Sunday, April 30, 2006

Official Multiculturalism

Official multiculturalism has been a success, but not in ways usually appreciated. Official multiculturalism proved to be the death nail Anglo Canadian identity based on god, king and country. As it stood Anglo Canadian values were not woven together by prominent national myths as in the United States and without official state sanction such an identity simply dissolved as Canada opened its borders to more and immigrants. Only trace elements remain.

The policy was not nearly so successful when it came to Quebec. Quebec nationalists have for decades used to state institutions to sew together a new secular identity out the historical threads of an older catholic Quebec that modernity had unraveled. Thankfully, the emergence of a large “ethnic” community has made Quebec nationalist identity based on blood and shared historical grievances into an anachronism. Perhaps with help of Harper, the sovereigntists dream may very well be realized, but it will not be the Quebec Lévesque wanted.

Official multiculturalism has done something else. It has severed as an anticoagulant, preventing a crust from forming on top of the Canadian melting pot. Canadian identity is, as it should be, a work in progress. There is no Canadian dream as there is an American dream. We are not limited that way. We do not believe in passing down a script of what it means to be Canadian down from one generation to the next. We leave it up to each generation to decide who they are through existential engagement. The process only allows a generation to do decide who they were by retrospectively looking back; for Canadians as for Hegel, the Owl of Minerva only flies at night. For those who are still the sunshine of their lives, they simply say want they know they are not, viz., Americans.

If there is a downside of official multiculturalism it is this: it has helped encouraged certain forms of ethnic essentialism. Cultural traditions are not something that can be boxed away and put in a museum. Cultural traditions are by products of a great interplay of forces (political, social, and economic) and it is these forces that give the traditions their meaning. Take the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle. Taken alone the prohibition seems strange. However, the important role the cow has played, and indeed in some parts of India continues to play in the lives of peasants, such a prohibition becomes intelligible. (Cow dung was important source of fuel and building material. Cattle were used to plow fields and of course cows are source of milk.) Removed from social-economic body, these traditions harden and eventually die.

That said, not everyone recognizes this, including it seems the government of Canada, and here in lays the rub. Things can go badly in one of two ways. Parents may force these traditions that once where alive for them onto their children for whom they never where, or children can adopt these dead traditions as means of creating an identity for themselves (e.g., the large number of North African youth in France turning to Fundamentalist Islam). The former creates generational divisions and is natural enough. The later is far more serious. I think it is safe to say that it heightens ethnic tensions, but it does something else as well. As these cultural traditions are not given any meaning by the larger societal forces, they only come to have meaning by virtue of them being practiced exclusively by a particular group and more often than not by all supposedly self conscious group members. The many people who stray from identity supposedly prescribed to them by such things as skin colour are not looked upon kindly by “self conscious” members of the same group and a whole host of names have evolved to describe them. Apple for example is used to describe a native Canadian who is red on the outside but is white on the inside. Banana is used to describe someone of Chinese origin who is yellow on the outside but white in the inside. Oreo is used to describe Black person who is black on the outside, but white in the inside. On the flip side of things, people who are supposedly not free to develop such practices are guilty of cultural appropriation.

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