Augie Fleras . . . Multiculturalism, Race Relations ..

Augie Fleras, Professor of Sociology at the University of Waterloo, specializes in Race and Ethnic Relations, in Canada and New Zealand. His books include – (with Jean Leonard Elliott) Unequal Relations: An Introduction To Race & Ethnic Dynamics, 1991 ( Prentice-Hall) a third edition of which has been published in 1999;  Multiculturalism In Canada: The Challenge of Diversity, 1992  (Nelson);  Social Problems in Canada : Issues and Challenges, 1995 (with E D Nelson);  Recalling Aotearoa: Cultural Politics & Ethnic Dynamics, 1999 (with Paul Spoonley);  Indigeneity at the Millenium : Rethinking Relations in New Zealand, Canada and Australia (with Roger Maaka), 2000

Augie Fleras bw JPEG

Augie . . . A Radiant Smile to Life
interviewed by Gehan
volume 2 #5 1993
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His actual name is Algindas Fleras and it matters little that his parents originally came from Lithuania, he came very young and is very Canadian.

His work and writings on Canadian multiculturalism have made their national and international mark in academic as well as intellectual circles.

Augie (as we now know him) is a dedicated and extremely hard working professor at the University of Waterloo, very courteous, friendly and helpful; after talking with him, one leaves with a positive, optimistic outlook on life, and a feeling that good things will happen.

So aside from the ‘standard’ data, who is he? On one of this summer’s humid evenings, we had a chat over a “not cold enough” Dr. Pepper .. and this is what he told me ..

It might come as a surprise to some people that I am officially a government sponsored refugee to Canada. My parents arrived back in the mid 1950’s from Germany, where we had been in a Displaced Persons camp.  They had, of course, originally come from Lithuania, whereas I myself was born in Germany at a DP camp, and there, spent the first four years of my life before we came to Canada.

What I remember as a newcomer to Canada? .. well .. it wasn’t a country that was especially receptive to diversity in terms of refugees, nor in terms of promoting or celebrating differences in the multicultural sense of the word.

My father was quite restricted in what he could do .. I don’t think he had much choice but to work in a mining community in Manitoba called Bissett for approximately 9 months before he could bring the rest of his family over. After a year of working in the mines, he was entitled to move to whatever part of Canada he preferred; and we ended up moving to Waterloo and have lived in Kitchener-Waterloo since.

The other thing I remember was that the school environment was not particularly friendly towards new Canadians. It didn’t help that I looked like a foreigner, and that Canada had very strong anti-Nazi or anti-German feelings as a result of the Second World War. I suppose most of us who came from “the old country” as it was called, certainly experienced a degree of typical school yard harassment ranging from name-calling and ethnic slurs to situations where it probably wasn’t unusual to get picked on and occasionally beat up by school yard bullies, because we were different. Not surprisingly, many of us tried to relinquish much of the “old country” as quickly as we could and to become assimilated in order to become absorbed and become accepted into mainstream Canadian society. I remember at the time I wanted to change my name to Al, but somehow my classmates bestowed Augie on me.

The schools were unprepared for accommodating diversity in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Because I couldn’t speak a word of English in grade 1, I was expected to simply sit in the classroom and, like a sponge, just absorb the surroundings, on the assumption that, in time, I would pick up the language and culture. The teachers could not communicate to me and I could not communicate to them .. which unfortunately meant that much of my grade 1 & 2 years were pretty much of a blurb, simply because they were not particularly memorable experiences. It was only in grade 3 that I finally began to feel relatively comfortable with my surroundings .. and with the help of a wonderful teacher I managed to overcome some of these initial barriers and to feel comfortable and a part of Canadian society. So basically there was nothing in the way of multicultural education, and I don’t recall anything remotely dealing with English as a Second Language.

Do I see myself taking a different path, had I been raised in Lithuania instead of Canada, and how different as a person would I have been … keeping in mind that I would have probably been raised in Germany had I stayed in the old country rather than Lithuania, there is no question I would have been a lot different – if only because both of my parents came from pastoral backgrounds, both were almost literally kindergarten dropouts (school wasn’t important when you lived on farms, whereas labour power was, in terms of assisting with production) – I just can’t compare what I would have been other than to assume that I probably would have followed in their footsteps, I would have been rural, I don’t think I would have been excessively responsive to diversity and I would have probably mortally feared change and would not have experienced the intellectual excitement and the growth from progressing through the various schools .. I’ll never forget the look of shock in my parents’ faces when, after the grade 8 graduation, I indicated that I wanted to continue on to high school, they were extremely surprised, understandably, because, for both of them at that time even grade 8 education was considered virtually almost King’s ransom in terms of educational attainment … even in the early 60’s I think you still had to go to school till you were 16, and so technically, everyone would have gone to about grade 10; and by the time I entered high school, it was becoming increasingly more typical to go past grade 8, and on to university, or to at least acquire some degree of post secondary education.

I had been streamed at St.Jerome’s high school into the university level of education and we took the kind of subjects that were seen as kind of important for that, such as Latin …

Interestingly, applying for university was an entirely different thing back in the 60’s .. as most universities were more than anxious to take you (after all they had all those new buildings with not enough students to fill them) going from St.Jerome’s High School to University of Waterloo – particularly St.Jerome’s College campus consisted of simply filling in a form that the teacher handed out, and, instead of going to St.Jerome’s High School in September, you ended up at St.Jerome’s College. There was no sense in applying to several universities, if you had any marks remotely above passing, you had a good chance of getting in.

There is no question that my exposure to education has had the most significant influence on my life and the kind of person that I am.

I think there are two milestones in terms of shaping this sense of multiculturalism that I feel comfortable with.  First, as a teenager, I grew up in the rebellious 60’s and early 70’s : anti-establishment was a very popular philosophy for a young person, coupled with the anti-Vietnam war sentiment and I could see that the courses I was taking reflected that personal philosophy. I became fascinated and quite immersed in Anthropology -which by definition is a study of diversity – with that implicit sense of criticizing the establishment as being resistant to diversity. I got my degrees in Anthropology in 1970, and in 1971 my M.A. in Social Anthropology at McMaster.  I was enamoured by philosophers that were very much into subjectivism: this notion that there is no such thing as absolute right or wrong but that everything depended on time and place.  In that sense, that educational background chipped away the kind of potential for authoritarianism that might have existed had I stayed behind in Germany or grown up in Lithuania, or if I had somehow never moved beyond the confines of St.Jerome’s High School and created, in my mind anyway, a climate that was receptive to diversity, to change, to novelty, to things that were unconventional. I had a real opportunity to question who I was and another opportunity to question how other people were.

The second formative influence in my life in terms of creating a fence of multiculturalism, were my experiences as a PhD. student in New Zealand.  I essentially lived and worked and became involved in the lives of the Maori people as part of my research and for three years I lived in a kind of environment that took some of the abstract ideas about relativism and diversity and put them into practice. I began to appreciate, although never to really understand, what it meant to have a radically different cultural outlook on life, and what it meant to be members of an underclass, to be looking at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Those three years also had a very powerful influence on the sense of change, because the Maori people were then beginning to undergo change in the same way that the First Nations of Canada were becoming actively and pro-actively involved in re-defining their structure and status in Canadian society.

I have trouble envisioning the same set of influences occurring back in Europe as happened in Canada.

There is another sense in which I think being in Canada has made me different than if I had remained in Europe, and that is, like many others who come to Canada, we desperately want to fit in, in the new culture that we live in, we are ashamed of our past, especially in the 50’s and 60’s when that whole assimilationist ethos was considered normal, necessary and inevitable .. I mean no one questioned it .. no one certainly was talking very much about multiculturalism at that point. If you wanted any kind of diversity you practiced it at home or at one of the local halls (Concordia, Transylvania, etc.) and that was that. The government did not publicly endorse and support diversity in Canada.

In retrospect I don’t regret getting away from the old country physically, socially and culturally. I had a wonderful opportunity to be a real multicultural Canadian, a real hyphenated Canadian, I am Lithuanian Canadian, and I still have my ethnic background in the sense that I am a fluent speaker of Lithuanian, and technically speaking, I could still fit into a Lithuanian crowd quite easily, so I still have that reservoir of ethnicity, but it isn’t important to me. I have often marveled at the fact that as a person in Race and Ethnic Relations and fascinated by the field of multiculturalism, yet I still turn my back on my ethnic heritage .. I find that puzzling, and I sort of struggle with it. Why did I not go leaping and bounding in the streets in the early 1990’s when Lithuania was one of the first countries to overthrow Russian imperialism and create a sense of identity and self-determination that was intrinsically their own? I have never been quite able to reconcile or understand that, although I suspect that when you get to the depth of what it means to have ethnic pride and identity and the sense of ethnicity – what you might be looking for is a sense of meaning in this world, a sense of purpose, perhaps more importantly, a sense of continuity in a world of change – something that is traditional and reassuring, something that you can hold on to, a kind of anchor in life – and in my case I think locale has done that for me. I have transferred my feelings of ethnicity towards having a deep attachment to my community, to Kitchener-Waterloo, that is my homeland .. it may not be the world’s most exciting place, but it is HOME !


Multiculturalism in Canada:
“The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between”
June July 1992

Professor Fleras suggests that we are beyond talking about the “pros” and “cons” of Multiculturalism. Rather we should focus on how best to manage it in a society of compromises. He also suggests that ambiguity is at the core of multiculturalism and that we should learn to take advantage of its “in-between” status.

In terms of ideology, policy, and practice, Canada constitutes a pluralistic society whose official commitment to multiculturalism is globally admired, but superficially understood. Entrenchment of multiculturalism at constitutional and statutory levels has further catapulted Canada to the front ranks of countries in the progressive management of race and ethnic relations. Transforming the multicultural focus from “celebrating  ethnicity” (with its emphasis on culture and symbols) to that of “managing diversity” (with greater attention to equality, race relations, and anti-racism) has attracted new adherents, disillusioned others. But the status of official multiculturalism has come under fire recently, with the
result that the multicultural umbrella appears in danger of being turned inside out. Much of the turmoil springs from the interplay of political, demographic, and social forces whose collective impact has created an environment both changing and diverse, yet demanding of simple answers to complex questions. In light of this upheaval and self-analysis, how do
we evaluate Canada’s performance in managing diversity along multicultural lines?

A case could be made that multiculturalism represents one of the key dynamics in re-shaping the course of Canadian nation-building. The gradual decolonization of Canada’s once entrenched anglocentrism, in conjunction with a repositioning of minority status from periphery to centre, is but one strand of this cultural shift. Under a politicized multiculturalism, ethnoracial differences are now upheld as a legitimate and integral component of an emergent, distinctive national identity. Racial and ethnic minorities are currently in a position to demand – and receive – the same rights as all Canadian citizens, in addition to ‘equity’ rights for remedying the effects of past discrimination.

To be sure, there is little tangible proof of dramatic improvements in minority-majority relations in areas such as service delivery. What multiculturalism provides, however, is a supportive social climate where initiatives for managing diversity can be implemented without accusations of “apartheid” or fear of “creeping socialism”. Nowhere is this structural accommodation more manifest than in government efforts to ‘multiculturalize’ federal and provincial institutions, in large measure by taking steps to ensure minority access (openness), representation (proportions), and equity (equitable treatment). In keeping with the ‘equality’ agenda, most federal spending in multiculturalism is currently chanelled into race relations and anti-racism, removal of discriminatory barriers, and immigration settlement and participation.

A case could also be put forward that multiculturalism is too much of a good thing – a concept that has gone too far and needs to be roped in before getting out of hand. Multiculturalism is denounced by many who regard any federal meddling as dangerous, especially in matters pertaining to the funding of essentially private matters. Others assume the worst, especially since multiculturalism originated – and continues to flourish – as essentially a political act to achieve political goals by political means. Those who perceive the ‘ethnicization’ of Canada as inconsistent with a united and prosperous society are no less vociferous in condemning the ‘madness’ in our mosaic. Also coming under scrutiny is the possibility of multiculturalism as increasingly irrelevant to new Canadians, many of whom are less interested in heritage conservation, but more concerned with the elimination of workplace exploitation and racial harassment. Still others continue to be appalled by the blatantly political uses of multiculturalism as political parties shamelessly pander to ethnic voters for re-election purposes. Evidence of such expediency suggests a growing disenchantment with multiculturalism, although recent survey polls continue to reveal high levels of support for multicultural principles.

As the sharp end of the stick for managing diversity, multiculturalism is particularly vulnerable to criticism especially when societal shortcomings coalesce around race and ethnicity. But much of the tirade is misguided and misinformed, reflects unrealistic expectations of what multiculturalism can do in a capitalist society, and may be motivated by partisanship.

Neither criticism nor praise, moreover, make much sense independent of how we perceive Canadian society (as it is or as it should be), and the salience of multiculturalism in achieving lofty goals.

There are additional drawbacks in polarizing multicultural debates. Forcing multiculture into the discourse of good or bad as mutually exclusive would appear to have outlived its usefulness. As in the case with other social phenomena (say, for example, the mass media), multiculturalism encapsulates within itself the potential to enhance and empower, yet to simultaneously detract and divide. Taken to its logical conclusion, the positive features of multiculturalism (with its celebration of us) dissolve all too readily into the flip side (with its suspicion of others); locating the balance is no less elusive under these conditions than knowing where to draw the line.

A major rethinking is thus in order: just as multiculturalism cannot be blamed for everything, so too should it be exempt from lavish praise; its influence exists somewhere “in between”. Multiculturalism is neither the root of all Canada’s social evils, nor the all-encompassing solution to problems that rightfully belong to political or economic domains. It is but one component – however imperfect – for managing diversity, while seeking to balance the competing demands of individuals, minority groups, and the state.

The in-between quality of multiculturalism is manifest in yet another way. The logic holding together Canadian society is constructed around a series of national compromises. These national compromises range in scope from balancing regional variations to the accommodation of French- and English-speaking interests. Even the origins of multiculturalism sprang from a compromise between the recommendations of the Laurendeau-Dunston report (leading to the official Language Act), and the emergent reality of assertive European ethnics, growing radicalism in Quebec, and fears of American cultural annexation. In such a system of checks and balances, multiculturalism is aptly suited in striking a workable compromise between the centrifugal forces of push (“globalism”), and the centripetal forces of pull (“tribalism”).

In short, as a system of compromises in its own right, multiculturalism provides a counterbalance for reconciling ambiguities in a society where ambiguity is the norm. Multiculturalism is ideally positioned to extract unity from various constituent elements, given its capacity for speaking the language of “in-between”. A channel for compromise is critical: Balancing opposites within a multicultural framework furnishes a symbolic rationale for straddling what otherwise would lapse into dismemberment – as the current inter-ethnic strife in Yugoslavia amply demonstrates.

To enhance its in-between status in a society of compromises, debates about multiculturalism must transcend polemics about good (pro) or bad (con), right or wrong. Immediate improvements can begin by taking multiculturalism out of the hands of politicians and putting it back into those who stand to benefit directly from these policies. Equally important is the continuing politicization of multiculturalism as race relations where debates over who-gets-what can be negotiated.

Multiculturalism must be defined as a framework for social equality and anti-racism, rather than just an excuse to underwrite celebratory pursuits.

Finally, a number of misconceptions about multiculturalism require public rebunking; among these:

a- multiculturalism is expensive (only $1 per year per Canadian in federal expenditures);
b- multiculturalism is divisive (ideally, it seeks to promote unity through diversity, participation, and sharing);
c- multiculturalism detracts from national identity (Canada’s collective self-image is quintessentially multicultural);
d- multiculturalism is folkloric (multiculturalism means business both socially and economically) and,
e- multiculturalism is a failure (diversity rarely causes conflict, conflict arises from refusal to recognize diversity).
Putting multiculturalism to work on behalf of all Canadians will come about only when these fallacies are confronted and defanged.

What lies in store for the future of multiculturalism in Canada? With many of Canada’s sacred cows undergoing scrutiny and debate, multiculturalism should not be exempt from this dialogue if we wish to keep it fresh and relevant.

Key questions include: While sound in theory, is multiculturalism implementable at a time of economic constraints, public backlash, and managerial resentment over power-sharing and decision-making space? Will too much fawning over multiculturalism distract from race relations and anti-racism agendas? Are we about to witness the eventual collapse of multiculturalism into little more than a superficial sheen that camouflages gaping cleavages while shoring up a rapidly fading national dream and a tacit commitment to assimilation?

We are in no position to predict the future of multiculturalism; the pace of change should disabuse us of that notion. What we can safely foresee are increased pressures on authorities to bring multiculturalism into line with the realities of the new mosaic. The race relations and anti-racist dimensions of multiculturalism will receive even greater attention with the expanding multi-racial character of Canadian society. Learning to defuse intergroup tensions by harnessing them into productive channels will no longer be dismissed as an option or luxury, but a necessity for survival during the 1990’s. As the bloodshed and destruction in Los Angeles has graphically revealed, no country can afford to rest on its pluralist laurels as long as certain minorities are denied access to equality in the multicultural mosaic.

For Canadians, in other words, if not multiculturalism as a blueprint for nation-construction, what are the alternatives for a rapidly changing and cosmopolitan society?


September 1992

As the aboriginal and Quebec agendas continue to bask in the constitutional spotlight, one could be forgiven for assuming that multiculturalism had fallen off the political map as a force to be reckoned with. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and multiculturalism remains a vibrant and forceful dynamic in Canadian society, despite mixed public reception and a crowded political arena. The anticipated arrival of some 1.25 million new Canadians by 1996, combined with minority assertiveness for removal of discriminatory barriers, may well restore multiculturalism to its former lustre. Recognition of its pivotal role for managing the challenges of diversity makes it abundantly clear: the multiculturalism of the 1990s with its antiracist dimension is strikingly different from the folkloric versions of the 1970s.

This shift in emphasis from ethnicity – celebrating differences, to equity -managing diversity, is of critical import for Canadian nation-building, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the politics of power in a changing, diverse, and complex society.

“Ethnic” Multiculturalism
A turning point in Canadian history began quite inauspiciously on October 8th of 1971 when the Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, rose in parliament and announced his government’s commitment to the principles of multiculturalism (within a bilingual framework) as a basis of future government policy. The decision to do so arose indirectly from recommendations by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Bi-culturalism who had extolled “the contribution made by other cultures” toward Canada’s cultural enrichment. Political considerations also came into play, including the need:

a. to shore up Liberal electoral strength in the West where bilingualism did not meet widespread approval,
b. to capture and secure the ethnic vote in urban Ontario,
c. to defuse mounting Quebecois pressure on federalism,
d. to blunt the threat of unwanted American influences on Canadian cultural space,
e. to neutralize backlash from the Official Languases Act, and
f. to re-assert a new Canadian cultural identity with the demise of anglo-conformity as a central ideological construct

The 1971 policy advocated a restructuring of the symbolic order to incorporate all identities on an equal basis. Under federal multiculturalism there would be no official culture despite the status of French and English as official languages of the country. No longer would ethnic minorities be subjected to treatment as minor players in the unfolding of Canada’s destiny. Nor would their distinctive folk cultures be denied legitimate status in the symbolic realm. They now occupied positions of central importance as reflected in the government’s policy commitment to:

a. advance the existence and contribution of cultural diversity,
b. eliminate discriminatory barriers because of language or culture,
c. promote intercultural sharing and understanding,
d. improve delivery of needed services, and
e. facilitate the acquisition of one of the two official languages

Finally, all cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society were to be dismantled to ensure individual freedom of choice. Under the freedom of expression option, however, multiculturalism never envisaged the promotion of ethnic groups as communities or enclaves, much less the establishment of parallel minority institutions at odds with majority structures. Multiculturalism advocated instead the full involvement and equal participation of ethnic minorities in mainstream institutions, without denying anyone the right to identify with select elements of cultural past if they so chose.

Multiculturalism and Race Relations
The content and scope of official multiculturalism underwent a shift in emphasis as the 1970s drew to a close. Demographic, political, and social pressures combined to subvert the elevance of an ethnic multiculturalism following the influx of visible minority immigrants whose concerns revolved around employment, housing, education, and discrimination (equality) rather than language or culture (ethnicity). To consolidate the past and prepare for the future, a new multiculturalism act with a clearer sense of purpose and direction came into effect in 1988 when Canada became the world’s first (and only) official multicultural state. Directed toward the ‘preservation and enhancement of multiculturalism in Canada’, the Multiculturalism Act sought to assist cultural and language preservation, reduce discrimination, enhance intercultural awareness and understanding, and promote institutional adaptation. In seeking a balance between culture and equality, the Act specified the right of individuals to identify with the cultural heritage of their choice, yet retain “full and equal participation .. in all aspects of Canadian society”.

Of particular note, the new multiculturalism recognized the need to proactively increase minority participation in society by incorporating diversity into the institutional mainstream as necessary, normal, and invaluable. All government agencies, departments, and crown corporations – not just the Ministry responsible for multiculturalism – were obliged to design and implement those policies and procedures that enhanced minority participation, access, and equity. Even federal spending reflected the paradigm shift from ethnicity to equity. The allocation of multicultural funding de-emphasized folkloric expressions, and dovetailed instead with immigrant settlement and participation, removal of discriminatory and systematic barriers, anti-racism, and ethnocultural equity.

From Symbol to Substance
Few will be surprised by transformations in the content, scope, and focus of Canada’s multiculturalism. What perhaps is surprising is the impact and implications of this ‘paradigm’ shift. Federal multiculturalism has evolved from an all-party agreement with minimal formal authority, to its present status as statutory, and constitutional law, with potential to catapult government-minority relations into yet unexplored realms. Whereas multiculturalism once concentrated on cultural preservation and intercultural sharing – ‘ethnic sidestream’, current emphasis is firmly locked into equity concerns involving institutional accommodation, social justice, race relations, and anti-racism. No less significant has been the politicization of multiculturalism: instead of a soothing balm for celebrating differences, multiculturalism is inextricably political in adding to the debates about entitlement “who gets what”, and the allocation of power and resources.

To assist in sorting out the ‘different’ multiculturalisms, the chart below reveals points of difference between “ethnic” and “equity” multiculturalism. One column emphasizes the concept of ‘celebrating differences’ – by way of culture, ethnicity, and individual rights ; the other ‘managing diversity’ – through equality, race relations and anti-racism, and collective rights.

Shifts In Official Multiculturalism – 1971 to 1991

Celebrating Differences (1970s)
Equality (of opportunity)
Ethnicity Race
Ethnic Symbols (folkloric)
Liberalism (individual rights)
Individual Aadjustment
Cultural Sensitivity
Passive State Involvement

Managing Diversity (1980s)
Law, Constitution
Equality (of results)
Race Relations & Antiracism
Collectivism (group rights)
Institutional Accommodation
Systemic Discrimination
Employment Equity
Pro-Active State Initiative

Through comparison and contrast, the chart offers a useful starting point for discussion and debate about multiculturalism. In no way, however, are those ideal types intended to invoke the existence of mutually exclusive positions, or to imply a total eclipse of ethnic multiculturalism by the realities of a post multiculturalism. Nor is the existence of two multicultural ‘solitudes‘ implied; after all a degree of overlap is inevitable in light of government efforts for a workable balance between culture and equality.

Yet differences in emphasis cannot be denied despite dangers of oversimplification. Rhetoric and pragmatism aside, these are most accurately reflected in government initiatives to embrace multiculturalism as a practical instrument for dealing with diversity in a politically astute fashion. The politics of nation-building will ensure further struggles in the re-structuring Canada along multicultural lines. Nevertheless, as the end of the 20th century rapidly approaches, multiculturalism itself may indeed emerge as a fundamental characteristic of Canada, and take its rightful place as a symbol with substance, equivalent to that of Quebec’s “distinct society” aspirations and aboriginal commitment to “inherent self-governing rights”


“Please Adjust Your Sets”
October / November 1992

Canada is universally proclaimed as a multicultural society whose commitment to managing diversity at institutional levels is globally admired and occasionally copied. Yet not all institutions have contributed equally to the multicultural reconstruction of Canadian society. The mass media in particular have been singled out as visibly negligent in responding positively to Canada’s aboriginal and racial diversity.

As repeatedly observed in the literature and research, media treatment of minorities in Canada is mixed at best, deplorable at worst. The mass media have been reproached for an unbalanced, biased, and inaccurate coverage of aboriginal and racial minorities, many of whom continue to be caricaturized, stereotyped and insulted – when not actually ignored. The cumulative impact of such discriminatory behaviour is unmistakably clear: The media are accused of acting irresponsibly toward minorities in a society where multicultural principles prevail, but do not always translate into practice. Unless improvements in the level of representation and involvement are forthcoming, it is argued, the rupture in media-minority relations will squander Canada’s multicultural potential.

What precisely is the nature and scope of this relationship ? Certain patterns can be discussed if we look closely at mass themes and media trends. Put bluntly, racial and aboriginal minorities tend to be portrayed as
(a) invisible
(b) in terms of race-role stereotyping
(c) as problem people, and
(d) as adornments
This interpretation holds up to scrutiny whether applied to print or electronic media at the level of news, advertising, or television programming.

(a) Minorities as Invisible:
Canada’s racial and aboriginal diversity is poorly reflected in the advertising, programming and newscasting sector of the popular media. Racial minorities are reduced to invisible status through “under-representation” in programming, staffing, and decision- making. When presented, people of colour often are confined to largely stereotypical roles involving the themes of charity, tourism, or entertainment, but rarely in serious contexts or high-status roles. In surely a scathing indictment if there ever was one, the trade magazine Marketing even praised certain types of South African “mixed” beer advertising as more enlightened than their equivalent in Canada’s.

