Toronto’s population by 2000.
They now account for 48 percent.
Is Canada ready for the
reality of a multiracial, non-white-controlled society? If we do not come to
grips with this issue will we see massive social unrest in our major Canadian
Some members of Toronto City
Council say the changing face of the city will cause resentment and anger among
some people. It is a shock for some people, especially the older generation, as
they look around and no longer see themselves. At the same time, immigrants
face poverty, low education and unemployment. If this situation as well as
incidents of hate activity, discriminatory practices and prejudicial attitudes
that plague our city are not addressed, it can only lead to a growing sense of
frustration. Although non-whites are nearing majority status, they are
under-represented in positions of influence and on issues and policies that
affect their lives. The Report says: “There is not an area of public policy or
public service that does not have a bearing on the municipality’s growing
The immigrant, particularly the
visible minority immigrant, has been a constant victim of racism in Canada.
According to some, immigrants are disliked for their excessive enjoyment; their
strange exotic customs, their large families, their laziness, their
promiscuity. We accuse them of loafing around, drinking beer and smoking drugs,
stealing our women, and corrupting our youth. But, paradoxically, in our racist
discourse, immigrants are equally hated for their “unnatural” capacity for hard
work, or their apparent willingness to “work for nothing” or for only
“employing each other” and thus stealing Canadian jobs.
Thus the successful visible
minority immigrant and the lazy immigrant are rendered equivalent. The
principles of our immigration policy are clearly defective. Part of racism
against visible minorities reflects a personal deficiency or weakness in
individual Canadians, but there is a larger, over-arching public policy problem
Multiculturalism in Canada is a
public policy designed to reconcile unity and diversity. It has been criticized
as being ideological, paternalistic and counter productive. Critics such as
Reginald Bibby, Augie Ferlas and Peter Li argue that it masks and perpetuates
structural inequalities, that it marginalizes so-called “ethnics” as categories
while giving token acknowledgement to the contribution of minorities to the
“mainstream”, and that, by emphasizing differences that divide, it undermines
the development of collective identification and social solidity that it
intends to cultivate.
Multiculturalism is predicated
on “equality” and “diversity” which presumes that the ethno-cultural identities
constituting the Mosaic are discrete elements with reconstituted and apparent
interests that can and should be maintained and equalized by state intervention.
Where some multicultural customs apparently conflict with Canadian laws and
customs, it provides food for the likes of the Heritage Front and Ernst Zundel.
Canadians have been reluctant to
critically examine multicultural policy. It encodes white anglophones and
francophones as the founding peoples of Canada with a polite nod given to
native Canadians. Others are left to make up Canada’s multi-ethnic character. I
feel these principles need urgent examination because, in effect, white English
and French are real Canadians and as Walcott wrote:
Multicultural policy textually
inscribes those who are not French or English as Canadians, and yet at the same
time, it works to textually render a continued understanding of those people as
from elsewhere and thus as tangential to the nation state.1
We cannot have a united Canada
in 2000 with two classes of Canadians.
But in Canada and the US, as in
all countries whose political systems are based on the rule of law, serious
public policy problems have arisen from the culturally relativistic elements
within multiculturalist doctrine. Laws have the function of regulating human
behaviour within a society but they also represent a codification of cultural
values. What does it mean for a country to proclaim itself to be
“multicultural” when the mere existence of certain laws implicitly sanctifies
one cultural paradigm and rejects all others?
In this vein, the most obvious
examples are those laws that criminalize victimless and consensual acts. In
some or all parts of North America, for instance, it is illegal to perform
physician-assisted suicide, to use marihuana, to practice polygamy, to perform
sex with a consenting but underage partner, and to solicit for prostitution.
The culturally relativist “presumption” that the value system that animates
these proscriptions is no better and no worse than alternative systems is not a
useful idea in society where laws are universally applied to call citizens.2
Under a multicultural political
system, Charles Taylor has written: “The politics of difference often redefines
non-discrimination as requiring that we make differences between groups the
basis of differential treatment.” While it may be possible to set up an odd
sort of liberal political system in which different laws apply to different
citizens, such a system would rebel powerfully against the democratic ideal
that most of us imagine.
1. Rinaldo Walcott, Black Like Who?:
Writing Black Canada Toronto, Insomniac Press, 1997.
2. Johnathan Kay, “Explaining
the Modern Backlash Against Multiculturalism, Policy Options, May 1998