Numerous studies have confirmed what many regard as obvious. A study by Robert MacGregor in 1989 concluded that women of colour remained largely invisible in Canada’s national newsmagazine Macleans if measured by the number of appearances in ads and articles during a 30 year span. Most minority women were also restricted to limited set of roles as well as a narrow range of goods and services – an observation replicated nearly a decade earlier in a study by Doreen Indra of minority women depictions in the Vancouver presses. Even substantial representation in the media may be misleading, others argue, if the minority presence is slotted into a relatively small number of narrowly defined programs such as TV Ontario’s “Polka Dot Door”.

No less disturbing than media “whitewashing” is the absence of racial minorities in creative positions. Despite some improvement, minorities are excluded from roles related to producer, director, editor, or screenwriter. Fewer still are destined to attain the upper levels of management where key decision-making occurs. The consequences of such exclusion are cause for concern. Instead of empowerment on the basis of their experiences, minority realities are refracted through the prism of a white-controlled media. For women of colour, the situation is more perilous. They are doubly jeopardized by “pale-male” ideologies that devalue women’s contributions, distort their experiences, limit their options, and undermine self-confidence and sense of belonging to Canada. In these types of situations, one might conclude what is not included by the media is as important as what is.

(b) Minorities as Stereotypes
Minorities have long complained of stereotyping by the mass media. Historically, people of colour were portrayed in a manner that did not offend prevailing prejudices and mainstream attitudes. Images of racial minorities were steeped in unfounded generalizations embracing the comical or grotesque. For example, media stereotypes of aboriginal peoples dwelt on the themes of “the noble savage“, the “savage Indian“, or the “drunken Native“.  Other racial minorities were labelled as drop-outs, pimps, and drug pushers, while still others have been type-cast as mathematical or scientific geniuses. Liberties taken with minority depictions in consumer advertising were especially flagrant. In an industry geared toward image and appeal, the rule of homogeneity and conservatism prevailed: Advertisers wanted their products sanitized and stripped of controversy for fear of lost revenue.

Mass media stereotyping has shown only marginal improvement. Television’s ratings game excludes any complex depiction of minorities at odds with prevailing stereotypes. News about minorities is not randomly selected, but reflects majority expectations about minority status, role and contribution to society. In advertising, minorities are role-linked with certain products or services, presumably on the basis of market-driven research that isolates a desired target into slots that reflect a “natural” association for the product in question. Who better to sell foreign airlines, quality chamber-maid service in hotels, or high cut gym shoes ?

The cumulative effect is “narrow” casting of the worse type. Minorities are paired with exotic and tropical areas, portrayed as famine victims (usually children) in underdeveloped countries, enlisted as congenial boosters for athletics and sporting goods, or ghettoized in certain marketing segments related to “rap” or “hip hop”. Through stereotypes, in other words, minorities are put down, put in their place, or put up as props for the edification of the mass audience.

(c) Minorities as Problem People
Racial minorities are frequently singled out by the media as a “social problem”, or as “having problems” in need of political attention or scarce national resources. As problem people, they are taken to task by the media for making demands that may imperil Canada’s unity or national prosperity. Consider the case of Canada’s aboriginal peoples when they are depicted as

(a) a threat to Canada’s territorial integrity (the Lubicon blockade in 1988 or the Oka Mohawk confrontations in the summer of 1990) or to national interests (the Innu protest of the NATO presence in Labrador)
(b) a risk to Canada’s social order (the violence between factions at the Akwesasne Reserve)
(c) an economic liability (the costs associated with massive land claims settlement or recent proposals to constitutionally entrenched inherent self-governing rights), and
(d) a crisis throughout the criminal justice system (ranging from Donald Marshall case to police shootings of aboriginal victims).

The combined impact of this negative reporting paints a villainous picture of Canada’s first peoples. Time and again they come across as “troublesome constituents” whose demands for self-determination and right to inherent self-government constitute an anathema to Canada’s liberal-democratic tradition. Elsewhere, racial minorities both foreign and native-born are targets of negative reporting. This negativity is drawn in part from content, as well as from the positioning and layout of the story, length of article and size of type, content of headlines and kickers (phrases immediately after the headline), use of newspeak or inflammatory language, use of quotes, statistics, and racial origin. Media reporting of refugees is normally couched in terms of illegal entry and associated costs of processing and integration into Canada. Immigrants are routinely cast as potential troublemakers who steal jobs from Canadians, engage in illegal activities such as drugs or smuggling, and imperil Canada’s unity and identity. Worse still, they are seen as offering little in return for Canada’s generosity and tolerance.

(d) Minorities as Adornment
Racial minorities are normally portrayed by the media as irrelevant to society at large. This decorative effect is achieved by casting minorities as entertainment with which to amuse or divert the audience. John Haslett Cuff, a media critic for the Globe and Mail, concluded that blacks on television are locked into roles either as villains or victims; alternately, as buffoons or folksy sitcom types. Only rarely do they appear as heroes, overtly sexual beings, or perceptive critics of society. Popular magazines such as National Geographic are likewise susceptible to charges of trivializing minority experiences with glossy descriptions of the exotic and colourful rather than the exploitative and unequal.

Advertising must also share the blame in transforming minorities into ornaments for display. Their presence and impact may be diffused by casting them as children or as subservient adults. They may be viewed only as part of crowd, or as “walking away from the camera” – an observation noted by the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson in describing the presence of black musicians on beer commercials. The narrowcasting of minorities as idle or decorative is distortive. It also has the potential to desensitize the audience by making it more callous and indifferent toward minority experiences in a predominantly white society.

What can we conclude from this admittedly brief overview? In a progressive multicultural society, the media have not taken the initiative in mainstreaming diversity. This is unfortunate, after all, the mass media play an influential role in terms of defining what is normal or desirable in a post-multicultural society. Yet media institutions are equally prone to defend the status quo and the social agenda of monoculturalism.

Media-minority relations in Canada have been profoundly influenced by this ambivalence. Minorities tend to be treated poorly- if at all – with allegations of unfair or inadequate treatment on the one hand, to accusations of discrimination or outright racism on the other. The reasons behind this mistreatment are varied, ranging in scope from self-interest (profit), fear or ignorance, prejudice or systematic bias, and laziness or inertia. Regardless of the reasons, however, the conclusion cannot be taken lightly. If the media represents a mirror that reflects an image of society, we still have a long way to go in achieving a multicultural “looking glass self”


“Canada is a Multicultural Society”
TRUE . . . FALSE . . . IT DEPENDS . . .
December 1992 / January 1993

Most of us at one time or another have heard the following expression : “Canada is a multicultural society”. Reactions to this statement have varied. Some would say that we are indeed a multicultural society, judging only by the range and intensity of diversity in Canada. Others would disagree, in their defence condemning Canadians as hypocritical in the multicultural management of diversity. Others might shrug their shoulders, then walk away from any debate because of indifference or confusion. Who is right ? And who is wrong in this debate ? What precisely is meant by the assertion that “Canada is a multicultural society” ? Does it describe Canada as it is, or perhaps as we would like it to be at some point in the future ? Better still, why does reference to Canada as a multicultural society elicit praise by some, but condemnation by others ?

Various publications and polls suggest Canadians are generally supportive of a multicultural society, at least in principle if not always in practice. These surveys also acknowledge public awareness of multiculturalism as a central component of Canadian unity and identity. Yet many Canadians are equally unsure of what multiculturalism is, much less what it is trying to do and why, and what it can realistically accomplish in a liberal-democratic society such as ours. Multiculturalism can encompass a broad range of activities, ranging from folk song, dance, food, festivals, art and crafts, museums, heritage languages, ethnic studies, ethnic presses, race relations, anti-racism, and human rights. Much of the confusion is derived from indiscriminate and random use of the concept – in effect transforming an otherwise strength into a weakness.

To help sort through these multicultural muddles, it is best to envision multiculturalism as open to different levels of meaning. Levels of meaning may vary, but most often entail a notion of multiculturalism as
(a) fact
(b) ideology
(c) policy
(d) process, and
(e) practice

First, the concept may be used in a descriptive manner multiculturalism as a sociological fact. As fact, multicultural society refers to the existence of varied ethnocultural groups who are different in terms of beliefs and behaviour and who wish to remain different at least in name if not always in practice. Second, the concept of a multicultural society may be invoked in the prescriptive sense multiculturalism as ideology. Used prescriptively as an ideology, multiculturalism encompasses a relatively coherent set of ideas and ideals in defence of “celebrating diversity” as a central and valued component of the “Canadian mosaic”. Third, the act of putting these ideals into official policy suggests yet another dimension multiculturalism as policy. At policy levels, a multicultural society is proactive in promoting diversity as a legitimate and integral feature of society. In addition to establishing an overarching policy framework for managing diversity, a multicultural policy proposes a relatively coherent package of initiatives and programs for the attainment of “unity within diversity”. Fourth, the term may be employed from the vantage point of inter-group dynamics multiculturalism as process.  A multicultural society refers to the process by which minorities and authorities capitalize on multiculturalism as a resource in the competition over power, status, and wealth. Fifth and finally, multiculturalism as practice makes it clear that ideals do not always correspond with what is really happening.  Putting multiculturalism into practice has not proceeded as smoothly as anticipated in the face of entrenched interests and assimilationist inertia. This gap between principles and practices suggests the presence of barriers to surmount before basking in the reality of a multicultural Canada.

With these distinctions at our disposal, we can now unravel the different strands of the expression “Canada is a multicultural society“. The validity and accuracy of this declaration depends on the intended frame of reference. The meaning of “Canada is a multicultural society” may be employed in a descriptive sense (as sociological fact), at other times in a prescriptive manner (as ideology), at still other times from a political perspective (as policy), and yet still other times as a resource for inter-group dynamics (as process) or as a criticism (as practice). Misunderstanding is but one consequence of a failure to distinguish each point of departure for discussion for evaluation.

How, then, does Canada stack up as a multicultural society ? Canada is unmistakably multicultural at the level of empirical fact. One only needs to look around at how diversity has evolved into Canadian collective consciousness, demographics, institutions, and national symbols. Canada is no less a multicultural society when referring to an inventory of values and ideals that we defend as necessary, normal, and desirable. Evidence is overwhelming that Canadians support the principle of diversity, even though not everyone agrees with official multiculturalism as the appropriate means. Canada is also multicultural in terms of policy and program. To its credit, Canada remains the world’s only official multicultural society by way of Multiculturalism Act of 1988 and constitutional entrenchment in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that came into effect in 1986. Nor is there any point in denying the multiculturality of Canada at the level of process. Both politicians and minorities have capitalized on multicultural as a resource to promote specific interests. That these interests do not necessarily conform with multicultural ideals is beside the point, but leads to the final issue. From a perspective of practice, Canada has come a long way in the multicultural management of diversity. Unfortunately, it still has a long way to go before multiculturalism is put into practice as an ongoing reality. This is particularly true at the level of race relations, where the celebrating of differences pales in insignificance with the removal of discriminatory barriers and institutional accommodation. Until the practice of multiculturalism coincides with its principles and ideals, Canadians run the risk of relinquishing their lofty status as pacesetters in the progressive management of diversity


Bi – Culturalism “Down Under”
February / March 1993

All multiculturalisms are not created alike.  As policy or practice for celebrating differences and managing diversity, multiculturalism comes in different shapes and sizes depending on time and place. The fact that ‘foreign’ expressions of multiculturalism are at variance with Canada’s approach suggests some value in periodically comparing and contrasting how others go about their job in managing race, ethnic, and aboriginal relations.

A recent conference trip to New Zealand drew my attention to differences in the multicultural management of diversity. In some ways, Canada and New Zealand are remarkably alike. Each evolved as a settler dominated country with close ties to Britain, in addition to France for Canada. Even now Canada and New Zealand share a commitment to anglo-centric values, practices, and institutions, although the American influence is no less formidable. In both contexts, an indigenous population stood in the way of colonization. Various means (from treaties to muskets) were employed to solve the “aboriginal problem”, but with little success if measured by the structurally marginal status occupied by Canada’s aboriginal peoples and the Maori of New Zealand. Yet differences between Canada and New Zealand cannot be ignored, and these disparities in history and demographics provide the rationale for variations in state-minority relations. For Canada, the management of diversity is focused around federal multiculturalism; in New Zealand, a formal adherence to biculturalism is the preferred means for nation-building. Why this difference in approach ?

Demography As Policy:
New Zealand is a geographically small but socially progressive outcrop in the South Pacific that historically has enjoyed a reputation for harmonious race relations. The population is just over 3.3 million with about 80 percent British and mainland European extraction, about 5 percent Polynesian, and another 1 percent from other Third World countries. The indigenous tribes collectively known as the Maori constitute just over 14 percent of the total. The relatively small number of visible minorities (mostly Chinese and East Indians) reflects what was once an essentially white New Zealand policy with restrictive immigration that excluded everyone except for some Polynesian populations. Compare these demographic figures with Canada where preliminary results from the 1991 statistics expose a British component of about 30 percent, Quebecois at 25 percent, dual British and French at 5 percent, non-British/non-Quebecois at about 38 percent, and aboriginal peoples at approximately 2 percent. Visible minorities now constitute just over 9 percent of the total population, rising to nearly 30 percent in cities like Toronto and slightly less in Vancouver.

Canada and New Zealand have responded with a minority policy that reflects these demographic features. The sheer scope of Canada’s diversity is grafted onto a national agenda of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. This dual commitment is respectful of Canada’s history as a colonized country, as well as an immigrant society through settlement of the west. Multiculturalism is given further boost because of Canada’s global role as moral entrepreneur whose practical concerns for export trade and foreign investment puts an additional premium for a progressive race relations policy. In other words, demographics and history make multiculturalism a “natural” for Canada. This multiculturalism is rivetted around the principle that no culture is superior, and that all are equal in theory – if not necessarily in practice.

New Zealand’s policy for managing diversity reflects its division into 2 founding peoples who comprise the bulk of the total population. New Zealand is officially a bicultural society in response to a massive policy shift that has been gathering momentum during the past 20 years. The rationale is simple: Maoris constitute the only real alternative to Pakeha (white European) privilege and power. In recent years they have exerted pressure on the state to recognize their status as the “tangata whenua o aotearoa” (the original people of the Long White Cloud-NZ). The state has grudgingly conceded the principle of Maori aboriginal rights, in part because of their first nations status, in other part because of terms set out in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi for guarantee of Maori possession over material and cultural resources. This bicultural commitment is given practical effect in a number of ways, ranging from references to partnership and power sharing (such as guaranteed fishing quotas for the Maori) to symbolic gestures such as official language status. Much of the bi-cultural initiatives are institutional rather than territorial; that is, the Maori are actively recruited into the public service, Maori cultural values are implemented for improved service delivery, administrative structures are decentralized to encourage Maori involvement in decision making, and Maori input is sought at all levels through consultative mechanisms.

Curiously perhaps (at least for Canadians), the Maori have been highly critical of government moves to assert multiculturalism as policy or program. Maori preference is emphatically toward a bi-cultural agenda that recognizes their unique status and special relation with the New Zealand state on the basis of original occupancy. For the Maori, New Zealand consists of a bi-cultural society composed of a partnership of two founding nations within the framework of a single state whose historical duality stretches back for over 150 years. The bi-cultural rights of the tangata whenua must take precedence over the rights of the “manuhiri” (guests) from Polynesia, Europe, and Asia. Otherwise there is a danger of diluting special Maori rights to the same level as immigrants. Once biculturalism is solidly entrenched in principle and in practice, multiculturalism can be extended to other ethnic and racial groups. In other words, biculturalism is not necessarily incompatible with multiculturalism, but logically must precede in the unfolding of political relations. Not surprisingly, multiculturalism exists at best in a state of “arrested development”, with only a few local and regional ethnic councils for consultative purposes.

Bi Culturalism versus Multi Culturalism
To repeat: Canada is a multicultural society; New Zealand by contrast is bi-cultural. Some might contend the differences between the two terms are inconsequential. But multiculturalism and bi-culturalism are poles apart in terms of underlying rationale and political dynamics. Multiculturalism can be seen as a policy that elevates (or reduces) all cultural differences to same level. Differences are treated the same, with the result no one can expect special treatment. No small wonder then the aboriginal peoples and the Quebecois have spurned official multiculturalism as irrelevant to their aspirations and concerns. To be lumped together with immigrants and refugees, they argue, undermines the special status as founding nations. It is in this sense that multiculturalism is criticized as little more than a diversionary policy of containment and control that covertly defuses (depoliticizes) minority assertiveness beneath an assimilationist cloak.

Compare this with bi-culturalism as policy for managing diversity. Bi-culturalism recognizes only two cultures as significant in terms of who gets what. Neither is superior to the other, but both must be treated as partners with relatively equal access to power, status and resources that flow from this partnership arrangement. Bi-culturalism acknowledges Maori and Pakeha as co-equals in forging a new South Pacific country. Both are also seen as joint owners of those resources that generate New Zealand’s wealth.

The revolutionary impact of this restructuring is formidable. New Zealand is poised again to re-assume its status as a pacesetter in renewing aboriginal-state relations. As in Canada, however, this commitment to enlightened management sounds better on paper than it does in reality. Both visible minorities in Canada and the New Zealand Maori continue to occupy the bottommost rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. But recent court decisions in New Zealand endorse the restoration of bi-culturalism as the foremost distributive ideal for allocating scarce resources between Maori and the Pakeha. A shift of such magnitude may explain why Pierre Elliot Trudeau in another time and place decided against entrenching bi-culturalism as Canada’s official policy despite recommendations of a blue chip Royal Commission.  Perhaps Trudeau intuitively sensed the potentially powerful impact of official bi-culturalism as an instrument of power-sharing. Multiculturalism, in retrospect, was a much safer alternative


“Too Much, Too Little, Too Late”
The Backlash Against Multiculturalism in Canada
April / May 1993

Multiculturalism is currently experiencing a backlash along a broad range of fronts. As policy, principle, or practice, it has come under criticism from various quarters for a variety of reasons that are not altogether clear as yet.

(Part I) examines the scope of this critique by examining who the critics are and the nature of their criticism
(Part II) will put this criticism to the test to determine its validity and value.

The backlash against multiculturalism appears to be gathering momentum just as public support is gaining for inherent aboriginal self-governing rights and Quebec’s distinct society aspirations. This discrediting of official multiculturalism comes in all shapes and sizes. “Minorities” as well as the “mainstream” are critical of multiculturalism even if the underlying rationale is as varied as the tiles on Canada’s multicultural mosaic. Nor should such a negative reaction come as much of a surprise: The principles and practices of multiculturalism are so encompassing in scope and objectives that they cannot possibly escape resentment or rebuke. On the one hand, multiculturalism is accused of offering “too much” by way of concessions to racial and ethnic minorities; on the other hand, the problem is seen as one of “too little” and “too late”. This no-win situation has subjected multiculturalism to a chorus of boos and brickbats – at considerable strain to our survival as a “distinct society”.

Multiculturalism and its Discontents
The voices of discontent are broad and varied, and undoubtedly confusing to the average Canadian. Nevertheless it is possible to reduce this cacophony of concern into manageable proportions. One way of doing this is by classifying criticism into categories that reflect origins, as have abu Lagan and Stasiuslis (1992). Four main sources of critics can be discerned, including minorities, academics, politicians, and the “mainstream”.

For ethnic minorities, multiculturalism is seen by some as “intrusive” for downplaying their accomplishments or identities as Canadians. It is viewed by others as “reclusive” for failing to deliver the goods as promised or implied.

Multiculturalism has neither eliminated racism nor has it removed discriminatory barriers. The ghettoizing of minorities has not only blocked entry into the mainstream; it has also precluded equal institutional involvement despite lofty-sounding platitudes to the contrary. Finally, minorities chafe at the idea of multiculturalism as something only for “ethnics” or immigrants. Nevertheless, three of Canada’s largest “ethnic” categories – Aboriginal peoples, the Quebecois, and the “British” – continue to recoil from multiculturalism as irrelevant to their status or aspirations.

Academics also pounce on multiculturalism for various reasons. The brunt of this dissatisfaction revolves around the perception of multiculturalism as a political instrument to achieve political goals in a politically astute manner. For some, multiculturalism is denounced as just another tool of assimilation (through “divide and rule”); for others it is lambasted for hijacking minority socioeconomic interests behind a cultural cloak, in effect perpetuating the vertical mosaic. No less critical are those who declare multiculturalism a threat to national identity and social cohesion. Differences are extolled at the expense of what binds us together as a sovereign nation-state. The controversy over the RCMP “turban crisis” is frequently trolled out as a harbinger of what is in store should minorities “get their way”.

Party politics and politicians comprise a third source of criticism. Politicians are increasingly taken to task for betraying Canada’s interests through excessive deference to minorities. Even political parties – amidst charges of ethnic patronage and vote-buying – have wavered in their support of multiculturalism. This erosion of support is particularly noticeable within the Reform Party and its commitment to abolish official multiculturalism and administrative apparatus. Multicultural funding should be directed at bolstering Canada’s national culture (?) through immigrant integration rather than “crammed” down Canadian throats at scandalous costs to the taxpayer. The anticipated arrival of 1.25 million new Canadians by 1996 will likely sharpen the political debate on the future of multiculturalism.

A final source of criticism rests with the general public. National survey polls clearly reveal a high level of general support for multiculturalism despite regional and socioeconomic variations. What these surveys rarely expose is the thin veneer of support which may be a mile wide, but only an inch thick. Many Canadians uphold the concept of multiculturalism in principle, but are critical of moves that entail financial outlays or personal sacrifice. Others resent yet another government intrusion into what they regard as essentially a personal matter. The fact that government funding is involved merely inflames the resentment. The public also upbraids multiculturalism for what can only be described as a classic case of mistaken identity. Multiculturalism is tarnished by its perceived association with somewhat contentious government initiatives for managing diversity, and has endured flak reserved for employment equity and increased immigration volumes.

Typologies of Disenchantment
There is no question that different sectors of Canada have their reasons for disliking and disagreeing with multiculturalism. As an ideal or as practice, the lustre of multiculturalism has begun to fade under a critical barrage. To help impose order on what is discordant and confusing, criticism over multiculturalism can be classified according to content rather than source or origins. This type of typology emphasizes the nature of the criticism with respect to what it is, and why it exists. The most common categories allude to multiculturalism as divisive, regressive, decorative, and impractical.

* Divisive
Canadians are deeply concerned that multiculturalism contains within itself the seeds of Canada’s dismemberment. Multiculturalism is discredited as incompatible with Canada’s long-term interests: it threatens national unity, thwarts the formation of a Canadian identity, and renders social integration next to impossible. Instead of fostering a shared identity and a national vision, multiculturalism has been accused of spawning a “visionless coexistence” where Canadians stand to lose what holds them together in the frenzied rush to defend what keeps them apart. Put bluntly, the integrity of Canada as a sovereign state is imperilled by a doctrine that separates, intensifies misunderstandings, and divides loyalties by pitting one group against another in the competitive struggle for power and resources. Worse still, critics contend, this social tinkering comes with a price tag. At a time of heartless global competition, Canada can ill afford to be incoherent or rudderless if it intends to remain competitive. Multiculturalism can only diminish this competitiveness by squandering scarce resources.

* Regressive
This line of reasoning attacks multiculturalism for selling minorities short in Canada. Through multiculturalism, minorities are marginalized into ethnic ghettos and locked into a cultural apartheid outside the mainstream. Minorities are subsequently excluded from full institutional participation, thus perpetuating the status quo. That the vertical mosaic is entrenched and legitimized under the multicultural mosaic is cause for deep concern. The singling out (“labelling”) of minorities because of meddlesome government interference only aggravates the stain. In other words, the consequences of multiculturalism (whether intended or not) are counterproductive. Multiculturalism may be good for the mainstream that historically has enjoyed prominence and can afford to move over and make room. The same line of argument may not work for minorities who have not as yet experienced the luxury of life in the centre.

* Decorative
A third set of criticism laments the lack of substance behind multiculturalism. There is growing discomfort over a policy tool for amusing and/or pacifying minorities while distracting them from the business at hand. The illusion of power-sharing is conveyed without, however, conceding much in the way of substance. This dislike of multiculturalism as nothing more than an exercise in management impression (including public relations, damage control, crisis resolution) is widespread, but difficult to dislodge. Multiculturalism has also received criticism because of its refusal to take seriously the concept of culture in its broadest sense. Only identities and affiliations are encouraged (“symbolic ethnicity”); collective lifestyle practices outside the flamboyant or culinary are discouraged. Such an interpretation leaves multiculturalism open to accusations as a benign instrument of assimilation. It is interesting to note that similar arguments have been levelled against official bilingualism. Finally, multiculturalism is censured by those who question any policy that celebrates “ethnic” differences, yet remains oblivious to initiatives for managing “racial” diversity. Until issues related to anti-racism and equity are addressed, multiculturalism may be dismissed as superfluous by those who rely on it the most.

* Impractical
The final category of criticism is concerned with the (il)logic of multiculturalism in a capitalist-democratic-liberal society. Multiculturalism is unfairly burdened with the onus of dealing with chronic social problems intrinsic to a competitive/consumerist society. It is expected to solve these problems without adequate resources, a clear mandate, or political will. As an instrument of the state, multiculturalism is awkwardly situated between the competing interests of the state on the one hand, and the mainstream, politicians and bureaucrats, and racial and ethnic minorities on the other. Each of these sectors possess a different idea of what multiculturalism is, as well as mutually exclusive notions of what it should be doing. The state for one finds itself in the compromising role of unifying disparate components into a coherent whole (“unity within diversity”) without destroying the constituent elements (“diversity in unity”). Collective rights must be attended to without reneging on individual equality rights. For this reason, the whole notion of multiculturalism is perhaps best relegated to a utopian society where managing diversity does not require endless compromises or the need to be compromised.

Summing Up .. Fronting Up to the Backlash
As the sharp end of the stick for managing race and ethnic relations, multiculturalism is vulnerable to criticism not only because of its inherent flaws. It also is susceptible because national shortcomings tend to be crystallized around policies and practices at the cutting edge. Multiculturalism has become the target of criticism by those disenchanted with what it does, what it is trying to do, and what it should do. As policy or practice, it has been reproached for promoting too much ethnicity according to some, but not enough for others, it comes across as to assimilative for some, yet insufficiently so as far as others are concerned; it appears too accommodative in some cases, but not enough in others; too much diversity is tolerated at times, but not enough at others. Despite their inherent contradictions, these concerns have always existed. But what were once isolated pockets of criticism are now bolder and more vociferous – to the point where we can talk of a multicultural backlash. This backlash is no longer concerned with cosmetics or details. The very enterprise of multiculturalism is a visionary ideal in Canada is under scrutiny.

To be sure, not all is lost by this assault on multiculturalism. The backlash has performed a yeoman-like service in drawing attention to multicultural perils and mosaic pitfalls. By putting multiculturalism back into public spotlight where it belongs, this backlash has activated debate about the challenges of managing diversity both necessary and fair, as well as workable. Yet the downside is unmistakable: Backlashes often contain an inherent momentum that may spin out uncontrollably. For progressive-thinking Canadians the message is clear. Unless this multicultural backlash is confronted with the resources at our disposal, Canada could well join the “club” of 48 nation-states currently plagued by inter-ethnic confrontation, killing, and “cleansing”.

PART II- The Case For Multiculturalism in Canada
Vol 2 # 3 June / July 1993

In the previous issue, I explored how criticism of multiculturalism was mounting – even to the point of riding the crest of a backlash. For some, including academics, politicians, activists, and the general public, multiculturalism is conjured up as “too much”, as “too little”, or as “too late”. For others multiculturalism comes across as “divisive” (undermining Canadian society); “regressive” (sacrificing minority aspirations and needs); “ornamental” (symbol with no substance); and “impractical” (irrelevant in a capitalist, anglo-centric state). Such a blanket condemnation reflects poorly on multiculturalism, and renders it vulnerable to attack from all quarters.

The article went on to concede the partial validity of these concerns. Any government initiative is susceptible to second-guessing when taken to its logical extreme or evaluated by idealistic standards. Nor should we ever forget that multiculturalism originated as a political tool to achieve political goals in a politically astute manner. Still, I concluded the article by pouncing on the critics of multiculturalism as misguided and/or misinformed. The perpetuation of these misconceptions, I asserted, could only hinder the goals of national unity and social harmony.

In the second half of this two-part article, each of the criticisms will be dissected to expose certain fallacies behind the anti-multiculturalism bandwagon. It will become apparent that most reactions to multiculturalism are groundless or off target. First, Canadians tend to overestimate the potential of multiculturalism as a force for positive or negative social change. As mentioned in an earlier issue of “Cross Cultures”, multiculturalism is neither the source of all Canada’s problems, nor can it be expected to solve the many challenges that confront a changing and diverse society.

Multiculturalism is best envisaged as an innovative if somewhat imperfect social experiment for managing diversity according to Canada’s core values. Conversely, people may underestimate the role of multiculturalism as a tool for reconstruction. Multiculturalism is often rebuked as a symbol without substance or commitment. Yet even with limited resources at its disposal multiculturalism has hastened the renewal of Canada in its historical march from angle-centrism to pluralism. To be sure, the contributions of multiculturalism may be more symbolic than real in some cases; nevertheless, symbols frequently possess the power to “move mountains” as any student of ethnicity can testify.

Second, many changes against multiculturalism remain stuck in some timeless past. People remain poorly informed of recent changes in the content and scope of contemporary multiculturalism. From an early focus on “celebrating differences” to a contemporary emphasis on “managing diversity”, multiculturalism is virtually indistinguishable at present from initiatives in anti-racism, institutional accommodations, and removal of discriminatory barriers.

Third, multiculturalism suffers from association with contentious and unpopular government programs such as employment equity. Multiculturalism is admittedly related to these innovations; however, it only confuses the issue to lump multiculturalism with the flaws and follies of others.

Fourth, a reluctance to separate policy intent from political fallout has cramped our capacity for sorting out intended from unintended consequences. The distinction is critical. Some degree of separation is required between objectives and results (“what multiculturalism has set out to do” versus “what has it achieved to date”), as well as between principles and realities (“what multiculturalism is trying to achieve at present” versus ” what it can actually accomplish in capitalist society”). The necessity to separate these different operational levels is especially evident when responding to specific criticisms of multiculturalism.

[1] Cipher or Cement ?
Many denounce multiculturalism as an irritant to social unity and national identity. According to this line of thinking, the promotion of multiculturalism runs the risk of “balkanizing” Canada through dismemberment of its constituent units. Construction of a national identity is next to impossible when minorities are encouraged to pursue ethnic tribalisms at the expense of citizenship. A closer inspection of the facts invites another interpretation.

Multiculturalism originated and continues ideally to exist as a device for cementing Canadians into a “distinct society”. Multiculturalism is not concerned with the promotion of diversity per se. Even a cursory reading of the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 (or Trudeau’s multicultural speech in 1971) should dispel this notion. It is even less concerned with promotion of collective ethnic rights – with or without separate structures, ethnic enclaves, and independent power bases. What government could rationally introduce arrangements for its own self-destruction? Instead, the goals of multiculturalism are firmly fixed on “de-politicizing” ethnicity as a collective phenomenon. In place of collective rights, multiculturalism asserts the right of individuals to identify and affiliate with the ethno-cultural tradition of their choice, provided this does not violate laws of the land, interfere with the rights of others, or discredit core institutions. Put bluntly, multiculturalism is not about ethnic separatism; it is about secular tolerance as a basis for Canadian nationalism.

To be sure, there is always an element of risk associated with any policy that promotes diversity as means or ends. On certain occasions, minorities may be singled out because of discriminatory circumstances. This preferential treatment is not intended to separate and divide as much as to achieve positive social goals. Nor should the conferral of hyphenated-citizenship (“Lithuanian-Canadian”) be feared as divisive. This hyphenated-duality can be envisaged as two strands of a single Canadian citizenship. The first and primary strand involves a non-negotiable commitment to fundamental Canadian values and institutions; the second and secondary allows an optional identification with the values and symbols of ethnicity.

What about Canadian identity? Does multiculturalism breed a “visionless coexistence” through promotion of mindless diversity? An adherence to multiculturalism does not detract from formulating a coherent Canadian identity: To the contrary: multiculturalism secures a collective consciousness of ourselves as a tolerant and enlightened diversity. In fact, one could argue how our commitment to multiculturalism (within a bilingual framework) is the definitive characteristic that distinguishes Canada from the United States. Rather than fomenting disunity and dissension, in other words, multiculturalism encourages a shared identity of that which is distinctive about Canada.

Those with regrets over multiculturalism as somehow “un-Canadian” have nothing to fear. Canada’s problems have not sprung from too much diversity. Difficulties have arisen from insufficient recognition of diversity as necessary and normal. A glance at developments in other parts of the world should confirm this: Ethnic strife rarely arises when diversity is encouraged. Conflict flares up when diversity is suppressed or is denied full and equal expression within a coherent framework of common values. Such an interpretation can be applied to Canada where the question of unity and identity inevitably points to multiculturalism as the social cement that buffers and consolidates.

To sum up:
It is not multiculturalism but “mono”culturalism that strains at the social fabric. For unity sake, multicultural management of diversity takes precedent over the building of cultural fences. Multiculturalism does not divide or separate since it resolutely rejects an “anything goes” or “everything-as-equally-valid” mentality. The divisiveness of multiculturalism arises instead from its manipulation by self-serving politicians and minority leaders who have hijacked pluralist principles for ulterior motives.

[2] Regressive or Progressive?
Multiculturalism has been discredited by some as a regressive step that distracts minorities from the business at hand. Many have taken multiculturalism to task for collapsing class with ethnic lines, in the process foreclosing minority access to the corridors of power and resources. This notion of multiculturalism as synonymous with a “vertical mosaic” does not always stand up to scrutiny.

First, racial and ethnic minorities are not uniformly marginalized in Canadian society. Certain ethnic groups earn more income than “mainstream” Canadians, while foreign-born Canadians often outperform native born Canadians in terms of education and earnings. Other Canadians, of course, are less fortunate, namely, African-Canadians and aboriginal peoples, but their exclusion and exploitation long predated multiculturalism. Second, the explicit intent of multiculturalism is removal of discriminatory barriers that interfere with equality. Early multicultural policies sought to eliminate the cultural fences that encircled ethnic minorities. By contrast, the new anti-racist thrust acknowledges the pervasiveness of structural rather than attitudinal blockages as a primary culprit. Programs and initiatives for inclusion are thus directed toward opportunity structures and equality of outcomes.

In effect, then, multicultural objectives are aimed at replacing the vertical mosaic with a more balanced “playing field”. The concept of institutional accommodation looms heavily in this equation. Unlike in the past when minorities were expected to adapt to the prevailing system, institutions are under obligation to analyze recruiting, hiring, promoting, and rewarding procedures for traces of systemic bias. Admittedly, there is little proof that multicultural initiatives have dramatically improved minority status or stature. But multiculturalism cannot be held directly accountable for minority mistreatment. Both racism and discrimination, as well as inequality and exclusion, flourished long before the appearance of official multiculturalism. The strength of multiculturalism derives instead from the creation of a supportive social climate where proactive measures for equality can be implemented without public outcries of encroaching socialism or creeping apartheid.

[3] Symbol or Substance?
Multiculturalism has come under scrutiny as a frivolous diversion whose currency is symbolic rather than substantial. Here the critics got it partly right – albeit for the wrong reason. There is no question that multiculturalism embraces a restricted (“folkloric”), often static version of culture. That precisely is the point, however. Multiculturalism is disinterested in preserving the substance of ethnic lifestyles; even less politically endearing is the prospect of autonomous minority groups. Such an endorsement would be nothing less than a recipe for disaster with regards to national sovereignty. In eschewing ethnic communities and self-sufficiency as contrary to society-building, multiculturalism endorses ethnicities that are symbolic and situational. Minorities are thus entitled to identify and affiliate as individuals with the ethno-cultural tradition of their choice. Anything beyond that is “iffy” in locating a working balance between individual and state rights on the one hand, minority versus majority rights on the other.

A framework of national consensus is logically prior to promotion of diversity. Canadian multiculturalism tolerates diversity to the extent it conforms with core values and central institutions. An “anything goes” type of accommodation could only incite social chaos and ethnic strife. Accordingly, the limits to cultural tolerance are subtle but real, with policy emphasis resting on the ornamental rather than substantive aspects of culture. People may prefer to criticize multiculturalism for advocating the symbols rather than substance of diversity. But their criticism merely repudiates multiculturalism for something it is neither equipped nor prepared to do. Besides, many Canadians prefer the options of a symbolic ethnicity over the full-time burdens of old fashioned ethnic identities.

[4] Containment or Cure?
The final criticism of multiculturalism is perhaps the most difficult to refute. Multiculturalism is denounced as impractical and/or irrelevant in a capitalist society. Capitalism by definition creates classes, fosters ethnic and gender cleavages, encourages endless consumption and consumerism, and cannot exist apart from competitive individualism. Where then does multiculturalism fit in a society organized around the pursuit of profit rather than people, justice, or equality?

Perhaps the best multiculturalism can accomplish under capitalism is the conferral of a “human face” to an essentially exploitative system. Such a concession is not intended to diminish multiculturalism. Multiculturalism as a central feature of Canada has assumed a “life” of its own despite containment by capital or the state. It has evolved in directions never envisaged by the original architects: An overarching framework is now in place that legitimates as normal and necessary the presence of diversity at cultural and institutional levels. What originated as a policy for “European ethnics” is currently intertwined with initiatives for race relations, employment equity, and institutional accommodation. The net effect? A policy and set of practices that are necessary and just in light of Canada’s multicultural commitments, yet workable within the framework of Canadian society. That may not sound like a lot to those whose expectations of multiculturalism hover on the utopian. But the role of multiculturalism in firming up Canadian human rights record should not be tarnished by gratuitous comparisons with impossibly exacting standards.

A Recipe for Disaster or a Tool for Progress?
“Cautious Optimism”
Criticisms of multiculturalism do not stand up to scrutiny. The gist of my rebuttal is fairly straightforward – keeping in mind that even cautious optimism is not an excuse for glossing over multicultural miscalculations. Evaluating multiculturalism is not a case of “either-or”, but rather one of “it depends”. Its multi-dimensionality flows from an uncanny ability to be positive or negative depending on time and circumstances. Strengths vanish into weaknesses; weaknesses in turn possess an inner strength.

For those who argue that multiculturalism is “too much”, I contend that its impact and consequences are remarkably modest – even with the benefit of hindsight. Multiculturalism has not substantially transformed the “pale male” face of Canada, despite chipping away at the anglo-centric granite. Nor has the introduction of turbans into the RCMP in any way eroded Canada’s core culture, much less upset its ethnic balance. To the contrary, only an optimist or cynic would concede that Canada after two decades of multiculturalism is anything but an unflinchingly white capitalist society with respect to “who gets what”.

Conversely there are cautionary words for those who denounce multiculturalism as “too little”. Neither fixed in time nor just another government program, multiculturalism has evolved beyond the folkloric dimension of ethnic song, food, or dance. It constitutes instead a potential force for transforming Canada, in the same way the feminist movement has rearranged the social and political agenda. Canada’s collective mindset has rebounded from a “white is right” mentality under the auspices of multiculturalism, to a position where minorities occupy a legitimate and integral presence in the competitive struggle for scarce resources. Patterns of discourse about race and ethnicity have also shifted, from a focus on “celebrating differences” to the “managing” of diversity with institutional accommodation at the forefront.

Finally, an equally energetic response can be aimed at those who shrug and dismiss multiculturalism as “too late”. Even a cursory glance at the bloodshed and ethnic strife that consumes the world at present should disabuse us of that notion. Nearly one quarter (48) of the member states in the U.N. remain convulsed by some form of “ethnic cleansing” or “final solution”. With Canada remaining at the front ranks of progressive countries, the role of multiculturalism in forging the world’s first post-multicultural society cannot be easily discarded.

Multiculturalism is far from perfect: In fact, I would argue that the verdict on multiculturalism rests somewhere “in between” those who castigate it as ‘evil personified’ versus those who ‘rhapsodize’ about it as the answer to Canada’s woes. As policy or practice, it is neither good nor bad, but straddles the middle ground in a society constructed around compromises. What, then, are the alternatives to multiculturalism in a diverse and changing society? Traditional strategies for managing race and ethnic relations – ranging in scope from anglo-conformity (assimilation), melting-potism (integration), or apartheid (segregation) – have lost much of their lustre. The subsequent credibility gap imposes restrictions on available choices. Any proposed alternative would need to deal with cultural differences and social inequalities in a manner both equitable and just, as well as workable and necessary. It would also entail a series of compromises between conflicting demands and opposing visions, without compromising the integrity of the sovereign state. Regardless of what people would call this alternative, and the naming itself is largely irrelevant, it would probably come out looking something like multiculturalism


Multiculturalism & Citizenship : A Partnership in the Making
Vol 2 # 4 September 1993

What do we mean by citizenship? Why in a pluralistic society is there a relationship between citizenship and multiculturalism? How is this relationship expressed? In what way does citizenship within a multicultural framework contribute to the goals of national identity and social unity? This is an attempt to answer these questions by exploring the concept of citizenship in conjunction with official multiculturalism as a tool for remaking Canadian society.

The concept of multiculturalism is open to a variety of interpretations. In previous issues of Cross Cultures multiculturalism was defined as a collection of ideas and ideals for “celebrating differences”; a package of policies and programs for “managing diversity”; and a bundle of resources (“entitlements”) for use by politicians and ethno-cultural groups. Multiculturalism was also analyzed as a force for “good” or for “evil”, depending on perspective or social standing, with an additional possibility of it lying somewhere “in between” either pole. Another angle that deserves mention is in the link between multiculturalism and citizenship. Such an interconnection is inevitable. With their mutual commitment to society building, both multiculturalism and citizenship strike at the core of being a Canadian. Each is ultimately concerned with the managing of diversity in ways that secure the totality without destroying the constituent parts along the way. Passage of the Multiculturalism Act in 1988 acknowledges this “symbiotic” relation by establishing provisions for creation of a federal Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship.

This article will focus on the nature of this relationship between multiculturalism and citizenship, in the process of revealing how citizenship in all its dimensions contributes to our sense of ‘belonging’ in a pluralistic society (see Kaplan 1993). The concept of citizenship is defined, its characteristics explained and applied to Canada, and its overlap with multiculturalism is analyzed and assessed. Not everyone will agree with this notion of citizenship as overlapping and situational, accommodative of differences, and responsive to individual and group rights. But a multi-dimensional view of citizenship not only provides the basis for reconstructing a distinct Canadian identity. It also confirms Canada’s status as a pacesetter in the creation of possibly the world’s first postmodernist society.

Defining citizenship is not as simple as it might appear on the surface. As with multiculturalism, the concept of citizenship can be interpreted from different vantage points, depending on context or intent. Citizenship in general refers to the mutually reciprocal set of duties, rights and obligations that define a relationship between society (the state) and individuals. It is also concerned with the issue of “entitlement” in terms of “who gets what” and “on what basis” as part of this “social contract”. A social contract spells out what both parties are entitled to under an arrangement, what each must give up as part of the bargain, and on what grounds the terms of the agreement are justified. As a “signatory” to this social contract, citizens look to the state for protection of basic rights pertaining to security, opportunity, and survival. The state, in turn, expects citizens to abide by the laws of the country even when this entails sacrifices and restrictions. Fostering a sense of community, identity, and purpose – a kind of national “esprit de corps” – is of paramount state concern especially when diversity is involved. For that reason, then, the rationale behind citizenship in Canada and elsewhere has historically condoned the stamping out of differences in pursuit of the common good.

The scope of citizenship as social contract is remarkably broad. One element of this social contract may focus on the distribution of legal rights and material entitlements. That is, each citizen is allowed to make demands upon the state, and expect certain benefits from these claims because of social standing or perceived need. The social contract provides a basis for identity formation as well. Citizens see themselves, and are seen by the state, as part of the bigger picture involving who they are, where they are going, why, how, and with what end in sight. Citizenship can also emphasize a commitment to full membership and equal participation. In the process of conferring equal rights to all, an inclusive citizenship is directed at removing discriminatory barriers that exclude the previously disadvantaged. For unless those once culturally excluded are encouraged to identify with the values and institutions of the host society, the results could be fatal.

Dealing with diversity is a formidable challenge in any plural society. These challenges are further complicated in countries such as Canada when the groups in question are racially different and culturally at variance with Euro-centric traditions. In its role as society building, citizenship is concerned with the integration of previously excluded minorities, in the hope of fostering a shared loyalty and commitment to the whole of which they are part. Failure to achieve the goal of a uniform citizenry has long been predicted as a ticket for national self-destruction. But restructuring a society through accommodation of differences and conferral of group-based rights is now under consideration. That is why initiatives by Canada for expanding citizenship along pluralistic grounds demand closer scrutiny.

Until 1947 and passage of the Citizenship Act, there was no such thing as a Canadian citizen apart from a Commonwealth context. All persons in Canada were regarded as British subjects, with an obligation to conduct themselves in a manner that upheld the language, culture, and identity of England. The Citizenship Act established the framework for creating a new kind of citizen, consistent with Canadian rather than Anglo-centric realities. The necessity to construct an “indigenous” citizenship became even more urgent with the diversification of Canadian society. Hundreds and thousands of emigrants from war-torn Europe had arrived in hopes of rebuilding shattered lives. The rights of previously disenfranchised minorities – from African Canadians to Japanese and Chinese Canadians – were restored in the rush to put democratic principles into practice. Even aboriginal peoples shook off a once dormant status in exchange for political activism in reclaiming their rights.

For central authorities, the challenge was unmistakable: This diversity had to be “managed” in a way that accommodated differences, yet did not interfere with the construction of a united, identifiable, and prosperous Canada. The challenge lay in cultivating a sense of community, with a common sense of purpose and identity as unifying principles. It is in this context that citizenship blossomed as an integrative device for society-building. Years later, an all party endorsement of multiculturalism as government policy arose to achieve similar goals.

Canada as most modern nation-states must address the challenges of diversity within the framework of full and equal citizenship. This is not as easy as it might appear to the casual observer. Put bluntly, how does liberal-democratic society create a common citizenship (with its sense of shared loyalty and political unity) when confronted by the “centrifugal” forces of diversity? Two answers are conventional: Some would agree for a recognition of differences and their acceptance as key to national unity. Efforts to deny differences or to exclude minorities because of language or cultural differences have not worked in the past. Nor is there any reason to believe in the appeal of assimilation at present. Endorsed instead as a basis for citizenship is an official recognition of minority differences – no matter how symbolic – coupled with institutional support (funding, language rights protection, political representation etc.). This leads to what Iris Young (1989) has called “differentiated” citizenship. Disenfranchised groups are entitled to special rights and collective entitlements commensurate with their distinct identities, unique circumstances, and evolving aspirations. The meshing of these differences into an integrated whole provides a rationale for exploring new styles of citizenship.

As noted earlier, contradictions are inherent in the “unity within diversity” equation. Too much uniformity can culturally exclude minorities; too much diversity can rent asunder. One way of solving the problem is through promotion of liberal individualism and “universal” citizenship. An alternate way is by embracing cultural pluralist principles, with a commitment to “differentiated” citizenship. A third can be identified that falls in between universal and differentiated, and is consistent with the principles of multiculturalism and “overlapping” citizenship.

[A] Universal Citizenship
There are few ideals more widely admired by Canadians than the principles of universal citizenship and liberal individualism. One of Canada’s foremost sociologists, John Porter, endorsed a version of citizenship that treated everybody alike, with formal legal rights and equality before the law at the core of this universalism. In emphasizing the priority of individual rights, a universal citizenship rejects any type of entitlement rooted in collective or group rights. Even less palatable are claims for preferential treatment derived from membership in a particular racial or ethnic group. The problems of inequality and cultural exclusion must be addressed accordingly – not by affirmative action plans for aggrieved groups, but through removal of discriminatory barriers followed by gradual elimination of those cultural (and linguistic) traits that inhibit full institutional participation. Emphasis should be aimed at the prejudice and racism that created the problem of exclusion in the first place. To be sure, a universal citizenship does not deny the free and private expression of individual (and even group) cultural identity. Endorsement of these cultural differences, however, should not affect the rights of individuals or citizenship status. Nevertheless, promotion of group differences on racial or ethnic grounds – even in the spirit of accommodation and progress – can only deter and distract.

[B] Differentiated Citizenship
For liberal individuals, equality and progress stem from the renunciation of differences and conferral of universal citizenship. For Cultural pluralists, the opposite is true. The accommodation of differences and recognition of group-based special needs is central to social equality and national unity. Overcoming a history of cultural exclusion requires a more “elastic” definition of citizenship. Similarly, eliminating group-based exclusion points to special rights for meeting distinct needs and historical disadvantage (Kymlicka 1992).

As Iris Young (1989) has argued, a universal conception of citizenship is unfair in unequal contexts. The unfairness arises from treating all citizens – regardless of race, class, or gender – as individuals rather than as members of disadvantaged groups. People in groups ARE different: collectively they have different needs and aspirations, aspire to different goals, occupy different status in status, and their experiences are different. What is required in such pluralistic contexts is a citizenship that is differentiated to accommodate and respond to historically excluded groups. The rationale behind group rights is relatively straightforward. Individuals are controlled and exploited as members of a group; therefore solutions must have a collective dimension to address special needs. Refusal to recognize a citizenship that collectively allows minorities to articulate their concerns not only reinforces the privilege and power, but also silences the voices of those who cannot afford to renounce their particular experiences. Nevertheless group rights are not alike, and three types of differentiated citizenship can be discerned (equity, self-determination, and multicultural), with profoundly different implications for citizenship and society building.

(a) Equity
It is widely acknowledged that racial minorities are under-presented in many parts of Canadian society. Special means for improving institutional representation have been proposed as one way of overcoming historical marginality. For example, because culturally excluded groups are disadvantaged in the political process, they require institutionalized means of explicit representation for articulating grievances. Citizenship in this case is “differentiated” because eliminating these inequities begins with recognition of minorities as having special needs beyond those of universal citizenship. This unique status entitles minorities to make special claims against the state consistent with their marginal position.

As Kymlicka (1992) notes, equity rights are usually focused around institutional access and representation, especially in the political domain. The conferral of equity citizenship rights is not intended to repudiate the principle of universal citizenship as a basis for equality. It merely confirms its insufficiency in societies where inequalities are chronic, embedded, and systemic. Nor is there any sense of permanence about these initiatives. Rather, equity and affirmative action measures stay in effect until no longer required, that is, when citizens are not differentiated because of exclusion or inequity.

(b) Self-determining
The concept of an equity-based citizenship applies to racial minorities (in addition to the target groups singled out by the employment equity laws). Another type of citizenship is endorsed by aboriginal peoples and the Quebecois. Inherent rights coupled with the principle of self-determination take precedent over minority rights to special, but temporary treatment. The concept of self-determining citizenship applies only to those who define themselves as “peoples” or “nations”. The rationale is straightforward: Unlike racial and ethnic minorities, aboriginal peoples and the Quebecois are historically a community, possess some degree of institutional completeness, occupy a territory or a homeland, share a distinct language and culture, and are encapsulated by the boundaries of a larger political community. As peoples or nations, their demands as citizen go beyond universal or equity citizenship. Instead they include claims upon state for control over land, culture/language, and identity; the right to self-government and jurisdiction over matters of direct relevance; and a transfer of power from central authorities (“devolution”) rather than mere political representation or economic access (Kymlicka 1992).

The collective and constitutional right to survive as a group is central to this notion of self-determining citizenship.1 Both aboriginal and Quebecois have agreed to become part of Canada and have even transferred powers to this effect, although most assuredly not at the expense of their right to self-determination over internal matters. Canada is envisaged as a federation of equal communities, with equal rights to flourish as distinct societies within a broader framework of citizenship. Failure to meet these demands entitles the “signatories” to withdraw from the arrangement when no longer advantageous. Not surprisingly, the concept of self-determination is threatening to many Canadians: Its very presence is seen as superseding universal citizenship, elevating special group rights for entitlement to power and resources, and undermining the legitimacy of the political community at large.

(c) Multicultural
In between equity and self-determining citizenship are those that pertain to multicultural rights. Immigrant-based groups are anxious to secure some degree of official support in defence of their ethno-cultural heritage. Multiculturalism has emerged as a tool for that advancement. A multicultural citizenship officially confirms the validity of diversity and provides institutional support (funding etc.) for its survival. It also acknowledges this ethnicity as legitimate and valuable. But even a long term commitment for cultural support is no more important than universal rights to full involvement and equal participation in society. In other words, a multicultural citizenship is concerned with preserving cultural particularities, without, however, hampering access and equality in political or economic fields (Kymlicka 1992).

The distinction between self-determining and multicultural citizenships is instructive. The discourse on multiculturalism is not about self-determination (with its connotation of a separate power base and parallel institutions). It connotes instead a willingness to work within the system to attain a degree of integration and acceptance. It accepts and takes for granted the authority of the larger community, provided that some degree of accommodation is enforced for “mainstreaming” institutional diversity. Conversely, equity and multicultural citizenship converge. The focus is on special measures and the accommodation of differences as necessary for equality and unity. However, unlike equity measures which are seen as temporary in the march to a universally equal society, multiculturalism acknowledges that cultural differences need to be preserved as something worthwhile.

The conferral of universal citizenship with its entitlements derived from formal individual rights is one thing. A differentiated citizenship with a focus on collective group rights and special treatment for minorities is quite another. With its capacity to straddle the extremes of differentiated and universal citizenship, a multicultural citizenship is uniquely positioned to ply the area in between. Under multiculturalism, each citizen is entitled to an “overlapping” citizenship. One of these strands emphasizes universal citizenship rights, with rights to individual equality and similar treatment. The other strand focuses on citizenship rights that recognizes the accommodation of differences as a legitimate and integral component of the citizenry. That clashes are likely to arise under these circumstances is to be expected. But the integrative function of overlapping citizenship cannot casually be dismissed.

Universal and differential citizenship are not mutually exclusive. Universal citizenship is claimed by all or most Canadians; similarly aspects of differentiated citizenship are also sought after by those who demand more than one kind of right. This indicates that citizenship in Canada is not only overlapping but situational in responding to demands of the diverse contexts. Consider this case study: In a comprehensive poll by L’Actualite in July of 1992 – and reported on by Will Kymlicka (1992) – just over 50 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Quebecers, about 30 percent as Canadians, and 20 percent as both Quebecers and Canadians. Those that thought being a Quebecer was important received an 89 percent rating, yet 71 percent also considered being a Canadian as integral to their identity. For the purists, this mishmash of figures is contradictory and a sign of public confusion. Alternately, this might reveal how citizenship is overlapping and situationally adjusted without fear of dissonance or despair.

In other words, one can identify with Quebec citizenship without necessarily relinquishing an affiliation and identity with Canada. Identities are not mutually exclusive but overlapping and situationally adjusted according to the definition of a situation. Similarly, most Canadians have little difficulty in “compartmentalizing” strands of citizenship, then activating them as needs arise. A Lithuanian-Canadian can identify with the symbols of Lithuanian heritage, yet continue to attach primary affiliation with Canadian citizenship and commitment to Canada. Neither is exclusive nor is it contradictory. What exists instead is a series of overlapping identities, none of which are more important or superior, but equally good and valid depending on the context. These multiple identities, ranging in scope from the universal to the differentiated, provide the basis for overlapping citizenship.

This brief review of citizenship in Canada makes one thing very clear: The concept of citizenship is neither uniform nor homogeneous but diverse and evolving. Each strand comprising citizenship offers a different set of entitlements about who gets what, and why. Entitlements are justified in part on:
(a) the magnitude of need (formal equality vs. special rights),
(b) the status of group members (racial, ethnic or indigenous),
(c) relationship to society at large (collective vs.individual), and
(d) the nature of the claims against the state (inherent vs conferred)

The concept of entitlements by group affiliation has further implications for citizenship. Some groups are disadvantaged because of under-representation within the community – hence they require “equity” citizenship. Others because community is non-responsive to cultural diversity (“multicultural” citizenship). Still others because of more than one political community (“self-determining” citizenship).

There is much to be said for conceptualizing citizenship as a “rope” of different yet overlapping strands. Yet a citizenship of many rights poses problems related to social unity and national identity. Liberal individualism emphasizes a universal citizenship as the key to an united and identifiable Canada. Any arrangement that confuses or separates citizens is contrary to the goal of shared loyalty and common commitment. Cultural pluralists disagree. For them an adherence to universal citizenship runs the risk of needless conformity in unequal contexts, thus further freezing out the historically unprivileged. Minorities will continue to experience marginality unless their identities (values, needs, concerns, and aspirations) are affirmed in the symbols institutions, and political arrangements of society. Only the accommodation of differences under a differentiated citizenship holds out much chance for coherence and solidarity. Nor need there be any contradiction in balancing a strong sense of group identity and entitlements within the framework of a united society. As Will Kymlicka (1992:34) writes:

People from different groups can share a commitment to the ideals of a tolerant pluralist society, and can share an allegiance to the larger society as the context within which their pluralistic identity is nurtured.

Herein lies the dilemma. Liberal individuals argue that splitting citizenship into diverse strands cannot instill a sense of common identity and purpose. Cultural pluralists counter by rebuking unitary citizenship as no less deficient in this area while upholding the accommodation of diversity as a novel solution to an old problem. How, then, is unity and identity fostered in a country where a citizenship of many colours may unravel and divide?

Again Kymlicka (1992) provides some useful insights. One way of forging national unity is through shared values. Despite considerable diversity, most Canadians probably subscribe to values such as a commitment to diversity and tolerance, equality and fair treatment, community, security, freedom, participation, and a “fair go” for the disadvantaged. Yet shared values may not provide the necessary binder. These values do not apply to everyone. As well, the level of interpretation within each value is sufficiently broad as to disqualify it as a social cement.

A more promising approach rests in cultivating a shared identity. A shared identity is based on two principles: First, all Canadians must come around to a sense of “peoplehood“, with a pride in “things Canadian” such as respect for cultural differences. To do this, Canadians must concede the insufficiency of surface diversity (such as ethnic dances or foods). Instead there must be a willingness to tolerate differences that are substantial and deep. That is, Canadians must recognize and accept different ways that each group expresses its citizenship and belonging to Canada. This distinction is important for unity to happen. A tolerance for differences must give way to a diversity of approaches to diversity. Unity is thus deprived from a shared commitment not only to value diversity but to value it in a different way and in different spheres of life (Kymlicka 1992).

In the final analysis, unity in a pluralistic society stems from a citizenship that upholds the principle of agreeing to disagree. For example, aboriginal and Quebecois approaches to citizenship as “belonging” may not concur with ours. Prescriptions for managing diversity among racial and ethnic minorities may vary from the mainstream. But if this multicultural society is to survive, these different ways of relating as citizens to Canada must be accommodated. For the modernist notion of a unitary Canadian citizenship, with a dash of multicultural colour thrown in for good measure, is over. What we have instead is a postmodernist Canada – a country that is moving ahead not in the conventional way of stamping out differences in exchange for a uniform citizenship, but of accommodating diversity within an enlarged citizenship. It remains to be seen if the promotion of “comprehensive” citizenship, both universal and differentiated, without foresaking a commitment to shared identity, is a workable option.

The concepts of multiculturalism and citizenship appear at loggerheads. Until recently, citizenship was concerned with moulding diversity into unity, regulation, and conformity. Multiculturalism by contrast focused on rescuing diversity from the jaws of uniformity. Yet both multiculturalism and citizenship can be viewed as two sides of the same coin in a pluralistic society.

On balance, the practice of multiculturalism is consistent with the principles of liberal individualism and universal citizenship – although not everyone would agree with this assessment. Under the multicultural umbrella, a strong commitment to equality has prevailed. The folkloric multiculturalism of the 1970’s was aimed at removing those linguistic and cultural obstacles that precluded equal treatment. The equity multiculturalism of the 1990s is no less concerned with equality and participation. But rather than “celebrating differences” as a means of overcoming exclusion, the current multicultural wave is concerned with “managing diversity” through removal of structural (or systemic) barriers, coupled with the implementation of proactive measures for fuller involvement. In both cases, the objective is to improve universal citizenship rights that apply to all Canadians – not as members of groups with special status, but as individuals who historically have been excluded and marginalized.

Much has been said about multiculturalism as a policy for promulgating group differences and collective rights at the expense of Canadian unity. This is an incorrect reading of multiculturalism. With or without multiculturalism, the state has absolutely no interest in consolidating the existence of special status groups. Nor has multiculturalism as state policy ever advocated the promotion of minorities as groups, with collective rights to separate institutions and distinct power bases. Rather, official multiculturalism has been and continues to be directed toward the promotion of overlapping citizenship. The goal is to full institutional equality and participation without denying each individual the right to identify with the cultural tradition of his/her choice provided this affiliation remains within reasonable limits. Conferral of this right at individual rather than collective levels defuses the potential for emergence of disenfranchised groups, with demands for autonomy and special status. That being the case, multiculturalism is not interested in promoting diversity, but in de-politicizing differences in ways that secure the goals of national identity and social unity. The de-politicization of diversity under multiculturalism may explain why groups (in the sense of “peoples” such as Canada’s first nations or the Quebecois) have never subscribed to the multicultural agenda as relevant to them.

At another level, multiculturalism is consistent with the goals of differentiated citizenship. Not in the sense of promoting collective rights of groups, or in the entrenchment of preferential treatment, as much as in a commitment to acknowledge and support ethnic differences through proactive measures without the threat of a public backlash. There is a willingness under multiculturalism to accommodate these differences as a basis for unity and identity, without excluding the rights of individuals to equity and ethnicity. All citizens are entitled to similar treatment; they also are entitled to temporary measures for removal of discriminatory barriers. There is also a constitutional right to be different even if this entitlement bolsters the cause of differentiated citizenship. This notion of overlapping citizenship (unity and differentiated) under a multicultural umbrella provides Canadians with the edge in cobbling together a first class postmodernist society.[1]

[1] Much of the inspiration for this article has been derived from Will Kymlicka, “Recent Work in Citizenship Theory”, Multiculturalism and Citizenship, Ottawa, 1992


Putting Multculturalism into Christmas
Vol 3 # 1 1994

Another Christmas has come and gone. Instead of tranquility and good cheer with people of all colour, Christmas festivities were marred by rancour and misunderstanding over the primacy of “tradition” versus “diversity”. Debate wend beyond the mere formality of grafting diversity onto tradition through the simple expedient of “moving over and making space”.

Controversies erupted over the politics of preservation, with adherents of traditional Canadian symbols squared off with proponents of the multicultural mosaic. With the festivities nearly forgotten, “cooler heads” can now prevail in dissecting the substance – and the fallacies – behind the “Christmas crisis”.

At the crux of this controversy are decisions by a growing number of schools (and public institutions) to abolish Christmas symbolism from Christmas pageants or public displays. In some cases, any reference to Christianity such as the Nativity scene have been purged or downplayed, even to the point of renaming X-mas festivities as a winter solstice or mid-winter holiday. In others, Christmas carols have been banned from annual concerts for fear of offending non-Christian pupils. Friendship trees have replaced Christmas trees so as not to tweak the “politically correct”. Even the symbol of Santa was subjected to a dose of debunking.

Reaction to this “interference” has varied, but invariably is hostile or confused, in effect reminding us that even in a predominantly secular society religious symbols still have the power to provoke and partition. Consider the spectrum of opinion: For some, the celebration of a Christian Christmas is a fundamental characteristic of Canada, and deserving of its special place in the school system. Those who want to banish Christ from Christmas are accused not only of excessive political correctness or “bad faith”, but also of pandering to immigrants with hidden agendas and subversive interests. Others disagree: For them, a traditional Christmas is quintessentially a Christian practice with no justification in a publicly-funded, pluralistic school system. Not only are non-Christian children offended by exposure to Christian icons; many also are robbed of access to their own religious sentiments. As a compromise, Christmas may be tolerated, albeit in a less doctrinaire way, possibly by incorporating other religious practices such as the Jewish Hanukkah or the Hindi Diwali. Yet others doubt whether a multi-faith diversity can be incorporated into a predominantly Christian society (According to a recent issue of Macleans, 78 percent of all Canadians identify with Christianity, another 1 percent are Jewish, about 0.5 percent are Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs, with many of the rest conceding no formal religious affiliation). Finally, the cynics have managed to capture the “middle ground”. The very act of linking Christmas with Christ, they argue, is nothing short of hypocritical – given the pervasiveness of commercialism and self-indulgence inherent at present. The only practical solution lay in expunging Christmas of any spiritual connotations – Christian or non-Christian for the sake of consistency.

It is obvious that public celebrations of Christmas have become a “contested” site, involving a struggle for supremacy among competing groups with opposing agendas. Is there a correct answer to the Christmas caper? Should Christianity retain its primacy during Christmas, or should all faiths be “blended” into a kind of pan-tribal celebration? Alternately, should references to spirituality be discredited in pursuit of a purely secular ritual? The simplest answer would be of strict impartiality. No religious symbols of any type should be tolerated or endorsed in public, lest offence be created. That precisely is the route employed by governments in Canada and the United States, many of whom are taking seriously the new-found need to protect the state from religion (rather than vice versa as was formerly the case) for political reasons.

But equality before the law is not a compromise to everyone’s liking. Nor is it necessarily consistent with multicultural principles. Multiculturalism is not about strict neutrality where nothing goes; conversely, it is not about a smorgasbord-style morality where everything goes. Multiculturalism does not categorically deny the validity of mainstream Canadian practices any more than it blindly endorses minority customs. Rather, multiculturalism is about compromises, and any solution to the Christ-in-Christmas crisis must unearth a multicultural middle ground that balances competing rights. Finally, in looking to foster a receptive social climate, multiculturalism is concerned with sensitizing Canadians to the “conventionality” (or relativism) of the way “things are done around here”. Multiculturalism reminds us that, however treasured and traditional, conventional patterns may be rendered irrelevant – even superfluous – by changing circumstances. Core values are not cast in stone: More accurately, they are subject to discussion and debate, not because of their inferiority, but because of upheavals tot he rules of society

What are the implications of putting multiculturalism into Christmas? First, there is no evidence whatsoever of an orchestrated plot by minorities, much less the fictitious “thought police”, to delete Christmas from the public realm. Look around! – its business as usual. Secular symbols of Christmas remain as solidly entrenched as ever, judging by the sound of jingling cash registers and the sight of shopping mall Santas. Any concessions to diversity must be seen in this light. Nor can anyone seriously entertain the charges that special minority interests are hijacking Canada’s agenda for self-serving purposes. The placement of a few non-Western ornaments on a public Christmas tree is no more a threat to cherished traditions than the addition of a few token minorities within corporate boardrooms. In both cases, the prevailing distribution of power remains intact.

Second, changes to a traditional Christmas are not altogether different from developments elsewhere. Evidence by noted experts such as Reginald Bibby reveal what many have suspected: Organized religion is losing its mass appeal. In its place is growing popularity of conservative evangelical sects or, alternately, personal spiritual arrangements between consenting adults in private, as the sociologist Peter Berger has commented elsewhere. Furthermore, what has happened in private is also taking place in public. For example, Ontario banned the mandatory recital of the Lord’s prayer in public schools in 1988. Two years later, in 1990, the province also abolished religious instruction from the daily curriculum in exchange for detached analysis and cross-cultural study. In short, the move to de-politicize religion is neither accidental nor arbitrary. It represents “good politics” in the same way official multiculturalism and bilingualism are essentially political ploys to de-politicize differences. In an effort to construct a plural, secular society, the decision to diminish the salience of a Christian Christmas is consistent with broader trends to sanitize society of religion.

Third, much of the Christmas controversy is misleading. The issue is not necessarily about Christmas as a Canadian tradition. Many “new” Canadians have also selectively embraced aspects of a traditional Christmas – in part because of a sense of national obligation to their adopted country, in other part because of a desire to fit in and to put down roots. The heart of the matter is concerned instead with the primacy of Christian symbols in a publicly-funded domain. Even here care must be exercised. Minorities are not “grinches” out to steal Christmas. No one is questioning the right of all Canadians to celebrate Christmas, with all the religious trimmings, within the confines of their own home, place of worship, or private business. Multiculturalism, after all, is not concerned with what people do in private; it can only address what happens in public. Even die-hard pluralists rarely advocate the dissolution of Christmas per se: Of pressing concern is the tacit monopoly of one religion over others in a society that endorses multicultural principles.

Not everyone will agree with this interpretation of multiculturalism and Christmas. That’s understandable, considering the range of opinion spanning what multiculturalism is and what it should do. Disagreements over multiculturalism often reflect different visions of Canadian society. “My” Canada includes a belief that multiculturalism goes beyond the promotion of minorities per se. Nor is it directed at displacing Canadian traditions for those of ethno-cultural groups.

Multiculturalism essentially is about “accommodating diversity”, primarily to:
(a) foster a social climate receptive to diversity as a legitimate and positive contributor to society;
(b) preserve the inter-connectedness of Canadian society without offending the constituent elements comprising the national mosaic; and
(c) establish a sense of “belonging” and citizenship among all Canadians. With its commitment to “belonging” and “inclusiveness”, in other words, the message of multiculturalism is not altogether different from the original meaning of Christmas.

The resentment generated by this now all-too-familiar fiasco cannot be lightly dismissed. Canadians appear to be polarizing into competitive camps, with “traditionalists” at one pole and “multiculturalist” at the other. Fallacies and misconceptions abound, yet keeping open the lines of communication is intrinsic to a multicultural society. An ongoing dialogue provides Canadians with an opportunity to challenge convention and custom. Such communication also draws attention to the challenges of putting multicultural principles into practice in a changing and uncertain society. There is yet another important theme, increasingly ignored, but no less relevant. For those who truly are concerned about the meaning of Christmas perhaps they should redirect their venom at the real “grinches” behind the Christmas caper. We could do worse than to examine the materialist underpinnings of a consumerist society that has dismantled the “spirituality” at the core of a multicultural society


Muddling Through Another Multicultural Crisis
Vol 3 # 3 1994

The harm that people do does not necessarily spring from evil dispositions or malevolent design. Injury can also result from the logical often unanticipated consequences of even well-intentioned actions, especially when couched in flawed assumptions or reflective of vested interests. The “banality” of such systemic “evil” was confirmed recently by a national survey on perceptions of racism. Even Canadians who routinely dote on gloom and despair were dismayed by the findings, in a year already marred by headlines about “bogus” refugees and “system-bashing” immigrants. But a closer look concealed another story, one more consistent with the emergent realities of a multicultural Canada. Time will tell the extent of the survey’s damage to Canada’s social fabric. In the meantime, much can be gleaned from re-examining the results of the survey for separating “fact” from “fiction”.

The poll was commissioned by the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews as a means for gauging public perception of racism in Canada. Data was collected through the polling firm, Decima Research, between October 23 and 28 by telephone with 1217 adults, 18 years and older. Notwithstanding regional variations because of sample size, the responses were considered accurate to within 2.8 percent, 19 times out of 20. What was less accurate were “official” interpretations from the survey, many of which took liberties with the “raw data”. Even a random sample of newspaper articles from December 14 exposed a narrow spectrum of negative opinion, ranging from : “Canadians ‘Frustrated’ With Traditional Cultural Mosaic” (K-W Record) and “More Immigrants Must Adapt, Survey Says” (Toronto Star), to “Cultural Mosaic Takes a Beating” (Toronto Sun) and “Canadians Want Mosaic to Melt, Survey Finds” (the Globe and Mail).  Outside of southern Ontario, the bylines were no less punishing: “Canadians Harbour ‘Latently Racist’ Attitudes: Poll” (Montreal Gazette) and “Poll Results Reveal Racism” (Calgary Herald). Canada’s national newsmagazine (Macleans) also chipped in with an unflattering, “Canada A Nation of Polite Bigots“.

What did the findings say? With respect to the national picture, 68% said that one of the best things about Canada is its acceptance of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Close behind at 67% were those who praised Canadians for an excellent or good ability to get along with others. Yet 72% agreed that “people should adopt to the value system and way of life of the majority in Canadian society”. Another 55% believed that some racial and ethnic minorities “don’t make enough of an effort to fit into Canada”. In terms of immigration, 54% concluded that current immigration policies and practices were “just right”. By contrast 41% felt immigration allowed “too many people of different races and cultures”. Responses to questions about racism were no less ambiguous: An impressive 86% were aware of racism in Canada; 74% thought racism to be a serious problem in this country; and 53% perceived it to be on the rise. Only about one in four had witnessed or experienced a racial incident. Still 50% were “sick and tired of some groups complaining about racism being directed at them”. Another 41% were “tired of ethnic minorities being given special treatment”. Finally, 57% admitted to having negative views about minorities at times. Those were the “facts” about the “findings?”. The rationale behind the survey was never clearly articulated. Ostensibly, the survey sought to capture a cross-section of Canadians’ attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities at a particular point in time and place. As a sociologist in the field of race and ethnic relations, I can live with the raw data, despite grave misgivings about the validity of surveys as instruments for diagnosing sensitive issues. But lead-directing questions (“sick and tired”) cast doubt over any claims to credibility. Of more pressing concerns, however, was the post-survey interpretations of the data – some of which were unwarranted on the basis of survey responses; others were debatable at best, or wrong at worst. As soon as the findings were released, Canadians were bombarded with a package of predigested answers, courtesy of the media and CCCJ spokespersons, in effect robbing the audience of making an informed decision. Most commentaries were highly critical of multiculturalism as Canada’s legendary approach to managing race relations. The president of the CCCJ concluded that Canadians were frustrated with the ethnocultural ideals of a multicultural mosaic, preferring instead the virtues of an American-style melting pot as a basis for homogeneity and harmony. Attitudes towards immigrants and racism were no less charitable, according to the survey. References to “hostility to immigrants”, “hardening attitudes”, and “racist undercurrents” were liberally sprinkled about to bolster the argument. The conclusion? Canadians are openly racist in some cases, politely racist in others, and implicitly racist in still others – despite social sanctions that inhibit the acting out of such views.

Reading between the survey lines fosters a different interpretation. First and foremost one is struck by the superficiality in people’s knowledge of race relations in Canada. Consider for example the statement that some minorities are not making enough of an effort to embrace “Canadian values” or “way of life of the majority”. Instead of accepting this assertion at face value, we should be deeply sceptical of such conclusions, then retaliate with a series of counter-questions such as: What proof is there to substantiate such a statement? Who are these unassimilable groups? Why are they not taking that extra step to integrate? Who says they are not adapting? On the basis of what evidence? What constitutes satisfactory adaptation? According to whose criteria? The insinuation that special interest minority groups are refusing to assimilate, but also hijacking the Canadian agenda for self-serving needs, would be amusing, were it not for the sociological proverb that perception need not be “real” to be damaging in their consequences.

Yet evidence suggests a different conclusion: The vast majority of new Canadians are not repudiating Canada. They want to put down roots and become accepted, if only out of a sense of national obligation or because of social pressure. That some do not make this transformation is to be expected, often reflecting differences in age or socioeconomic status. Likewise, a bumpy transition may stem from differing perceptions about the nature of “belonging” as a Canadian citizen. Failure to adapt may also be attributable to the exclusionary forces of prejudice and discrimination. To be sure, not all racial or ethnic minorities are enthusiastic boosters of Canada. But that is hardly an excuse to label all minorities as lukewarm participants or outright subversives, especially when proof is skimpy or anecdotal. Lastly, the reference to Canadian values invariably raises a rebuttal: What precisely do we mean by Canadian “values” or “way of life” ? Are we talking about some mythical 1950’s ideal enshrined in the shimmering myth of a timeless white patriarchy? Or should reference to Canadian values include: a respect for difference, a tolerance for agreeing to disagree, freedom of expression, and commitment to equality for all?

A second set of conclusions proved equally shaky. The survey announced a growing Canadian admiration for American management of race relations. What the survey did not declare was an almost flagrant disregard for the facts about the famed “melting pot”. On the strength of some rather dubious inference-making, commentaries assumed a preference for an American style melting pot where ethnic minorities put aside differences to embrace core cultural values. That is the theory; A reality check yields a different picture. The United States is bulging with unmeltable ethnics – on the one hand, ethnic minorities such as Lithuanians who continue to reside in relatively self-sufficient enclaves in Chicago and L.A.; on the other , very visible yet culturally resistant racial minorities such as African Americans and Latinos who, together, comprise nearly 30 percent of the total population. Compare this total with Canada’s figure for “visible minorities” at just under 10 percent of the population. The discrepancy between these figures make mockery of glib references to America as a “melting pot”, ironically at a time when this pot is springing leaks while the contents are boiling over.

Another set of conclusions took a swipe at the pervasiveness of prejudice and racism in Canada. Prejudice and racism are known to assert themselves during hard times, or so we were told, especially when special interest groups make unacceptable demands on society. Once again, what was left off the questionnaire proved more fascinating than the fixtures: Are racism and prejudice on the rise or is it merely public perception that is increasing? Do increases in perception reflect growth in the number of incidents, or simply a greater public awareness coupled with a willingness to remember or report? Does increased awareness signify a downward spiral or, paradoxically, a first step toward solution? True, those who have followed national trends concede the tenacity of prejudice among most Canadians. And yes, Canada is a racist society, although the magnitude and scope of this racism depend on how it is defined. But prejudice is not synonymous with racism. Likewise, perceptions of prejudice are hardly the same as acts of discrimination, although the survey appeared to confuse the two, even while acknowledging a general reluctance to act upon negative beliefs. Nor can the existence of discrimination and racism be deduced from prejudice, in part because beliefs to do always translate into behaviour, in other part because bias can be systemic and institutionalized.

Even the measurement of prejudice is subject to second-guessing. Let’s be candid about survey responses. People do not always respond consistently to complex questions or truthfully to sensitive issues, even with guarantees of anonymity, particularly when candidness can cost in terms of self-image. That alone should deter anyone from accepting national attitude surveys at face value. Finally, the suggestion that attitudes toward minorities have hardened may require some rethinking. What is perceived by some as a backlash or bigotry may be seen by others as a starting point for positive change, namely, a growing willingness among Canadians to admit that prejudice exists and that racism is a serious social problem. Given the accusation that Canadians routinely deny the reality of prejudice and racism, this open admittance may herald the first step toward renewal and reform.

Not everyone will agree with these interpretations. Nor should they, for at least two reasons. Issues pertaining to race relations, in addition to multiculturalism and immigration, often entail differing visions on Canadian society. My reading of the results reflects a distinctive view of Canada, and cannot be disentangled from personal qualities of ethnicity, gender, age, or social class. It is hardly the final or definitive word in this area, rather, an alternative to the pat and predictable responses that took ambiguous data and imparted a negative spin to the analysis. Imbalanced interpretations can also arise from organizational “needs”. Thus, commentaries often capture the least flattering dimension of the story – for example, emphasizing the 41% who disagree with contemporary immigration rather than the 54% who support it. The ‘angle’ may sell copy or attract audiences; it also renders a disservice to the society-building process in Canada.

One final pitch in defence of multiculturalism. The survey thought it discerned a growing disenchantment with official multiculturalism as a means for managing diversity. According to the polls, multiculturalism had outlived its usefulness in Canada, with 72% of the respondents demanding more conformity from racial and ethnic minorities. Yet this type of conclusion only emphasizes the muddled thinking about multiculturalism as policy and practice. Even rudimentary questions related to the “what”, “why”, “who”, and “how” of multiculturalism have yet to penetrate the collective consciousness, even as Canada moves into a post-multicultural era. As a primer, consider the following: Multiculturalism is not about promoting diversity per se at the expense of Canadian unity. Nor is it about the promotion of ethnic minority communities as collectivities with a separate power base and parallel institutions. Multiculturalism is about creating a society in which diversity can flourish as a legitimate and positive component, without undermining the inter-connectedness of the whole. Paradoxically, the rejection of multiculturalism may deter Canadians from full and equal participation. With its emphasis on settlement and integration, multiculturalism is more relevant than ever to society-building in Canada. Despite its flaws and co-optation by political interests, in other words, multiculturalism constitutes the one symbol with substance that provides the flexibility and resourcefulness to keep the true north “united” yet “diverse”


Mosaics & Melting Pots
Vol 3 # 4 1994

The path to social harmony can follow different avenues of knowledge and understanding. Both Canada and the United States are thought to rely on divergent paths to achieve the goal of harmonious race and ethnic relations. Canadians are renown for their multicultural commitment to national unity through promotion of diversity; Americans are equally famous for efforts to integrate differences, albeit through the denial of differences. The language of metaphors is frequently employed to accentuate this distinctiveness. Canada’s cultural mosaic is perceived as superior a discourse about diversity to the melting pot in the United States. Compared with their neighbours to the south, Canadians consider themselves to be more tolerant of minorities, more welcoming of immigrants, more accommodative in terms of participation and opportunity, and more respectful toward cultural differences. Canadians also believe that minorities here receive better treatment because of policies and practices that encourage retention of traditional cultures; by contrast, immigrants to the United States are expected to abandon all community ties by melting into the mainstream.

Not everyone agrees with this conventional wisdom. Iconoclasts such as Howard Palmer and John Porter have long disputed the reality of these vaunted differences, in effect arguing that Americans are more diversity-oriented than inferred by the melting pot metaphor. Conversely, Canadians are less enamoured of diversity than repeated mantras about the cultural mosaic would imply. Recently this thesis was put to the test by two prominent sociologists from University of Toronto, Jeffrey Reitz and Raymond Breton. In their book, The Illusion of Difference: Realities of Ethnicity in Canada and the United States, published in 1994 by the C.D. Howe Institute of Toronto, Reitz and Breton confirm what a few had suspected: The differences between Canada and the United States are more apparent than real when the realities of race and ethnic dynamics are taken into account. Even the widely touted opposition between the mosaic and the melting pot is overstated, as far as they are concerned, since the two countries are similar in their treatment of ethnic minorities. Canadians are no more inclined than Americans to value or encourage cultural diversity. In fact, polls suggest Americans endorse higher levels of cultural retention – at least in intent. Admittedly, these differences vanish when employing subjective measures such as ethnic identification or objective criteria such as intermarriage. Other convergences are noted by Reitz and Breton.  Rates of assimilation in Canada are comparable to those in the United States, as are degrees of occupational mobility, levels of racial discrimination, and patterns of minority economic incorporation – with neither country showing much improvement despite government expenditure. To be sure, there are differences in the “tone” of ethnic and race relations; for example, Canadians tend to be more “low key” in their debates over diversity, in part because of their historical commitment to tolerance. But many of the alleged differences tend to be of degree rather than kind. Nor have government-mandated initiatives had much of an impact on minority experiences.

Reitz and Breton perform a timely service in debunking certain myths and misconceptions about North American race and ethnic relations. Essentially four major points are subjected to revision:

* Neither the mosaic nor the melting pot are an accurate depiction of historical reality; repeated references can only camouflage the gap between the real and the ideal.

* Canada’s cherished cultural mosaic does not stand up to scrutiny; nor does it correspond with the practices and patterns of inter-group relations.

* Canada and the United States are more alike than different when managing race and ethnic relations. Minor differences do not justify the wide disparities implied by the melting pot or cultural mosaic as polarized metaphors.

* Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism has not substantially altered public perception of diversity; nor has it enhanced minority cultural retention or life-chances. The fact that public support for cultural retention has remained relatively constant since the early 1970’s, the study concludes, further diminishes the relevance and/or usefulness of multiculturalism as public policy.

These conclusions are by no means unique or unprecedented. Perhaps Reitz and Breton’s contribution resides in quantifying this thesis through use of several national surveys. They base much of their findings on a 1989 Decima survey involving 1000 respondents from Canada and another 1000 from the United States. Even this raises problems, however, since obvious pitfalls are inherent in any cross-national comparison on the basis of a small and dated sample. Problems of validity and reliability are no less formidable when dealing with race-related issues. The study itself is highly selective and subjective, with numerous judgement calls and terminology that are difficult to operationalize for a variety of reasons.

Still, initial reaction to the findings was favourable. In a lead editorial in the Globe and Mail (June 13, 1994 “The Myth of Canadian Diversity”) the editor agreed with Reitz and Breton in repudiating the essential diversity of Canada – despite regional, linguistic, and ethnic/racial differences. Focusing on these differences, the editorial moralized, not only detracts from what we share in common, including a commitment to Canada’s social system, tolerance for minorities, and respect for government and law. It also threatens Canada’s survival, imperils our governability, distorts the political process, and mangles our self-image as a progressive society.

How valid are these findings? The importance of this study does not lie in what it says, but in what it doesn’t say. My comments are confined to their interpretation of multiculturalism as inseparable from cultural retention and ethnic community survival. Many have defined official multiculturalism as a formal response to the demands of diversity. But it is irresponsible to equate contemporary multiculturalism with the goal of cultural retention as the authors have done. Such a linkage conveniently overlooks the decade-long shift in the multicultural focus from “celebrating differences”, to “managing diversity” through removal of discriminatory barriers. Nor is there any evidence to promulgate the view that immigrants and refugees pounce on multiculturalism to establish distinct ethnic enclaves. With few exceptions, new Canadians are anxious to participate in the mainstream, without necessarily abandoning all identification with their cultural past as the cost of entry.

In short, federal multiculturalism did not arise to augment minority cultural retention as living realities. Government policy had even less reason to encourage the creation of ethnically viable communities with parallel institutions or separate power bases. Such a tax-subsidized concession would have needlessly fragmented Canada to the point of self-destruction. Put bluntly, multiculturalism originated and continues to exist for practical purposes. It is concerned with constructing a coherent and equitable society in which diversity can flourish without undermining either the integrity of the whole or uniqueness of the constituent units.

Ethno-cultures are permissible under multiculturalism; nevertheless, their expression is restricted to the level of individual identification or confined to private or personal domains – provided this does not interfere with the rights of others or violate the laws of the land.

It is true that multiculturalism is as confusing and contradictory as the ethnicity and racism that it must confront. The de-politicization of ethnicity by government decree invariably links multiculturalism with the processes of the Canadian state in pursuit of assimilation and social control. That being the case, the cultural mosaic is not altogether dissimilar from the melting pot in terms of outcomes and consequences. Yet the contradictions within multiculturalism are potentially liberating. These disjunctions can create openings and toeholds that, in turn, provide a catalyst for positive change. A social environment is established in which a diversity agenda can be introduced without fear of wholesale public backlash or outcries of cultural apartheid. Moreover, unlike the American melting pot that at best can only tolerate differences, the multicultural mosaic has the potential to bolster a political and public climate receptive to diversity as a legitimate and integral component of Canadian society-building. Those who insist on ignoring these nuances are unlikely to appreciate how metaphors – no less than symbols – have the power to move mountains


Selling Confusion : The Cult of Multicultural Bashing
volume 5 #1 1996

One of the nice things about living in Canada is our general willingness to “agree to disagree” without resorting to threats or reprisals. We seem to take particular delight in rubbishing those very initiatives that collectively have contributed to this climate of moderation and dissent.

Multiculturalism seems especially vulnerable to these verbal slings, and publication of Neil Bissoondath‘s Selling Illusions. The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada has done nothing to soothe public misgivings about the politics of diversity management.

Bissoondath cover a broad range of diversity issues, not all of which are even remotely related to multiculturalism. Five themes appear to predominate: multiculturalism as “public trough”, as “problem maker”, as “ethnicity”, as “stigma”; and as “free for all”. The chart below provides a summary outline of these themes: one deals with Bissoondath’s position, the other provides this author’s response and rebuttal.

Multiculturalism as Public Trough

Bisoondath’s Position:
Bissoondath is unhappy about putting multiculturalism up on a pedestal, both impervious to criticism and lacking in credibility. He trashes multiculturalism as little more than a “cash cow” or “boondoggle” that not only panders to politicians and ethnic leaders, but also makes work for bureaucrats and minority organizations. With so many fingers in the pie, a government-sanctioned cult (‘sacred cow’) has evolved that dismisses critics as racists or lackeys. Its official endorsement also subjects minorities to manipulation by ‘pork-barrelling’ in domains that, Bissoondath believes, rightfully belong to the personal and the private.

Response & Rebuttal:
That multiculturalism has been shamelessly manipulated by politicians and ethnic opportunists is certainly beyond doubt or public debate. However, keep in mind that the potential to exploit multiculturalism is quite limited. The days of funding folk dances or ethnic festivals are gone, as is the potential for patronage or abuse. The current annual vote for multiculturalism is down to about $24 million per year, compared with approximately $700 million for official bilingualism, most of which is allocated to fight racism and discrimination, to secure full institutional participation for all Canadians, and to prmote public appreciation for the benefits of diversity.

Multiculutalism as Trouble – Maker

Bisoondath’s Position:
Bissoondath charges multiculturalism with shortchanging Canada. As well as fanning the flames of hatred and tribalism, multiculturalism also distorts any sense of what it means to be a Canadian. He writes “Multiculturalism .. has heightened our differences rather than diminished them; it has preached tolerance (indifference) rather than encourage acceptance; and it is leading us into a divisiveness so entrenched that we face a future of multiple solitudes, with no central core to bind us”. Without a common culture core to aspire to, in other words, immigrants will cling to their past by default rather than intent. An obsessive preoccupation with the past may also embolden minorities to demand formal acceptance of their customs and languages instead of the other way around. In short, by emphasizing ethnicity rather than common values, multiculturalism has succeeded only in ‘Balkanizing’ Canadians by leading us down the garden path toward social ferment and national dismemberment

Response & Rebuttal:
Bissoondath’s fears and related scare tactics strike me as largely unfounded, even irresponsible. It is true that Canada today is different from the Canada of a generation ago. Rules and assumptions that once secured our moorings are increasingly contested or invalid. But to blame multiculturalism for all of Canada’s woes is a gross over-generalization that conveniently ignores the cumulative effect of other social forces – from feminism and the Charter on the one hand, to globalization and the Americanization of Canada through free trade on the other, and prejudice and discrimination on still another. As to the assertion that minorities are telling us what to do, there is little truth to such an allegation, despite some cosmetic concessions to the contrary. Nor is there much point talking about restoring shared Canadian values. These values never existed because of our “deep diversities” except in the minds of a few nationalists. Perhaps our core value is that we don’t have any central values except a commitment to doing what is workable, necessary, and fair

Multiculturalism = Ethnicity

Bissoondath Position:
Bissoondath holds multiculturalism responsible for commodifying ethnic cultures. Under multiculturalism, he contends, ethnicity is frozen in time or romanticized as exotic, while minorities are compartmentalized, both socially and psychologically, into ethnic ghettos. Celebrating ethnic differences tends to ignore the complex and convoluted dynamics implicit with ethnicity, both internally and without. His assertion that “shared ethnicity does not entail unanimity of vision” is accurate enough, but will come back to haunt his analysis

Response & Rebuttal:
Multiculturalism is not concerned with promoting ethnic cultures as living organisms. Few societies could hope to survive under such stressful conditions. Multiculturalism is concerned with constructing a society that can accommodate diversity as legitimate and integral, without destroying the inter-connectedness of the parts. Multiculturalism provides each individual with the right to identify with select aspects of their cultural tradition – as long as this affiliation is considerate of Canadian society. In other words, in seeking to make Canada safe for ethnicity as well as safe from ethnicity, multiculturalism proposes to de-politicize ethnicity by transforming it something other than autonomous ethno-cultures with their own parallel institutions and separate power base

Multiculturalism as Stigma

Bissoondath’s Position:
Bissoondath accuses multiculturalism of being exclusionist rather than inclusionary. “Don’t call me ethnic” he intones. To be called an ethnic or a hyphenated-Canadian is tantamount to unwanted attention by those who want acceptance into Canada as self-made individuals rather than as victims or parasites. For Bissoondath, such labelling carries a whiff of condescending paternalism that has the effect – if not necessarily the intent – of trivializing minority contributions. That kind of “us” vs “them” mentality reduces multiculturalism to the status of a stigma in a country where the prevailing mindset continues to endorse only British and French as real Canadians

Response & Rebuttal:
Kudos to Bissoondath for saying that multiculturalism has a tendency to stigmatize minorities as if their ethnicity was the only thing that mattered – even for those disinterested in their ethnicity.  Too often the subtext underlying ethnicity or multiculturalism portrays minorities as inferior and incapable of competing as equals or without white benevolence. The hierarchical connotations may be implicit, but are inescapable:  In the words of Chang-Lin Tien, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, “Yet no matter the scope of my accomplishments, when many Americans see my face or hear my Chinese accent, they think of me an immigrant, first and foremost .. a drain on public service, a competition for jobs, and a threat to a cohesive society”. However dehumanizing this process, it is unfair to equate multiculturalism with an orchestrated plot to render minorities a ‘species apart’ from the mainstream. Diversity is the mainstream as far as multiculturalism is concerned – even if ideals outstrip practice. No, the real culprit is racism with its power to shunt minorities into the side-stream for reasons unrelated to merit

Multuculturalism as Free-for-all

Bissoondath’s Position:
What exactly are the limits to multiculturalism, Bissoondath asks? How and where do we draw the line in accommodating diversity, especially with customs such as female genital mutilation, without imposing Euro-centric values or capitulating to social chaos” Failure to agree on what is disagreeable can court disaster by making us fearful of defining acceptable boundaries in a world of boundless human rights abuse

Response & Rebuttal:
Bissoondath’s criticism of multiculturalism is misinformed. Multiculturalism rupudiates an “anything goes” mentality. It rejects any support for ethnic customs at odds with Canadian laws or moral sensibilities. Multiculturalism tolerates diversity only to the extent that this does not violate the laws of the land, interfere with the rights of others, or disturb central institutional structures such as Parliament. Individuals rather than groups are permitted to identify (rather than practice) select cultural elements in a spirit of accommodation and sharing. That being the case, it is obvious that multiculturalism (along with our Human Rights Codes) is quite restrictive about what is acceptable

I enjoyed reading Bissoondath’s book.  Bissoondath is not the first to lament the lack of distinctive cultural values for enhancing newcomer sense of belonging to Canada. Nor will he be the last to bristle at central authorities for not doing enough to foster a shared national identity, while ‘squandering’ scarce resources in support of ethnic frolics. In a society constructed around compromises, multiculturalism is a quintessential Canadian balancing act between the centre and periphery, and that two-edged quality is enough to ruffle or reassure, depending on one’s political stripes or vision of society. Nevertheless, Bissoondath will have performed a valuable service in getting people to talk about multiculturalism, even in a negative way, without being branded as regressive, a racist, an ingrate or an Uncle Tom.

The book itself is not a scholarly work by any stretch;  it even veers toward the glib and superficial at times, with an unhealthy reliance on the Globe and Mail and Michael Valpy (and Michael Ignatieff to some extent) as primary sources of information.  Some of his arguments are contradictory. He scorns multiculturalism as lightweight, then turns around and pounces on it as the “mother” of all evils.  He raves about Canada, but overlooks how his appreciation may stem from the very institution that he rebukes. He lashes out at multiculturalism for encouraging ethnicity, yet avoids mention of its society-bolstering potential. His plea for unfettered individualism is advanced as if people of colour lived in a world where race didn’t matter. Most telling is his title “Selling Illusions”: while multiculturalism is seen as illusory because it comes across as “too much”, “too little”, or “too retrograde”, Bissoondath is not averse to poking a few multicultural phantasms of his own with respect to the “good”, the “bad” and the “in-between”. Still Bissoondath raises important questions about issues that need to be discussed, in effect reminding us that multiculturalism is not a goal or a formula, but a movement in a never-ending process for managing diversity. This suggests that references to the mosaic are much too rigid a metaphor for multiculturalism. Canada is better served by the image of a kaleidoscope in which colourful bits are constantly interacting and rearranging themselves into new patterns.

My main gripe with Bissoondath is not with what he says.  I take offence with what he doesn’t say.  Bissoondath is adept at criticizing the society-sapping excesses of multiculturalism, although his diatribe is directed at government’s handling of diversity as a public policy rather than with multiculturalism as such. This negativity does not get us very far. What we need are constructive criticisms: That is, if not multiculturalism, then what?  Compared to a utopia, Canada falls short of the mark; compared with the grisliness of reality elsewhere, we stand as a paragon of virtue. The fact that Bissoondath does not provide any society-building alternative to multiculturalism, except vague references to the ‘good ol days’, underscores the bankruptcy of much reflection in this field.

So, my advice to Bissoondath is to “cheer up”.  Multiculturalism is not the cause of all our problems, no more so than it can be the cure-all. This country is not going to unravel because of multiculturalism; and don’t worry about Canadians lacking any core values.  Diversity is Canada’s strength. Turmoil and conflict are inevitable – provided that, within limits, we agree to disagree.

Neil Bissoondath, (1994) Selling Illusions. The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Penguin. Myrna Kostash (1994) “Ethnic Identity – Private Choice or Public Concern?” Toronto Star (October 22). Bronwyn Drainie (1994) “Some Illusions of His Own” Globe and Mail (October 20). Michael Adams “Canada is in No Mood for Definite Decisions Toronto Star (September 30). Charles Gordon (1994) “In Search of Canadian Values” Macleans (October 24). Joan Fraser (1994) “A Spirit of Intolerance Spreads Across the Country” KW Record (October 29). Chang-Liu Tien (1994) “America’s Scapegoats” Newsweek (October 31). M Nourbese Philip (1995) “Signifying Nothing” Border/Lines 36


The Politics of Allegiance     or     “Living Here” but “Rooting for There”
Vol 9 # 1 2000

If nothing else comes out of this sad and sordid affair, the conflict in Kosovo may sharpen the shape of what it means to be a Canadian. Reaction to the NATO bombing of Yugoslav Serbs has challenged the concept of allegiance in ways that herald the demise of a ‘one size fits all’ citizenship, and its replacement by a more provisional and fluid sense of belonging which may be more consistent with our post-modernist sensibilities but inconsistent with Canada’s territorial integrity and national interests.

Two incidents strike at the heart of this identity crisis as it applies to divided loyalties, multiple belongings and provisional citizenships:

ONE: Hundreds of Albanian Kosovars in Canada and the United States are thought to have volunteered their services to the Kosovar Liberation Army in the fight against Yugoslav forces.  Such a commitment yields a host of awkward questions: is it possible to live in Canada as citizen or permanent (landed) resident, yet identify with another citizenship when this identification embraces the militant defence of an ethnically cleansed homeland?  Are such divided loyalties consistent with the principle of being a Canadian or do they compromise the prospect of living together with our differences?

TWO: A Serb in Canada confesses on television that he would be willing to join the Serbian army, and, if necessary, shoot at Canadian troops stationed in Yugoslavia. This kind of commitment raises an even more loaded conundrum: Can a person live in Canada and claim some degree of entitlement as citizen / permanent resident, yet publicly declare a willingness to attack Canadians if necessary in defense of a homeland; or, as expressed by another Serb Canadian in sorting out his loyalties against a complex web of nationhood, family and state: “I’m a Canadian by birth and a Serbian by blood. I think family values come ahead of loyalty to your country“.  Each of these scenarios is provocative in its own right. The apparent contradiction between ‘living here’ but ‘rooting for there’ would appear to be paradoxical and contrary to Canada’s society-building interests.

Despite superficial similarities, the issues are poles apart: after all, it may be one thing to identify with one’s homeland as a preferred choice, it is quite another to intensify this commitment to the point of killing Canadians in defence of a recently departed homeland. The very act of contemplating this course of action is indicative of how debates over allegiance are reflecting the postmodernist realities of a freewheeling global market economy and diasporic movements of people.

Consider an earlier version of citizenship in Canada: immigrants made a decision to come to Canada and put down roots as part of a lifelong commitment to do better for themselves and their children. Canada, in turn, expected these new Canadians to become citizens by renouncing their past and identifying exclusively with adopted home, although the emergence of multiculturalism as policy accorded new Canadians the right to secondarily identify with the cultural tradition of their choice, provided this affiliation did not violate the rights of others, laws of the land, or core values and institutions of society. In other words, the universal citizenship of the past with its one-size-fits-all mentality collapsed allegiance and belonging into a single undifferentiated package of identity and loyalty in which everyone knew their place and played by the rules.

Compare this one-size-fits-all citizenship with the fractured and fluid identities that inform contemporary patterns of belonging.

People are much more selective about identity and belonging than in the past, and are not adverse to re-positioning their increasingly politicized identities as circumstances dictate. In a world of global opportunity, instantaneous communication and commercial travel, migrants are willing to make as many moves as possible to improve their lives and life chances, in effect, discarding identities or feigning loyalties as easily as change of clothing.

Such superficiality may be regrettable for society-building purposes, but understandable:
Just as globalism is eroding national border and the integrity of the nation state as the final authority, so too is any commitment to a single allegiance being undermined where free-floating individuals flit in and out of identities and commitments without experiencing contradiction or confusion.

Not surprisingly, instead of fixed identities and undivided loyalties as once may have been the case, people’s commitments tend to be contextual and contingent, both layered and nested, and no amount of coaxing will deter the comings and goings of increasingly global citizens.

Such a situation would seem to apply to Canada. The paradox between ‘living here’ but ‘rooting for there’ may not be to Canada’s liking; nevertheless, it reflects how the politics of allegiance are changing in response to the social dynamics of the new millenium. A creative tension captures the contradiction at the core of the struggle between traditional allegiances and post-modernist belongings. For some, being Canadian is not to be taken lightly. It represents a commitment to one and only one jurisdiction, and those that refuse to accept this commitment should leave or be deported. For others, being Canadian is a frame of mind that can be adjusted and redefined in a myriad of seemingly incongruous ways. For example, peoples of the First Nations or Quebecers normally identify with their own people, without necessarily revoking any sense of loyalty or commitment to Canada. Insofar as their citizenship is Canadian, but identities and loyalties are to the First Nations or Quebec, they want to belong to Canada as members of a nation within a broader societal framework rather than as individuals with common citizenship rights. But while some may concede this right to split allegiances, however grudgingly, tolerance levels drop when Canadian citizens or permanent residents opt for the other side in direct contrast to Canada’s “national interests”.

How does this apply to the current situation in the Balkans? To repeat: Can any person take an aggressive stand in defence of a homeland if they have made a commitment to Canada?

A main question comes to mind in sorting through the conundrum of being a Canadian: What is the appropriate position for any ethnic minority of Canada when their ancestral homeland is involved in conflict or is being invaded?

The response is not likely to produce consensus. Part of the ambiguity rests with the concept of allegiance per se. Not all Canadians are created equally when it comes to allegiance. Voluntary immigrants have made a decision to come to Canada and are willing to abide by the rules.

Involuntary minorities, such as the aboriginal peoples or the Quebecois, did not ask to be part of this ‘adventure’ called Canada, but forced to endure centuries of colonialism while submitting to an allegiance not of their making. Refugees or immigrants who have been ‘coerced’ into coming to Canada appear to occupy an equally ambiguous position in terms of ‘being here’ yet ‘over there’ with respect to loyalty, belonging and commitment.

The nature of Canadian citizenship may be no less problematic:
Canada has long been perceived as a country whose citizenship was never a source of strength or identity – a not surprising state of affairs in a country whose national identity derives from a value-driven agenda rather than traditional bonding mechanisms of blood, soil, or religion, thus creating a conflict of interest between attachments to an idea (citizenship) versus allegiance by tribe (bloodlines). In other words, when migrants are uprooted from their homeland and bloodlines, and compelled to identify with an abstraction known as Canada, the strongly visercal appeal of peoplehood and nationalism may override the lure of abstracted allegiance. The prognosis looks bleak unless we radically rethink the idea of citizenship as belonging. In a world of 25 million refugees and another 25 million displaced people, the challenge of coaxing allegiance from people on the move may otherwise prove a major problem in living together with our differences.

REF. Miller, Judith 1999 “Sovereignty Isn’t So Sacred Anymore” – NY Times, April 18

I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world
~ Socrates 469-399 BC

The Politics of Hijab: Laicité vs Diversité?
Vol 10 # 1 2004

What is it about people’s appearances that incite both provocation and perplexity. Clothing fulfills a basic human need in many climates including Canada where covering up is understandably the rule rather than the frigid exception. But clothing also possesses significant social and political functions as a non-verbal medium of ideological communication – either intended or unintended (Hoodfar, 2003).

The symbolic value of clothing should never be underestimated, despite our parent’s admonition to never judge people by their appearances or a book by its cover.

As a marker of identity, clothing conveys messages that the wearer shares cultural values in common with others similarly attired, thus providing a visual means of creating community. By contrast, minor differences in clothing detail may convey individuality because of region or ethnicity or choice. Clothing as an identity marker may easily symbolize political expression or invoke social (re)action:

Consider events in secularist Turkey.

In May of 1999, a duly elected woman wearing the veil was removed from Parliament, stripped of her citizenship eleven days later, and remains in exile in the United States (Kavakci 2004).

Earlier in 1998, a Turkish student was barred from the medical school at the University of Istanbul because her headscarf clashed with the official dress code. The European Court of Human Rights supported this move on grounds that banning the hijab was not a violation of religious freedom but a valid way to counter Islamic fundamentalism (Reuters 2004).

The notion that what you ‘wear’ is more important than being ‘aware’ should not be trifled with lightly in a world where appearances count because, like it or not, approve or disapprove, people continue to judge and be judged by how they look.

For the powerful, clothing is used to reinforce power; for the subdominant group, clothing can be manipulated to shift the balance power. In contexts where visibly identifiable groups experience rejection or alienation, clothing serves as symbols of resistance in defending both individual and collective identity.

The micro-politics of appearances has been sharply put to the test in France where the macro-politics of robustly religious symbols clash with the priorities of a staunchly secular society. Not since the Mao jacket politicized peoples’ appearances in the 1960s has a dress code confounded a constitutional democracy in defending its tradition of civil liberties.

On the surface, the debate seems to revolve around two competing rights:

To one side, the right of France to preserve its secular tradition from erosion by the religious ‘right’ versus the right of young people to wear distinctive religious symbols to public schools, including Jewish kippa and headscarves (“hijab”) for Muslim women.

To the other side, the tension between the republican / liberal principle of secularism (or laicité) versus the multicultural principle of diversity (Kastoryano 2004).

In reality, the underlying issues are much deeper, and the debate especially over the hijab conceals as much as it reveals by cloaking more fundamental issues involving the interplay of race and gender with citizenship and immigration, national and transnational identities, and globalization and human rights (Resnick 2004).

Not surprisingly, French reaction to the ban was mixed – seen by some as critical in preserving France’s commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity; seen by others a blatant violation of those very principles that the French endorse.

The irony is inescapable:

French society may take pride in openly flaunting its sex and nudity as progressive and liberating, particularly in the realm of individual self-expression through haute couture.  Yet, paradoxically, France wants to strictly regulate religion content by restricting religious symbols to the private sphere (Teitel 2004).

The case study serves three purposes:
First, it demonstrates how the politics of hijab debate can be differently framed, with correspondingly different interpretation. While the French authorities demonize the hijab as “backwardness” or “aggression” (‘hijab’ as ‘jihad’), many Muslim women see it as part of their personal identity or religious conviction, without which they feel naked (Amdur 2004);

Second, the case study explores how the micro politics of veiling may play out as symbols of resistance or instruments of integration in coping with the demands of a mono-cultural / secular status quo;

Third, the politics of hijab is situated within Canada’s multicultural framework for balancing autonomy with order without sacrificing inclusion.

The Crisis:  Taking Religion Seriously in a Seriously Secular Society

In late 2003, a major French report on the relationship of religion to a secular society made sweeping recommendations for living together differently. The report focussed on how France should balance the foundational principle of secularism with the demands of its minorities, most notably its growing Muslim population against the backdrop of an escalating anti-Semitism.

The report urged passage of a law that would forbid conspicuous (“provocative”) religious symbols in schools, including headscarves worn by Muslim girls, yarmulkes worn by Jewish boys, and large crosses worn by Christian students.

The recommendations would apply to primary and secondary schools, but, curiously enough, not to students in private schools or to French schools in other countries. Sanctions for refusing to obey the removal order would range from a warning to suspension or expulsion (Gainey 2004).

Admittedly the law was also aimed at Christians and Jews; nevertheless, Muslim headscarves appeared to be the main target of the government’s crackdown since no such law would have been passed were it not for hijab (Dobuzinskis 2004).

Moreover, the frenzy over head scarves was not new, having convulsed and perplexed both French authorities and the general public for nearly two decades. Dozens of Muslim girls had been expelled over the years from schools for refusing to remove the scarf, with most schools establishing guidelines forbidding the practice, although a 1992 state ruling indicated that the wearing of scarfs was permissible – unless deemed by the school to be aggressive or prosyletizing.

With public support firmly in favour of the proposal, the controversial bans on head scarves and other religious symbols was passed by the National Assembly on February 10, 2004 by a massive 494 to 36 margin, and became law when the Senate ratified it on March 2, 2004.

Neither the debate nor the outcome over the proposed ban should have come as a surprise. France has had a long history imposing uniformity in school and suppressing difference (Amdur 2004) because of a longstanding conflict between religious and secular authorities over whose rules should prevail.

For nearly 125 years after the French revolution, the Catholic Church tried everything to overthrow the Republic and replace it with a religion-friendly monarchy.  A fierce strain of anti-church sentiment evolved as a result of this reaction, and culminated in the 1905 passage of a law that separated church from state.

The law not only guaranteed free exercise of religious worship by ensuring a strict state neutrality toward religion, in addition to public spaces free of religious symbols, but also sought to emancipate individuals from those religious dogmas and community constraints that precluded people from full and equal involvement in society (Kastoryano 2004).

The revival of religion among Jews and Muslims reinforced the anti-clerical sentiment among those who fear the hijab as symbolizing the ‘thin edge of a Muslim wedge’ in undermining France’s secular foundations (Heneghan 2004).

The proposed ban was thus justified on grounds that, for France to uphold its secular foundation, it must defuse any potential for ethnic entanglements by making public space as neutral as possible through removal of conspicuous religious symbols.

Why France? Why now?

France is a devoutly secular society whose fundamentalist secularism is anchored in a commitment to liberal universalism.

With liberal universalism, a model for living together with differences is proposed that privileges the equality and autonomy of individuals within a universal humanity rather than race based group differences.

Liberal universalism is predicated on the premise that our commonalities supersede our differences. That what we have in common as rights bearing and free wheeling individuals is more important for purposes of recognition and reward than those differences that divide because of membership in racial or ethnic groups. To the extent that differences are tolerated, they cannot violate the laws of the land, interfere with peoples’ rights, demand special treatment, or challenge core constitutional values. Application of this agenda to religion is no less restrictive.

According to the pretend pluralism of a liberal universalism (Maaka and Fleras 2004), a society of many religions is possible as long as cultural differences are not taken seriously as grounds for allocating recognition or reward, differences are restricted to the private or personal realm, people agree with the principle of agreeing to disagree without resorting to violence or penalty, and differences are not invoked to justify special treatment (either negative or positive) because of the principle that everyone is equal before the law.

Clearly then a liberal universalism cannot be deemed to be diversity friendly unless these differences are of a superficial nature rather than “deep” and demanding of recognition or reward.

France like most liberal societies has few problems with a pretend religious pluralism. Tolerance is tolerable when religion is seen in largely symbolic and situational terms, with practices best relegated to the private and personal. But France like most societies is at a loss when dealing with religious differences that want to be publicly acknowledged as a basis for identity and treatment. Problems arise when religious minorities want religion to be taken seriously as a living and lived in reality rather than a compartmentalized symbol that is activated on those occasion when the situation demands.

For many Muslims, religion is not not simply an incidental marker of a person’s belief that can be negotiated as seen fit. To the contrary, religion matters, because it is lived in and full time – especially when under assault by unfriendly forces. Not surprisingly, Islam is emerging as a key element in peoples identity, especially for those alienated, in hopes of restoring a moral community in which religion becomes the element of internal cohesion, belonging, and distinction (Kastoryano 2004). Or as Gary Younge (2004) writes “ … a mosque is not just a place of worship – it is a place you won’t be spat at, where you will find people who look like you and have an understanding of what you are going through“.

The Debate: Laicité or Diversité?

Supporters of the ban relied on several lines of argument. The Head of Commission that produced the Report argued that banning all conspicuous religious symbols reflected and reinforced France’s strict secular tradition. Such restrictions are deemed necessary not only for protecting French secularism from Islamic fundamentalism but also as a way of curbing Muslim demands for special privileges such as treatment of female patients by female doctors only (see Sciolino 2003).

Others have argued that the head scarf itself is a symbol of Muslim patriarchy that subjugates women while hiding behind the platitudes of a religious observation.

Muslim girls were seen as victims manipulated by Islamic militants, parents, and brother in advancing political and religious agendas (Reuters 2004).

In short, banning the veil not only meant breaking the chains of bondage, for example, countering the pressure imposed on unveiled Muslim schoolgirls to join a religious revival, on but also in preserving the core constitutional values of liberty, equality, and the brotherhood at the heart of French society (Heneghan 2004).

Not everyone agreed with these lines of argument.  Questions were raised: Will banning the hijab help to integrate Muslim women or further isolate them, critics asked?

If the hijab is seen as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ in destroying secularism, will the slippery slope argument be manipulated to justify a host of discriminatory practices against racialized minorities? Critics of the bill criticized the proposed legislation as discriminatory since it ostensibly was aimed at the Muslim population. Restricting the hijab could spark more aggressive religious expressions by driving moderates into the arms of the extremists (Contenta 2004).

Besides, as Harvey Simmons argues (2004), the ban conveyed the wrong message in tarnishing those very institutions at the vanguard for integrating people of all faiths through exposure to democratic principles of tolerance and understanding. Finally, the implementation and enforcement would prove a costly and logistic nightmare, given the vagueness of the restrictions and difficulties of ensuring enforcement.

Critics also saw the ban as little more than political expediency. The government was accused of pandering to the right wing by appearing to be tough on diversity but strong on French culture and constitution while reassuring the French public by explicitly controlling the threat of a militant Islam.

Yet the content of the ban was wildly inconsistent:

Headscarves are to be banned in primary and secondary schools, according to the Report’s recommendations, but not at the university or in other public places such as in public or in workplaces, including government offices.

The report also recommended that public school cafeterias cater to the dietary preferences of observant Muslim and Jews, while endorsing the public observation of Jewish and Muslim holidays on the calendar (Sciolino 2003). Interestingly, there appeared to be no mention of a ban on the wearing of the burqa – a much more conspicuous item of clothing that entirely covers Muslim women. Such inconsistency suggests there is more to the ban than meets the eye.

Implications: Human Rights? Whose Human Rights?

Is there a right or wrong answer to this controversial ban? References to the hijab ban resonated with claims and counterclaims over conflicting notions of human rights. One side claimed human rights violation by imposing restrictions on an individuals right to religion and expression; the other side countered by saying that the human rights of all French citizens must prevail over the narrow religious agendas of fundamentalist religious groups.

True, France has legitimate right to worry about its cultural survival within a globalizing world dominated by English language and commercial values. As a sovereign state, France is entitled to promote strategies for securing their survival, even if this kind of nationalism raises troubling questions about the ethnic definition of citizenship in pluralistic societies.

In that every society has a right to make itself safe for diversity, safe from diversity, France can legitimately claim the right to secure its internal borders by ensuring conditions that allow cultural minorities to live together with their differences – a not altogether insignificant challenge in a society where Muslims now account for nearly 8 percent of the population (or 5 million) and Jews number around 600,000.

The hijab ban is also consistent with the French states historical impulse to impose its republican value system including secularism on its increasingly diverse population, arguing that the French ideals envisions a uniform secular French identity as the best guarantee of national unity, equal rights, and social order (Sciolino 2004).

To the other side are the human rights of Muslims. Yes, the French state may have a right to invoke a secular neutrality in the public sphere. But should this infringement be at the expense of individual rights to conscience, especially when religious symbols such as the headscarf involve a divine requirement that transcends the power of secular authorities (Cochrum 2004)?

For many, the real issue revolved around perceptions of the hijab as a symbol of female oppression. Yet proof is thin that wearing the headscarf is synonymous with backwardness or patriarchy. For young Muslim girls, the symbolic value of the hijab is not the same as their parents. The young girls are growing up quite differently from the way their mothers or grandmothers did in North Africa. They are integrating quickly into French society, but, paradoxically may rely on the hijab and Islam to make the transition. The hijab allows young Muslim women to maintain connections with their parents through religion rather than through the more archaic village traditions such as arranged marriages.

In other words, religion has replaced ethnic origin as one way of connecting with their families, since the link with parents is no longer through repressive village customs but through more open and progressive Muslim beliefs (cited in Heneghan 2004). To be sure, some Muslim woman are forced to wear the veil; such an imposition is to be expected in a religion within immense internal diversity. But many Muslim women do as a matter of choice and dignity (Kavakci 2004).

They are choosing to wear the hijab for modesty sake, out of religious conviction, from rebelliousness because of parental pressure, and as liberation from sexist and consumerist cultures. As one Muslim woman put it “There are quite a lot Muslims who don’t classify themselves as feminists, but they are adamant that at the end of the day, the wearing of the head scarf is a way of choosing to decide who gets to see their body and who doesn’t … And it’s a matter of personal conviction rather than a form of oppression or something that’s imposed on them” (cited in Heneghan 2004).

Veiling in Canada: The Micro politics of Identity

Canada no less than France has had to confront the challenges of religious pluralism because of its commitment to a secular multiculturalism. In the aftermath of September 11 that spotlighted Muslim dress codes and veiling, many Muslims were shocked and dismayed to find that they were perceived as “the other” (i.e.  Not really belonging to Canada) as well as the “enemy within” (Hoodfar et al 2003).  In theory, there should have been little to fear.

The situation of Muslims in Canada is radically different than in France, in large part because many Muslim-Canadians are mostly reasonably integrated into the economy by virtue of their degrees and professional status. By comparison, Muslims in France reflect the French policy of recruiting millions of poorly skilled immigrants from North and Sub-sahara Africa, who continue to arrive in large numbers, but increasingly find themselves unemployed and on social assistance (Dobuzinskis 2004).

Furthermore, the right to free religious expression and freedom from religious discrimination are constitutionally protected human rights issues. Not surprisingly, perhaps, a survey of 1500 adult Canadians in June of 2004 by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada indicated that two thirds of all Canadians would oppose laws preventing students from wearing religious symbols or clothing in public schools, including the Islamic veil (CRIC 2004). Nor would an official multiculturalism take issue with the hijab since Canada’s official multiculturalism is predicted on the belief that all Canadians have a right to identify with the religious / cultural symbols of their choosing, provided that religious and cultural practices do not violate the law of the land, interfere with the rights of others, or challenge core values and institutions.

So much for the theory, how about the practice? How to balance the constitutional principle and core cultural value of secularism with the demands and rights of religious minorities to freely practice those religious practices that do not coincide with mainstream values especially those of liberal universalism. From afar Canada looks good; up close, the image blurs.

First, Canada is not immune to pitched battles over religious symbols, including bitter debates over the feasibility of Sikh turbans in public institutions such as the RCMP.

Second, Canada has a history of compromising minority rights when majority interests are at stake. Restrictions on English speaking Canadians in Quebec to use English as a language of public communication is one case in point (though subject to debate).

Third, Canadians indicate a willingness to accommodate others if the concessions are perceived as reasonable. Canadians are much less tolerant of diversity if cultural differences are seen to threaten core Canadian values or national security, challenge widely accepted Canadian practices, or impose an unacceptably high cost (Fleras 2001).

Not surprisingly, Canadian reaction to the hijab debate is mixed: To one side, especially in English speaking Canada, the practice of veiling is tolerated as part of the multicultural mosaic. To the other side, reference to the hijab has become highly politicized in other parts of Canada- see also McDonough 2003 for controversies involving the hijab in Quebec schools – culminating in suspensions and expulsions from schools both private and public.

How does the hijab play itself out at the micro level? The veil (hijab) plays a critical role in advancing the adaptation and integration of young Muslim women into Canada. By balancing the modern with the traditional (Hoodfar 2003), the veil allows Muslim women to participate in public life without compromising cultural values and religious rights, while resisting those patriarchal beliefs and practices imposed in the name of Islam. A veiled woman can defend her Islamic right to choose a spouse and reject arranged marriages without alienating family and community support. Wearing a veil allows daughters to engage in unconventional practices for Muslim women, such as going to university, mingling with men, travelling long distances, living alone, or seeking non-conventional employment. Insofar as the veil symbolizes a continued commitment to tradition within the context of Canadian society, veiled daughters may be seen as publicly asserting their Muslim Canadian identity while taking steps to participate in Canadian society. To be sure, the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims has prompted some Muslim women to veil to openly assert the presence of a viable Muslim community in Canada.

For many Muslim women, veiling symbolizes piety and spirituality, and they are clearly unhappy with either Canada’s demonization of the veil as symbol of oppression or its elevation by extremists as a symbol of Muslim identity, resistance, and even jihad (Alvi et al 2003).

Nevertheless, it is not the veil that precludes the integration of Muslim women into Canadian society, according to Hoodfar (2003) but the colonial image of Muslims and continued demonization of Islam that has proven a major obstacle to integration and involvement.

In short, veiling and the hijab remains an indisputable symbol of Muslimness, in addition to its status as potent vehicle of symbolic communication (Alvi et al 2003).

Far from being a static symbol of female inferiority in Canada, the veil can mean different things in different contexts in a lived experience that already is full of contradiction and multiple meanings (Hoodfar 2003) – ranging in scope from religious conviction, resistance to the forces of assimilation, to escape control by men and senior family members, assertion of identity (Meshal 2003).

In some contexts, veiling remains a means of controlling women’s lives, in other contexts, women use the veil to empower themselves, bring about structural changes in society, and challenge some of those cultural and patriarchal practices that have denied, silenced, or excluded women.

The decision to wear the veil also reinforces how women use Islam as a flexible resource to support their own views and practices (Predelli 2004).

In other words, the veil may have originated in patriarchal circumstances to control women; nonetheless, Muslim women have appropriated the symbol to ways both empowering and subversive.

Reference to the veil symbolizes a means of turning the tables – of actively asserting identity and defining themselves in relationship to others as opposed to being identified and defined as different by exclusion or ostracism (Hoodfar 2003).

In other words, Muslim women are not passive victims, like wheelbarrows of earth waiting to be pushed around with relatively impunity by patriarchal structures.  To the contrary, they increasingly assume a role as active agents who want their difference to be taken seriously in a society that claims be multicultural in principle and inclusive in practice.

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Issues and Debates. Toronto: The Women’s Press

Amdur, Rueul S (2004). “French Go For Uniformity”
Echo. May P. 9

CRIC- Centre for Research and Information on Canada (2004).
“New Canada, Revisited. July 1, 2004″. Ottawa

Cochrum, Alan (2004). A French Fracas Over Faith
The Sun. February 2004

Dobuzinskis, Laurent (2004). “Reasons, Reasonableness, and Reason”
Inroads 15:80-85

Heneghan, Tom (2004). “Muslims Say French Misunderstand Headscarf Issue”
Agence France Presse. February 9th

Hoodfar, Homa (2003). “More Than Clothing: Veiling as an
Adaptive Strategy” in S.S. Alvi et al (eds.). The Muslim Veil in
North America. Pp. 3-40. Toronto: The Women’s Press

Hoodfar, Homa et al. (2003). “Introduction” in S.S. Alvi et al.
(eds.). The Muslim Veil in North America. Pp. xi-xxiii. Toronto:
The Women’s Press

Kastoryano, Riva (2004). “France’s Veil Affair”
Inroads 15:62-71

Kavakci, Merve (2004). “Headscarf Controversy”
Foreign Policy. May/June: 66-67

Maaka Roger and Augie Fleras (2004). The Politics of Indigeneity
Dunedin NZ: University of Otago Press

McDonough, Sheila (2003). “Perceptions of Hijab in Canada” in
SS Alvi et al (eds.). The Muslim Veil in North America.
Pp.121-42. Toronto: The Women’s Press

Meshal, Reem A. (2003). “Banners of Faith and Identities in
Construct: The Hijab in Canada” in S.S. Alvi et al (eds.)
The Muslim Veil in North America. Pp. 72-104. Toronto:
The Women’s Press.

Predelli, L N (2004). “Interpreting Gender in Islam: A Case Study of Immigrant Muslim Women in Oslo Norway”
Gender & Society 18 (4):473-493

Resnick, Philip (2004). “Republicanism, Multiculturalism, and Liberalism”
Inroads 15:77-79

Reuters (2004) “Turkey’s head scarf ban is upheld by rights courts
International Herald Tribune June 30

Siddiqui, Haroon (2004). “Why Hijab Disturbs Dictators, Democrats”
Toronto Star. Feb 15th

Teitel, Ruti (2004). Through the Veil, Darkly: Why France’s Ban on the Wearing of Religious Symbols is Even More Pernicious Than It Appears
available at: teitel.html


“The Usual Suspects”:   Police Racial Profiling or Racial Rashomon?
volume 15 #1 2006

Both sociologists and filmmakers embrace what postmodernists claim to have unearthed. People see, interpret, and experience the world differently because of their social location in society. The revered Japanese film producer, Akira Kurosawa, explored this multi-perspectival theme in his brilliantly conceived film, Rashomon. This 1951 epic focused on the competing perceptions of those implicated in a brutal incident involving a woman, her husband, and a bandit, with a peasant as eyewitness. By constructing a version of events that reflected favorably on themselves, each of the incumbents differently interpreted the death of the husband and rape of his wife by the bandit. In acknowledging the radical relativism of truth claims – there is no such thing as objective truth (or absolute reality), only discourses about truth, whose ‘truthfulness’ reflects a person’s social location (or ‘standpoint’) with respect to who they are (race, ethnicity, gender etc.), what they do (work), and what they own (class) – Kurosawa tapped into the futility of certainty in our postmodern world.

The micro-politics by which divergent and self-serving interpretations define the same incident – that what we see depends on where we stand – has come to be known as the ‘Rashomon effect’. Reference to the Rashomon effect may help to untangle a paradox in race relations. That is, why do some believe that racism in Canada is under control while others think it is out control? To one side are those Canadians who individualize and downplay the scope and impact of racism. They prefer to see racism as the random and aberrant act of a dysfunctional individual (“bad apples”) whose unfortunate actions are at odds with an open and tolerant society. Solutions are fairly straightforward: Change peoples attitude by exposing them to sensitivity classes. To the other side are those Canadians who emphasize the spiraling scope and corrosive effect of racism. Racism is deemed to be institutionalized, deeply embedded within the structures and culture of a racialized society, and resistant to behaviour modification because of systemic barriers. The system is fundamentally rotten to the core, in other words, with the bad apples simply a manifestation of the rot that has set in. Solutions follow accordingly, that is, transform the system that generates power imbalances.

In short, a perceptual divide is apparent:  One set of discourses criticizes Canada as a systemically racist society in need of transformation from the top down. Another discursive framework perceives Canada as fundamentally sound with a few knuckle-dragging Neanderthals to spoil the plot. Clearly, then, a racial Rashomon is in effect because of these diametrically opposed viewpoints. Such a perceptual gap over the nature of racism in Canada is not without consequence: How can we expect to live together differently yet equitably if Canadians can’t agree on the magnitude of the forces that are dividing us.

Reference to the Rashomon effect exposes yet another paradox in race relations; namely, police racial profiling in a multicultural Canada. Racial profiling consists of actions undertaken by authorities for reasons of safety or security that rely on race stereotypes to target certain individuals. With profiling, a process is set into motion by which authorities single out racialized minorities for discriminatory treatment (from stops to searches to arrrests) because of stereotypical assumptions that link them with crime, criminality,or breaches of security. For example, is an expensive SUV stopped because it is speeding and swerving, or, because the driver is a young black male under police suspicion for stealing it or concealing drugs or guns?

Do the police engage in a form of racial harassment known as racial profiling? Who says so? If so, why? Are there data to support this allegation? Is it possible to measure the scope of police racial profiling, or do the measures say more about the measuring and the measurer rather than the measured? If profiling exists, is the bias restricted to a few rogue police officers (“bad apples theory”) or is it institutionally entrenched as ‘the way we do things around here’ (“rotten barrel theory”)? Is profiling suspects on the basis of race ever justified? Does it represent an effective deployment of increasingly scarce police resources, or does chasing people down because of colour reflect a waste of scarce resources?

In response to the questions over police profiling, some say no, never; others say yes, always; and still others said maybe, but only occasionally. Police authorities tend to deny the existence of racial profiling – either as principle or practice – while conceding the possibility of a few rogue officers in their midst. As far as the police are concerned, they stop what they see, not who they see, so that only criminal behaviour is profiled regardless of skin colour. If blacks are overrepresented in police sweeps, they argue, it’s not because of profiling but because their criminal behaviour. Besides, according to some proponents of getting tough on crime, profiling represents a necessary if unfortunate byproduct of sensible policing; after all, police are in the business of stopping people, and all modern police work is grounded on the principle of preventing crime through extensive surveillance of people’s movements in high crime areas – thus increasing the likelihood of targeting the ‘usual suspects’.

Others disagreed: Academics, newspaper editorials, and members of the Black community supported what young black males have long proclaimed: Police tend to stop who they see rather than what they see. Narratives involving racialized minorities expose a pattern of police harassment that profiles black males. Young black men who embrace a hip hop style of appearance are stopped in their cars, or bikes, or in subways by the police or security guards for no seemingly valid reason. Then they are questioned perhaps in an aggressive manner and accused of uncivil conduct such as loitering or jaywalking or disturbing the peace by talking loudly. They may not be told of the reason for the stop or ID check, and when pressing for answer, may end up being detained, handcuffed, searched, fined, or even charged for obstruction of justice, resisting arrest or assaulting an officer. Excessive force or deployment of police cars or officers may be used to control the situation, even if the youth is alone, relatively small, or disabled. As a result race, youth, and poverty are criminalized because of a zero-tolerance policy against incivilities with its disproportionate adverse impact on Black and Brown men. In the words of one anguished and angry parent “there is no greater pain or anger than seeing your son being treated like an animal by the very people who are paid by your tax dollars to serve and protect you”.

In short, a racial rashomon is evident. Each racialized group not only sees different types of racisms, but the magnitude and scope varies as well, with whites acknowledging the possibility of a “few bad apples” while minorities define the system as “rotten to the core” with the bad apples a sign of the rot in progress. On the one hand are those who argue that, to the extent police racial profiling exists, it is random and infrequent, and reflecting a few mavericks who can be roped in for sensitivity training. On the other hand are those who claim that police racial profiling is widespread, systemically entrenched within policing culture and organization, and in need of wholesale structural changes for eradication This perceptual gap was nicely captured by one senior police official who declared, “You think we profile, we think we don’t”.

These opposing reactions are entirely understandable if we recall the concept of social location. Senior police officials who rarely encounter any discrimination because of their race tend to underestimate the prevalence and intensity of racism. The combination of whiteness, power, and affluence diminishes the possibility of experiencing racial bias. By contrast, blacks and minorities may emphasize the extent and intensity of racism because of their visiblity, powerlessness, and poverty. Police racism is perceived as institutional and systemic (‘whole rotten barrel’) because of minority experiences of racial discrimination on a regular basis. In generating arrests from random stops, strips, and searches, this racial profiling amounts to little more than institutionalized harassment since police use their authority to ‘over-police’ those street crimes where visibility becomes a factor.

The highly contentious issue of police race profiling was put to the test when Kingston Police Services released the results of a one year study to determine if police practised racial profiling. The project was designed to gather information on the nature of non-casual contacts between Kingston police officers and the general public. To determine whether the exercise of police discretion results in unequal treatment, each police officer was instructed to fill out a ‘contact card’ that indicated the ‘race’ (ie. Race as perceived by police officers) as well as the gender and age of those local residents who were stopped on a non-casual basis. A total of 10, 114 incidents were eventually tabulated, with traffic stops accounting for about one third of the stops and pedestrian incidents accounting for the remainder.

The results of the Report, entitled Bias Free Policing and compiled by University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley proved to be both interesting and provocative: interesting because the results supported what critics were saying all along; provocative because the results lacked validity (ie. they could not prove what they set out to prove). According to the data, some racialized minorities are stopped more often than others. Blacks who constitute 0.6 percent of Kingston’s population were stopped 2.2 percent of the time, yielding a stop ratio of 3.67. Compare this figure with whites who accounted for about 93 percent of the population and about 93 percent of the stops for a stop ratio of 0.99. Aboriginal peoples were overrepresented in police stops, according to the report, but this overrepresentation was eliminated by controlling for repeated stops of the same individual. South Asians who comprise 2.5 percent of Kingston’s population accounted for 1.3 percent of the stops for a stop ratio of 0.5 while Asians with 1.3 percent of the population accounted for 0.9 percent of the stops, for a stop ratio of about 0.8. Or consider the number of stops per 1,000 of race and gender, (keeping in mind that small population bases can distort ratios): Black males, 213/1,000, Black females 74/1000; West Asian males-105/1000, West Asian females -23/1000; Hispanic males-83/1000, Hispanic females10/1000; White males-75/1000, White females-29/1000; South Asian males-63/1000, South Asian females-19; Aboriginal males -51/1000, Aboriginal females-35/1000; Asian males-42/1000, Asian females—16/1000.

Reaction to these data were predictable?

To one side were police authorities who said we don’t profile or at least not very often; To the other side were community activists and academics who said they do and do so routinely because the practice is systemic. For some, the fact that police stop young black males more frequently is proof of “anti black racism”.  Both local and regional media headlines appeared to endorse this conclusion:“Kingston proves race bias”, “Activists pounce on police race study”, “Kingston police apologize after racial bias study”.  Others disputed the findings.

As far as Toronto’s Police Association president was concerned, the report “proves nothing” – much less the existence of systemic racism within the police services. An editorial in a major Toronto paper was equally dismissive: Do the data point to anti Black bias by police? Or is it a case that young Black males are more likely to engage in unlawful or suspicious behaviour? Or are Blacks more likely to attract police attention because of their visibility and preference for public spaces. If racial profiling exists,why do police not direct this bias at Asians? Paradoxically, it concluded, an anti white bias could be inferred from the results, since Asian and South Asian groups are stopped less frequently per 1000 of race than whites. Is there a sexist bias (‘gender profiling’) in light of the three to one ratio of male stops to females stops? Do the data point to an anti youth bias (‘age profiling’); after all, only 7 percent of stops involved those over 55 years, compared to 35 percent for the 15 to 24 year olds?

Put bluntly, the Kingston Police study did little to quell the debate over police racial profiling. The study could only prove that police stopped young black males more frequently than any other group as a proportion of the population, in effect strongly implying a degree of police profiling, but incapable of determining its status as either systemic or personal – a point conceded by both the Kingston police chief, William Closs and Scot Wortley in his preliminary analysis. Still, to dismiss the study because of weaknesses or inconclusiveness is tantamount to throwing out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. While the project was unable to prove with any degree of certainty whether systemic racial profiling exists within Kingston police, it did reveal awkward disparities that cannot be casually discarded. Racial profiling exists because race is frequently a factor in making discretionary judgements, only its scale and kind is open to debate. Such an assertion does not imply that police are racist although racial considerations play a part in processing information. Nevertheless, public perceptions of police racial profiling must be addressed if only to allay community apprehension. After all, when it comes to justice, perceptions are reality, and justice delayed is justice denied.

Canadian Press, 2005, “Kingston police apologize after racial bias study”. Printed in The Record. May 27; Closs, William J. 2005, The Kingston Police Data Collection Project. A Preliminary report to the Kingston Police Services Board. March 17; CRARR Communique, May 16, 2005; De Souza, Fr. Raymond J. 2005. ”Kingston’s teary sideshow » National Post June 1;Editorial, 2005, “Those racial statistics”. The Globe and Mail. May 28;Freeze, Colin, 2005, “Activists pounce on police racism study”. The Globe and Mail. May 28;James, Royson, 2002. What I fear most for my sons. Toronto Star. October 21Loney, Martin, 2005, “Show us the numbers”. National Post May 30;Porter, Catherine, 2005, “Kingston proves racial bias”. Toronto Star. May 27; Tanovich, David, 2006, The Colour of Justice. Toronto: Irwin Law. Tator, Carole and Frances Henry. 2006.Racial Profiling in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto Press. Wente, Margaret, 2005, “Is the real problem here crime or systemic racism?” The Globe and Mail. May 31. Wortley, Scott 2005. Bias Free Policing. Kingston Police Services


Dueling Discourses: Multiculturalism in Canada and the United States

“Mosaic” versus “melting pot”. “Tossed salad” versus “kaleidoscope”. “Unity in diversity” versus “E pluribus unum” (from many, one). “Managing Diversity” versus “celebrating differences”. “Multiculturalism” versus “multiculturalist”. It’s been said that English-speaking Canadians and Americans share a common language but speak in different codes. Words such as “equality” or “liberalism” often assume shaded nuances of meaning when articulated on either side of the border. Nowhere are the divergences more evident than in discourses (=distinct yet coherent way of talking about something) about diversity.

Canadians and Americans appear especially divided over the loaded term, “multiculturalism”. Consider differences in usage: Multiculturalism in Canada is usually defined as a political response to ethnic differences. Compare this with definitions of multiculturalism in the United States that normally focus on challenging the Eurocentric contours of American society. Multicultural discourses in Canada entail a commitment to a civil society by way of “consensus”, “citizenship”, and “commonality”. By contrast, the thrust of multiculturalism in the United States is critical of how cultural space is organized and evaluated. Whereas Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism is anchored around the discourse of equality and the regulatory power of the government, multiculturalism in the United States is rooted in debates over identity politics and post modernist culture wars. One is officially political, yet seeks to de-politicize diversity for society- building purposes; the other falls outside the policy domain, but politicizes differences as catalyst for minority improvement. There is nothing wrong in conceding the evaluation of mutually exclusive discourses in the management of race and ethnic relations. Difficulties arise when the two discourses are employed indiscriminatly or interchangeably.

Consensus Multiculturalism / Liberal Discourse

It is commonly assumed that Canada’s multiculturalism heralds an innovative departure in the management of race and ethnic relations. Reality suggests otherwise: With its espousal of universalism and tolerance as core values, Canadian multiculturalism may be interpreted as a logical extension of liberal principles in a pluralistic democracy (see also Raz 1994. At the core of liberal pluralism is a constellation of tacitly accepted assumptions consistent with Canada’s “consensus” multiculturalism. These premises can be analyzed around a series of complementary oppositions that are distinctive and distinguish liberal pluralism from competing discourses.

Universalism vs Particularism
that what we have in common as Canadians is much more important than what divides us along the lines of race, culture, or ethnicity. All people are equal before the law and deserving of similar treatment irrespective of nationality or race.

Achievement vs Ascription
that what we do and personally accomplish is much more important than who we are as a basis for recognition and reward. Patterns of distribution should reflect merit not birthright.

Nurture vs Nature
that people are fundamentally alike, and should be treated accordingly. Differences that exist are superficial since they reflect environmental conditoning, not inheritance. These differences are malleable and subject to modification.

Equality vs Ethnicity
that ethnicity should be irrelevant in how we treat and evaluate others. Minority problems do not begin with cultural deprivation but from lack of achievement on Western terms. To be sure, a diminished cultural identity can lead to reduced self-esteem, with a corresponding diminishment of individual social capital (Mulgan 1993). But only conferral of equal opportunity can ensure full and equal minority participation within the institutional framework of society.

Tolerance vs Acceptance
that individuals have the right to be different, within limits, without incurring penalties or sanctions for their preferences. Tolerance for differences rests on the oft-repeated assumption that culturally secure individuals are more likely to extend a similar right to others, thus cultivating the grounds for intercultural harmony and social unity through a reciprocating process of sharing and empathy (Berry et al 1977). Yet tolerance for diversity is one thing; its acceptance in the public domain as grounds for entitlement or empowerment is quite another.

Individual vs Collective Rights
that society should be organized around the principle of individual rights and universal judgements rather than on the grounds of collective rights and particularistic judgements (see also Breton 1997).

Inclusiveness vs Essentialism
that keeping open the lines of communication and interaction is more important than self-imposed separation. National unity is possible only with a fully informed consensus, itself a byproduct of lively debate among all reasonable individuals regardless of origins or nationality (see Bak 1992).

Unity vs Diversity
that cultural differences do not belong in the public domain if they challenge common values (Lindsay 1995; Rex 1996). Openess to fringe views is permissible in private, personal domain, yet closedness is indispensible for social harmony.

In short, multicultural discourses in English-speaking Canada are inescapably liberal in outlook and rationale. The political community and its boundaries are taken for granted as givens in a liberal tradition. That leaves the question of how to cope with diversity without infringing on core liberal values. Of several possible answers, one points to multiculturalism as a permissible discourse for recognizing ethnic minorities. Canada’s multiculturalism has evolved into an official doctrine, together with a corresponding set of practices for accommodating diversity as legitimate, without undermining natinoal integrity or institutional interconnectedness. Crucial to the goal of consensus and conformity is full and equal participation for minority women and men. Multicultural strategies for attainment of these goals are varied: They span the spectrum from promoting proactive measures to fostering tolerance toward diversity, reducing prejudice, removing social and cultural barriers, enhancing equitable access to services, expanding institutional engagement, and improving intergroup encounters. That official multiculturalism has not delivered the goods expected of it is understandable in light of hidden agendas, competing demands, and conflicting expectations. The gap between ideals and reality may also explain the declining significance of multiculturalism as official Canadian discourse in contrast with its burgeoning popularity within American cultural circles


Multiculturalism in the U.S.A.:   A Counter-hegemonic Challenge

Multiculturalism as discourse has attracted considerable attention in a society whose ideological attachments once spun around the pull of melting pot metaphors. Discourses on diversity were invariably rooted in the politics of assimilation: A universalistic and achievement oriented society prevailed that formally emancipated individuals from the shackles of heredity and birthright yet foreclosed genuine equality and cultural identities. But multicultural discourses have challenged the venerable liberal principle that individuals are fundamentally alike and endlessly variable. Contested too is the liberal belief that individuals should be judged by the content of their character than by the colour of their skin. Under “critical” multiculturalism is the “UnAmerican” view that personal patterns of engagement and entitlementshould be determined by disadvantage or birthright rather than merit. Modernist values such as the ideal of universalism and Western rationality are dismissed as slyly hegemonic in their forced fusion of all minorities into a single polity (Maufart 1995:2). Not surprisingly, reaction to multiculturalism is fiercely contested. This receptivity is further strained by realization that multicultural discourses go beyond accommodation and celebration. What is proposed instead under critical multiculturalism is an anti-hegemonic discourse at odds with the American Dream.

Mutliculturalism as a critical discourse constitutes a direct challenge to American liberal traditions (see Crick 1996). In place of liberalism is a postmodernist commitment to radical relativism (“hyper-relativism”) as grounds for sorting out “who gets what, and why”. Critical multiculturalism begins with the relativist assumption that in a society permeated by ethnic identities and antagonisms only differences matter (see Wilentz 1996). These differences rather than liberal appeals to formal equality or institutional accommodation provide a legitimate basis for entitlement and engagement. Appeals to cultural coexistence or tolerance for diversity are insufficient: The moral imperative of a critical postmodernist multiculturalism demands nothing less than those celebratory efforts to politicize, recover, preserve, or promote recognition of a threatened collective identity. In short, multiculturalism in the United States constitutes an anti-hegemonic discourse that “relativizes” the Eurocentric ethnocentrism of American society. Proposed instead is primacy of diversity or disadvantage as a basis for asserting the individuality of minority cultures (Maufart 1995). Key themes can be discerned in the “relativization” of cultural space, many of which are diametrically opposed to the principles of liberal pluralism


National Identity Crisis

A national identity crisis . Collective angst over fractured values. Unease over multiculturalism. Resentment towards immigrants. Alarm over aboriginal land claims and costs of settlement. Fears of political elites out of touch with the electorate. Sound Familiar? No, this is not another lament for Canada, but rather of Australia where debates over multiculturalism, immigration, and identity have sorel tested the mettle of this normally “lucky” country.

Australia and Canada have a lot in common. The share the honour of being two of the world’s only countries who routinely accept large scale immigration as a matter of public policy. Immigrants are drawn largely from non-European sources, especially Asia, in effect propping up regional economies but not without backlash or concern. Both Canada and Australia are multicultural in policy and principle – even if ideals rarely mathc practice in creating a society safe for ethnicity, safe from ethnicity. Debates over identity in each country have also escalated in direct proportion to the magnitude and pace of social and demographic change.

The new mood of uncertainty that shrouds Australia stems from perceived erosion of “white” Australian and to Paul Kelly, editor of the Australian, the moorings that once held Australia in place have been cast adrift.

Australians once revered a commitment to :
(a) white Australia
(b) trade protection
(c) central wage arbitration
(d) state paternalism, and
(e) the Commonwealth

They are now expected to endorse the principles of :
(a) a multiculturally diverse Australia
(b) internationalization of capital and dismantling of trade barriers
(c) market principles instead of economic regulation
(d) loss of faith in government services, and
(e) independence from Britain

Of special note is a political conviction that Australia’s future is inextricably linked with the fortunes of East Asia and Japan. While many applaud and have profited from this realignment with East Asia and Japan, others have not, and the resulting discrepancy animates much of the contemporary social dynamics in Australia.

The fractious issue of “where to draw the line” erupted into the open last September when a Pauline Hanson, a fish and chip shop owner from Queensland, delivered her inaugural speech in Parliament as an Independent MP. By castigating a host of diversity initiatives as conterproductive or unfair, Ms Hanson directed her vitriol at Multiculturalism and immigration, in particular rebuking Asian immigrants who allegedly huddled into ghettoes, failed to participate in society, engaged in crime, menaced Australian culture, and exploited welfare systems. The Aboriginal Nations in Australia were also taken to task for demanding special treatment over land and rights.

Many quickly condemned Ms Hanson’s “politically incorrect” comments. The Prime Minister disavowed the Office from Ms Hansons comments while conceding her right to free expression. Parliament passed a bipartisan resolution condemning racism; over 60 percent of Australia ‘s newspaper editorials rose in righteous indignation, the business community fretted over the foreclosur of Asian business opportunities(according to the Dec l4, l996 issue Economist, over 60 percent of Australia’s exports are to East Asia and Japan, compared with only 50 percent in l988); and organizers of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 sprang into damage control mode in one last ditch to salvage Australia’ tarnished international image. To little avail: Hanson’s popularity and profile clearly confirmed how such seemingly intemperate views plucked a resounding chord of approval among white Australians, many of whom deeply resented the “defection” of Australia into the arms of Asia. As colum nist Jeffrey Simpson has correctly observed, Ms Hanson’s speech tapped into a dormant vein of those victimized by the proposed ‘Asianizing’ of Australia.

The actual comments by Ms Hanson are insignificant in themselves: What is important are the public responses and social implication of this rattling of skeletons in Australia’s closet. Social issues were reopened that many thought were once settled, namely, Australia as a multicultral society with a non-discriminatory immigration policy and accommodative infrastructure. By speaking the unspoken, Ms Hanson revealed how Australian identity was forged by myths that have been exposed as fraudulent self-delusions. The fracturing of this carefully cobbled consensus has also exposed a rift between political elites and the common Aussie “bloke” over how Australians see themselves and their place in the global scheme of things. Resentful of furthe r social and economic changes, white Australians appear to be pining for a reinstatement of mainstream values even if this entails a turning back the clock to the “good ol days”. Abolition of the Office of Multiculturalism as well as the Bureau for Multicultural, Immigration, and Population Research by the recently elected Conservative Government may signal a pending retrenchment along these lines.

To be sure, fears over the Asianization of Australia are exaggerated and misplaced. Of Australia’s 18 million population, only a small percentage are Asian, a figure that is unlikely to increase dramatically, following reductions in the annual immigration intake from an average of about 120,000 per year between l985 and l995 to about 75,000. Nor is there much evidence in support of charges levelled against Asian-Australians, although isolated cases provide an excuse for demonizing Asian-Australians through hyperbole and political grandstanding. As in politics elsewhere, however, perception is reality. Perceptions of a crisis confirms that Australia (like Canada) must now grapple with the most fundamental of paradoxes that confront contemporary society-building: That is, how to reconcile the values that for nearly 200 years secured a white Australian, with the emergent values of a new and multiculturally diverse Australia? The path ahead does not promise to be a smooth one, as explained by the Australian columnist, Bernard Lane, but strewn “with difficulty”, with disagreement, with conceptual paradox, and practical uncertainty! As Canadians we would be wise to heed his advice, nor should we cavalierly dismiss the significance of Pauline Hanson who – for better or worse – did not flinch from the courage of conviction to express in public what many felt in private. Her voice may be that of old white Australia, Jeffrey Simpson concedes, but its echo cannot be muffled in the path to forge a post-modern Australia.

Economist (l996) “A National Identity Crisis” Dec 14
Kelly, Paul (l996) “Back to the Century” Australian Dec 28
Lane, Bernard (l996) “Title Fight” Australian. Dec 28
Simpson, Jeffrey (l996) “Yesterday’s Australia Puts the Dingo Among the Sheep” Globe and Mail. Nov 28


A Broken System or Working As Intended?


A Black Lives Matter rally in Toronto in late August 2016 drew attention to a deeply uncomfortable truth. The criminal justice system implicated in the police killing of AbdiRahman Abdi, a 37 year old Somali-Canadian man was neither broken nor malfunctioning, according to BLM activists, but working precisely as intended in punishing (marginalizing and controlling) those at the margins of Canada’s racialized facade. Or in the words of Ta Nehisi Coates in criticizing the situation in the U.S., it’s not a case of bad cops doing police work badly, but good cops doing exactly what they were hired to do. This inconvenient accusation clearly disrupted conventional wisdom, namely, the system is broken and in dire need of repairs. For, as Chanelle A. Jones points out in a different context, to assert that something is broken is to assume a system both devoid of historical context and institutionalized biases. More accurately, it’s safer to say the system is inherently broke not because of collusion or conspiracy, but because of a structure that requires a complete overhaul for justice to prevail. In other words, comforting fictions to the contrary, there is nothing neutral, value free or structurally innocent about Canada. Rather, Canada constitutes a socially constructed artifice infused with the values and agendas that reflect and reinforce dominant ideologies and advance vested interests. Canada originated in an era of unabashed white supremacy, remained a defiantly white society well into the 1950s, and remains systemically white at present because of racialized assumptions that inform its Eurocentric constitutional order. In short, Canada’s oppression of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities is not a mistake or aberration – a kind of residual fallout or collateral damage from on otherwise healthy and virtuous arrangement – but working according to plan when refracted through the prism of a systemic white Canada.

Establishing a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples ranks near the top of the Liberal government’s agenda. As progressive this promise is, it tends to gloss over the complexities and politics of relations-repair. Too often even the well intentioned begin with the assumption that the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples is broken and in need of renewal and reconciliation for righting the relationship. However intuitive this premise, the discourse on relations-repair is not without an implied blind spot. This discursive framework is implicitly based on the functionalist premise that the system was/is essentially righteous and fair, but now in disrepair, and must be reset to restore it to its former glory. Yet neither the system nor the relationships within it were designed to work in an inclusive manner. They were constructed instead to privilege and promote a Euro-whiteness that promulgated settler interests at the expense of the dispossessed and disempowered. Admittedly, Canadians want to believe that Canada’s history comprised a cooperative venture between settlers and the original occupants aside, of course, from a few bad apples on both sides of the divide to disturb the virtues of ‘peace, order, and good government’. In reality, according to Taiaiake Alfred and others such as Jeff Corntassel and Glen Coulthard, Canada was coaxed into existence through a tissue of lies, fraudulent abuses, and calculated violence that nearly annihilated the original inhabitants through forced assimilation and genocidal practices. This exercise in separating polite (even delusional) fictions from impolitic (inconvenient) truths is critical for “unsettling the settler within”. Reference to Canada as systemically white offers a new interpretive lens for explaining the government-sanctioned plunder of Indigenous peoples lands, culture and children; the exploitation of racialized workers, from 19 century Chinese railroad labourers to 21st century temporary foreign workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program; and those inequalities of exclusions that infiltrate institutional spaces from policing and education to child protection/care services (Fleras, 2017). It also serves to remind, as Lisa Monchalin argues in her book, The Colonial Problem: An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada, of the challenges that await in repairing a broken relationship by working within a system that created the problem in the first place yet remains oblivious to its magnitude, indifferent to the depth of its complicity and impervious to any foundational solution.

Paradoxically, reference to the word “broken” may be unhelpful when applied to human patterns and intergroup relations. The concept “broken system” is predicated on the assumption that :

(a) the current system isn’t working as intended

(b) it’s causing major social problems

(c) it must be fixed through comprehensive reform

But as Paul Knox Clarke argues in his ALNAP blog, when an appliance breaks, it is broken unequivocally. The options are to fix it, throw it away, or buy a new one. By contrast, relations and systems don’t break in this way because, unlike appliances or machines, they are not fixed in form or function. Rather they are contested and negotiated social phenomena, with the result that some components change, others don’t; some elements work well, others badly and still others hardly at all. Moreover, not everyone agrees on which parts of the system require sweeping changes for putting it back to where it was before or, alternatively, to toss away the arrangement and start over again. Nowhere is this indecisiveness more evident than in the ongoing debates over the so-called “Indian problem” (or more accurately, the ”Indians” Canada problem). Sharp disagreements exist over how the system that houses Canada-Indigenous peoples relationship is broken, why, and what must be done to solve it – more assimilation (“modernization”), more self determining autonomy, or more accommodation. Clearly, then, the “broken” metaphor may prove a poor fit in reframing the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. For, unlike buying a new appliance, tested and inspected, a wholly new system has neither been put to the test nor proven more successful than the current one. In other words, the politics of a broken system constitutes a rhetorical device (“soundbite”) for conveying a rallying cry of action. In the final analysis, however, the slogan is no substitute for the messy and complex job of making difficult choices and substantive changes in a real world

In short, references to the trope “the system is broken” may be well-intentioned yet potentially misleading. First, the inequalities of exclusion both in the past and at present are not necessarily aberrations from a sound and functioning system. Instead, they reflect the logical expressions of a system constructed to consolidate a rigged society that privileges some, disadvantages others. Even formal guarantees of equality rights cannot possibly level a systemically unlevel playing field; after all, racialized minorities and Indigenous peoples may be equal on paper, but they must exercise these rights in a systemic white context neither created to reflect their lived experiences nor constructed to advance their interests. Second, if Canadians are serious about challenging the relational biases of colonialism and Eurocentricity, it’s not enough to tinker with the conventions that refer to the rules– a process akin to applying a bandage over a malignant wound. More to the point, it’s about dismantling those structural rules that inform the conventions to bring about transformative changes– a daunting scenario for, as Mao Zedong once said (and I paraphrase), transformation is not a tea party. Third, a commitment to relations-repair must remain at the forefront of models and moves for decolonizing Canada along the postcolonial lines of a power-sharing partnership. Nevertheless, caution is advised. A relations-repair model must transcend those narratives that mistakingly focus on resetting a once-working relationship, now damaged yet salvageable. The challenge lies in shifting the narrative toward a focus on an inherently flawed relationship intrinsic to a system that continues to extol a “colonial mentality, moral indifference, and historical ignorance”. Such an assessment reinforces the value of drawing inspiration from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) and the more recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). They, too, extol the centrality of relations-repair, albeit within a framework that acknowledges how Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples began broke, and is working precisely – and perversely – as planned


Cultural Appropriation in a Multicultural Canada: It’s Complicated


The complex politics of cultural appropriation continue to puzzle and provoke. Social media are abuzz with accusations and counter-accusations among those who oppose or defend an activity called cultural appropriation (Lenard and Balint 2019). Questions abound over the complexities at play, with little indication of any resolution in sight. In a multicultural Canada that initially emphasized sharing, exchanges, and interaction – as espoused by Pierre Trudeau in his legendary speech to Parliament in 1971 – do mainstream writers, artists, and journalists have a right – even an obligation – to write about the cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples and the lived realities of racialized minorities? Or to spin it a bit differently, can intellectual workers justify a right to the content of their imagination without violating intellectual property rights when artistic license commodifies cultural artifacts or encroaches on sensitive topics? Do sport teams retain the prerogative to appropriate Indigenous symbols as team mascots or to brand merchandise on the excuse they are paying tribute to a culture and peoples they admire? Do individuals possess the option to wear whatever Halloween costume they want if no disrespect toward an ethnicity or religion is intended? Are members of one historically disadvantaged groups entitled to dip into the cultural realities of other historically disadvantaged groups without being accused of appropriation? Is cultural appropriation a code for racism when members of a dominant group exploit a minority group’s traditions without permission, recognition, or payment (Neal Lester in Harris 2017)? Is the offensiveness of cultural appropriation in the act itself or does the real problem lie in extenuating circumstances such as loss of economic opportunity (Young 2008; Lenard and Balint 2019). For example, consider how the Black pioneers of rock and roll never received their due while white artists such as Elvis Presley were feted as cultural icons and amply rewarded. As the poet Amiri Baraka explains in offering a key distinction:

The problem is that if The Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie [Johnston], I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson Mississippi. It’s that kind of inequality that’s abusive, not the actual appropriation of culture because that’s normal (cited in Malik 2017:4)

More analytically oriented questions also come to mind. To what extent is appropriation akin to plagiarism at a cultural level – that is, falsely passing off authorship of someone else’s intellectual property for personal gain and full credit (Rosamund 2002)? Is it possible to make a distinction between appropriation (“good”) vs misappropriation (“bad”)? On what grounds do we distinguish between objectionable and unobjectionable appropropriation based on the question of what do cultures own and what is in the public domain (or the intellectual commons) (Young and Haley 2009)? Or is all appropriation, by definition, inappropriate (ie. a misappropriation) even if there is no underlying animus or intent to dehumanize (Friedersdorf 2017)? How to balance the right to free expression – one of the more important rights in a liberal multicultural regime of give and take – with the right of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities to protect what’s left of their cultural traditions from representations that slander, stereotype, or desecrate? What would a progressive society look like it if it prioritized minority concerns to be free of wrongful appropriation without unduly curbing a personal right to freedom of speech? No one should be surprised that answers to these complex questions are sharply contested and elude consensus. Controversies over appropriation not only incorporate vastly different manifestations in diverse situations, but also resonate with overtones of colonial oppression and racial exploitation. They also serve as a timely reminder of the contortions and contradictions in applying an imprecise term as a shorthand to describe a bewildering range of expressions in imperfect contexts (Sarkar 2019). George Chesterton (2019:1) explains:

Cultural appropriation brings out the worst in everyone. It hurts some people and makes others look ridiculous. It triggers the excesses of identity politics and kneejerk nastiness from the inevitable backlash. And even when it’s debated with civility, there’s a nagging doubt that there are more important things to worry about. The uncomfortable truth is that culture can’t be owned. For some, that is a tragedy, for others it’s offensive or merely a joke – but that doesn’t stop it from being true.

Reactions vary in responding to a seeming wrong called cultural appropriation. For some its no big deal because cultural appropriation goes on all the time – to the benefit and enrichment of the human experiences. Designers and creatives insist that taking inspiration and sampling from others is a necessary, valuable, and inevitable component of artistic creativity and cultural innovation. Unsurprisingly, an industry that relies on the constant churn of novelty is prone to accusations of doing the unethical or offensive – from Chanel’s boomerangs to Marc Jacobs dreadlocks to Gucci’s Sikh turbans (Choufan 2018). By contrast, social activists and academics tend to more critical and accuse cultural appropriators of being disrespectful, uninformed, and exploitative, especially when source material is not given credit or adequately compensated (Lingala 2018; Lenard and Balint 2019). Criticism is directed at those who take and use the cultural practices of groups in which they are not members: yoga taught by those who cannot trace descent to the subcontinent or to different forms of blackface by those with no link to Africa. To be sure, each of these perspectives has merit, but aligning these perspectives in terms of binary arguments (good vs bad) tends to simplify complex issues. For example, we may live in world of digitial activism/social media and a global world in which exchanges are inevitable, but it’s also one that’s fraught with complications (Lingala 2018) – more open sourced and fluid than before, yet more strictly supervised and regulated in terms of that what’s free to borrow or to take (Choufan 2018) In that globalization makes cultural appropriation unavoidable, while social media make it undeniable, especially for those groups and suppressed cultures once denied access to voice (Choufan 2018), the politics of cultural appropriation are unlikely to subside in the forseeable future.

This essay examines the complexities and contestedness that inform debates over politics of cultural appropriation. It demonstrates the difficulties of conceptualizing the idiom, describes the ever-expanding parameters of what falls under the cultural appropriation umbrella, explores the different perspectives (or frames) that can be brought to bear on the topic, discusses the multi-framing of diverse reactions to the debate (Lingala 2018), and applies the concept of racial micro-aggression as explanatory framework for theorizing cultural (mis)appropriation. It also argues that reference to the logic of micro-aggression – assigning the final authority to the members of historically disadvantaged groups in defining what is racist and, therefore, culturally inappropriate (Fleras 2016) – provides an escape from the conceptual gridlock that stalls any progress toward resolution. The theme of this essay is unmistakable. The politics of cultural appropriation go beyond debates about who is right or wrong. More accurately, it’s about the power imbalances that underpin the racism and violence implicit in the appropriation of cultural property (Ziyad2017)

Conceptualizing Appropriation – A Concept Without Consensus

Appropriation or appreciation? Inspiration or plagiarism? Theft or borrowing? Mockery or imitation? Oppression or inspiration? Representation or plunder (“culture vultures”)? Freedom of expression or an expression of disrespect? Stealing culture or swapping stories? Multiculturalism in action or perpetuating white privilege? Paying homage or foisting more bigotry in disguise? Creativity or theft? Exploitation or exploration? Caricature or admiration? Censorship or compliment? Harmful misuse or permissible homage? Insult or inclusiveness? Intellectual property theft or artistic freedom? The politics of power or the power to imagine?

Responses to these opposed binaries and moral complexities reflect different ways of conceptualizing cultural appropriation (Lingala 2018). For some, the entire debate is a non issue that fuels and is fueled by twitter wars; after all, what passes for cultural appropriation is really a creative exercise in cultural exchange that makes the world go around. For others, it’s appropriate to appropriate the cultural other – that is, valuable, necessary, and inevitable in prying open peoples’ minds – especially in a multicultural society that purports to abide by the principles of multiculturalism yet appears to be increasingly hemmed in by the menace of thought control in an era of political correctness, victimhood cultures, and identity politics (Shriver 2016; Coyne 2017). Still others disagree with the appropriation-is-appropriate-crowd. They condemn the practice as a form of symbolic annihilation that pilfers peoples stories, erodes a groups’ core identity, inflames historical grievances, cheapens that symbols and texts of deep cultural value, and undermines a collective sense of self-worth (Keeshig, 1990). To add insult to injury, the act of (mis)appropriating a people’s culture or stories re-anacts a racist bullying not altogether different from those 19th century propriety rights that nearly decimated Indigenous peoples lives and continues to derail life-chances (Ladner and Tait 2017; Riley and Carpenter 2015). Others still prefer to go beyond the binaries of good (exchange)/bad (theft) that frame such a complex and contested concept. Reframing cultural appropriation as socially constructed and situationally defined renders it neither good nor bad but both good and bad in light of the context, criteria, and consequences (also Young and Haley 2009). That the cultural appropriation debate is inextricably linked to competing rights puts additional pressure on negotiating a balance through compromises that maximize benefits yet minimizes costs (Young 2008). Clearly, then, the multiple frames that define the contours of the appropriation debate amplify the potential for miscommunication. Such a risk makes it doubly important to delve into what is going on, how and why, by unpacking diverse perspectives, exposing tacit assumptions and deconstructing multifaceted logics.

The polarizing debate and social media backlash over the fraught nexus of appropriation and freedom of expression expose one of the deeper faultlines in the North American multicultural wars (Mendelson, 2017; Matthes, 2016; Strang and Busse 2011). The process of squaring inconvenient truths with the polite fictions that whitewash Canadian history provides a timely reminder of the messiness in multiculturally living together. Controversies over the politics of appropriation embody a tendency for different perspectives to talk past each other since there is little agreement even on what to disagree about (Cohn 2017). Framing matters in setting out the terms of the debate. Defenders of appropriation tend to emphasize the individual right to free expression as the quintessential value in a liberal-democratic society; hence, any infringement is fiercely resisted as a form of censorship (thought control). By contrast, those critical of appropriation accuse advocates of free expression of eroding their lived-realities and hard fought rights while compromising their priority status as the final authority in the cultural appropriation debate. A perceptual divide can be discerned. For those cloaked in racialized privilege in a materialistic society long accustomed to ownership of whatever it wanted, the idea of taking or borrowing of cultural designs or practices may seem innocuous or inevitable. To deny or criticize this right must appear baffling to those who believe a multicultural openness to cultural others as proof of sophistication and cosmopolitanism rather than a form of theft or micro-aggression. Much to their dismay or surprise, many practices now labelled as appropriation under a “victimhood culture” were once admired as virtues, including a multicultural openness to the cultural diversity of others (Campbell and Manning 2018). [1] For others such as Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States who witnessed the loss of land, resources, and identities, the appropriation of intensely personal and often sacred practices amplifies and perpetuates the indignities of cultural colonialism (ie. Western cultures taking ownership of arts forms that originated with colonized peoples [Coutts-Smith 1978]) (Tweedy 2016).


Those in between the ‘yeas’ and the ‘neas’ tend to see cultural appropriation as a socially contested construction whose claim-making logic requires more nuance than opponents are willing to concede. As far as they are concerned, the challenge of balancing competing rights in a Canada that generally eschews a hierarchy of rights (Lynk 2014) is too complex to bifurcate into an either/or binary of right or wrong, while the benefits of cultural exchange may prove a win-win provided appropriate safeguards are in place. However valid each these diverse frames, their very existence complicates the process of deconstructing the concept of cultural appropriation.

Circumscribing the Parameters of Cultural Appropriation:

“Talking Past Each Other”

Until recently, reference to authorship and authenticity tended to privilege the vantagepoint of white males who were largely unchallenged in the taking and the telling. Now, however, pressure is mounting for returning ownership and expertise to those historically disadvantaged groups whose artifacts were stolen and their voices silenced (Castillo 2018). A call-out culture in which injustices are exposed through acts of public censure and digital activism has intensified a crisis of legitimacy for mainstream knowledge producers who once monopolized the space of the expert (Cooper 2017). The toppling of white privilege in the cultural appropriation wars is not without reactions that border on the apoplectic, as Dustin Parkes (2017:2) writes:

When representatives of other cultures demand sole ownership of their stories, their narratives, it’s received by many to be a shitstorm of epic proportions rather than a slight headwind after centuries of tailwinds. It can only be further enraging to marginalized voices that the dominant one would have the confidence – or the obliviousness – to attempt to speak for all when the less privileged have to fight simply to speak for themselves.

For Frank Furedi (2016), the politicization and proliferation of cultural appropriation can be traced to the 1980s expansion of identity and cultural politics. The declining influence of those universalist values espoused by the Enlightenment was offset by the growing influence of particularist cultural sentiment whose identity politics celebrated cultural communities as distinct, bounded, and incommensurable rather than fluid, contested, and changing. Accompanying this inward looking epistemology was the premise that only those who are members of a particular culture can understand it, possess the authority to speak on its behalf, or have the right to access to it.


According to Furedi (2016), it is within this context in the moralizing of culture and the fossilization of cultural identity that both racialized minorities and Indigenous peoples have voiced objections to those who have appropriated their cultural symbols and practices, yet lack the appropriate knowledge or required sensitivity to convey or convince. On the assumption that cultural outsiders are insufficiently immersed to portray it accurately, as critics of appropriation argue, there is a certain immorality in allowing members of an historically oppressive and currently privileged group to portray the realities of the oppressed group, especially when the cultural artifacts of marginalized groups possess a power that, paradoxically, is denied to those who cultivated the culture in the first place (Matthes 2019; Dorman 2016).

The following examples provide a select overview of the many appropriation issues that have fomented controversy. The range of examples also demonstrate how the term is so broadly used – from who has right to write to who gets to wear what – that its power to be taken seriously may be diluted or trivialized (Hamilton 2017).

* Non-Indigenous Toronto artist, Amanda PL incorporates Indigenous styles and motifs (especially that of Norval Morrisseau) into her artwork, prompting a Chippewa artist to accuse heract of appropriation as ‘cultural genocide’ (cited in Nasser 2017). Or consider the monopolization of Canada’s fashion industry by large retailers who appropriate designs from Indigenous communities (from Cowichan sweaters to Inuit symbols) and integrate them into their seasonal lines (Monastero 2018). According to Robert Phiddian (2017), nearly all the art marketed as Indigenous Australian souvenirs and sold in Australia’s tourist market is fake or imported. And yet, Indigenous expressions and traditional knowledge often constitute collective, intergenerational, and spiritual properties which by their nature constitute a lived reality yet are excluded from prevailing intellectual property laws – in part because they fail to meet the originality criterion (Vezina 2019; Gainer n.d.)
* A number of musicians and artists threatened to boycott the 2019 Indigenous Music Awards when they discovered that a Canadian Cree singer and songwriter (Connie Lagrande who performs under the name, Cikwes) was to perform a musical technique unique to the Inuit. Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Nunavut, tweeted that Inuit throat songs are not just sounds but embody Inuit history, kinship, and culture Another critic also accused the Indigenous artist for appropriating a style of singing that belongs only to the Inuit as part of their birthright, arguing there is no reason for anyone except an Inuit to do an Inuit throat song (also Giesbrecht 2019). According to Kelly Fraser (cited in Wheeler 2019), “We are here, we are alive and well, and we don’t need other people to mimic ours songs”.

Similarly, at least one musicians bowed out of the Montreal International Jazz Festival because of a controversial show – deemed to be a racist appropriation of Black culture – directed by a white male and featuring Black slave songs by a white women (according to Margaret Wente [2018] the artist in question has performed these songs for 15 years based on material she researched and recorded) (Rakobowchuk 2018).
* Can whites sing slave songs that originated in context of the brutal violence inflicted by a white power structure? Is a white artist entitled to depict Black pain (Monroe 2017)? Dana Schutz was accused of cultural appropriation for her abstract painting of Emmett Till lying in an open funeral casket (Livingstone and Gyarkye 2017)(Emmett Till was a 14 year Black American from Chicago who was falsely accused of flirting with a white women in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 and brutally lynched and mutilated. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley had insisted on an open casket funeral to show the world what some men had done to her son). Is this appropriation a form of racism – a kind of whitewashing in which white actors are cast in roles that rightfully belong to the racially oppressed (Gainer n.d) while the violence they endured is exploited for profit (Hamilton 2018). But supporters of the Open Casket artwork believe that whites are obligated to engage the history of slavery and white supremacy, not in the sense of a “cultural diss” that lampoons (for example, donning blackface at Halloween), but in advancing an understanding of this country’s racist past (Friedersdorf 2017).
* A free yoga class taught for years to persons with disabilities at the University of Ottawa came under fire as cultural appropriation. As yoga comes from India, according to the ‘Take Back Yoga’ compaign launched by the Hindu American Foundation in 2008 (Furedi 2016), it is culturally inappropriate for a non-Indian to practice it without embracing its deeper religious, historical, and cultural dimensions (Campbell 2018). Worse still, appropriating yoga outside of an Indian context re-anacted a white supremacy that symbolized a recolonization of India. Despite efforts to be accommodative (eg renaming yoga to mind stretching), the class was cancelled.
* Context is critical. At a Commonwealth heads of state meeting, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Arden wore a Maori cloak (kahu huruhuru) which is recognized as a Maori symbol of pride and power. (Anyangwe 2018). More recently, however, she was both praised and pilloried for wearing a hijab in support of the 51 Musliims murdered by a white supremacist at two Christchurch mosques.
* The late Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip received universal praise rather than scorn as might have other artists for his collection of songs entitled Secret Path commemorating nearly 50 years since the passing of Chanie Wenjack, a young victim of the Indian Residential School system (Wheeler, 2016). Downie’s friend Joseph Boyden has also published to some acclaim a novella “Wenjack” in Chanie’s honour in conjunction the release of Secret Path CD (CP 2016). Ironically, the same Joseph Boyden has also been accused of appropriating (inflating or inventing) an Indigenous ancestry to authenticate his claim to chronicle indigenous issues or to speak on behalf of the Indigenous community.
* Female pop artists from Selena Gomez to Lady Gaga, from Miley Cyrus to Madonna, are accused of appropriating symbols of other cultures into their appearance or performances. The white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has come under sharp criticism for exploiting Black musical culture by mimicking the voice of southern Black women (her “blaccent” is accused of being an “auditory blackface” [Eric Hatala Matthes in Strohl and Willard 2018] ) who are rarely given a chance by the music industry (Cooper 2015; Strohl and Willard 2018). By contrast white rapper Eminem (who presents himself as growing up poor in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit, yet also acknowledges how his whiteness and extant power structures privileged him at the expense of others [Lenard and Balint 2019]) rarely evokes criticism from the hip-hop community while continuing to win awards, garner rave reviews, and enjoy strong cd/streaming sales (Strohl and Willard 2018; Philliips 2015; Wenthoff 2015). Perhaps the distinction resides in the interplay of talent, respect, and the authenticity in bringing some new to the table, in effect reinforcing the distinction between theft/taking (“subtractive in that it adds nothing new to the genre except to make it more consumable to a white audience) versus influence/making in which borrowed elements become syncretized into a new and worthwhile hybrid (Richards 2018; Matthes in Strohl and Willard 2018).

The above examples represent a small sample of the literary texts or artistic expressions that have come under scrutiny as fraught with overtones of appropriation. They demonstrate how the concept of cultural appropriation encompasses a multitude of sins, some of which seem to be more serious than others and deserving of condemnation – for example, the appropriation of religious beliefs and practices including the appropriation of human remains are among the most contested and detested [Young and Brunk 2009]. Other expressions appear – at least to the outside observer – to embody a toxic mix of identity politics and political correctness that strains credulity (“can white women and men play the blues?”) (Chesterton 2019; Rappaport 2019). Complicating matters is an awaress of different appropriation patterns, including content appropriation (the taking of artifacts or ideas) and subject appropriation (assuming the voice of others). Not surprisingly, defining the concept remains tricky and eludes consensus despite a long history of (ab)usr, avoidance, defence, and criticism (French 2017; Rogers 2006; Keeshig 1990). Terminology has proven unhelpful: is appropriation about plagiarizing, plundering, borrowing, exchanging, respecting, representing, taking, poaching, stealing, co-opting, imitating, mimicking? While appropriation is treated as a singular phenomena, in reality it incorporates different modes, a diverse range of actions, and variations in contexts and consequence (Riley and Carpenter 2015; Young and Brunk 2009; Byukokutan 2011; Rogers 2006; Ziff and Rao 1997). Ideas as complicated as cultural appropriation conflate into a single term a wide spectrum of actions, from the criminal and the immoral to the tasteless and offensive. Its semantic fluidity means people use same phrase to talk about different things in defining who gets to write what, and on whose terms. A few defend the distinction between appropriation (good) and misappropriation (bad). While appropriation as a form of borrowing, sharing, and inspiration is a routine occurrence especially in the realms of fashion, fiction, and music, misappropriation transpires when majority folk partake in the unauthorized copying of minority artists or in the misuse of an oppressed culture’s practices (Metcalfe 2012). The fact that both culture and appropriation are notoriously difficult to define – cultural appropriation doubly so – points to the danger of emptying the idiom of all semblance of meaning except as a slogan to incite or exclude (Ziff and Rao 1997; Coyne, 2017). In that the concept can mean everything yet nothing or whatever people want it to mean reinforces another slogan applicable to the cultural appropriation controversy, ‘things are not always as they seem to be’.

Definitions of appropriation span the spectrum from the narrow to the expansive, from the descriptive to the highly politicized, and encompassed domains as broad as literature and art to fashion, dance, and music (Shriver 2016). Descriptive definitions focus on appropriation as a process in which members of one culture borrow elements of another culture (Young and Haley 2009). This process by which outsiders take, use, or represent the cultural items produced by cultural insiders is thought to be inevitable and invaluable in advancing cultural progress (Young 2008). For Lionel Shriver (2016), the idea of people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices epitomizes one of the most fruitful and fascinating aspects of modern urban life. A more critical definition approaches it as a form of legalized theft. Cultural appropriations entails a process of taking exclusive possession of something (from intellectual property and traditional knowledge to cultural artifacts) that rightfully belongs to a less dominant identity or minority group in ways they find offensive, that is, to annex without the consent or authority of those belonging to that culture, presumably for personal gain (Cohn 2107; Scafidi 2005; Chesterton 2019). Or differently put: appropriation as the taking something and making it one’s own while feigning membership in the group as grounds for acceptance or benefit, in the process reflecting and reinforcing inequalities of exclusion that exist in society (also Paradkar 2017; Nittle, 2017; Rogers 2006). That, in turn, raises the questions of what constitutes permission, how to distinguish between taking or borrowing, and who owns culture – if in fact culture is ownable in a postethnicity world of globalism, transnationalism, and transculturalism? The culture concept in a postethnic era is increasingly framed as fluid, open-ended, hybridic, and interactive – more of a social construct or logical fiction – rather than a naturally occurring phenomenon out there; voluntaristic instead of imposed from above or enforced from within, and non exclusionary in terms of access, identity and membership (Hollinger 2006). Paradoxically, however, while stuck, static, and bounded identities no longer resonate with much authority in a postethnic world of multiple identities and fluid belongings, the appropriation crisis is locked into the persistence of identity politics and gated notions of ethnicities as fenced off to the general public (Malik 2017). Finally, more politicized definitions focus on power and context as the crucial element in driving the appropriation debate (Matthes 2019; Ziff and Rao 1997). According to Rowell (1995), appropriation is not about transcultural borrowing or cultural disrespect. It constitutes a symbolic violence that reprises a colonial context in which dominant group members continue to wield power over the intellectual property of minority members or marginalized groups.
To sum up:
it would appear that references to cultural appropriation – at least in the negative sense of the term – embrace some or all of the following attributes (also Lenard and Balint 2019): (1) an unauthorized taking without permission or copying without compensation of an item exclusive to a particular culture (Hopper 2015); (2) a passing off of someone else’s intellectual property as one’s own, for personal gain, without due credit, and without a holder’s involvement; (3) an inclination to assume the status of an expert on a topic or a field outside one’s cultural expertise; (4) exposure of the item in question to commodification, ridicule or caricature by those in positions of authority (Appiah 2018); and (5) its inseparability from historical context and contemporary power relations (also Vezina 2019). In that it’s about taking from cultural others what doesn’t belong to someone without a corresponding nod to attribution, compensation, or permission, the wrongness of cultural appropriation deserves serious consideration (Riley and Carpenter 2015). But not everyone agrees that such an action is inherently wrong or to be avoided at all costs. Much depends on how the concept is framed, in effect yielding a multi-framing of debates over the cultural appropriation controversy as (1) appropriate (2) inappropriate and (3) contested.

Framing Matters: Multi-Framing the Cultural Appropriation Controversy

Just as definitions and attributes vary in circumscribing the domain of cultural appropriation, no less varying are debates over its status, worth, and implications. They range from those who dismiss the legitimacy of the concept as a contradiction in terms to those who

(a) defend the merits, necessity, and inevitability of a no-holds barred cultural appropriation,

(b) define it as a contested social construct in negotiating a compromise that balances competing rights, and

(c) condemn the practice as exploitative, denigrating, and racist.

Some believe that borrowing is a right; others proclaim it’s inevitable and a catalyst for creativity; still others as a topic open to debate and compromise; and yet others who criticize appropriation as contemptible regardless of the context or rationale. In that reactions to the cultural appropriation debate can be differently framed (framing: the process of defining and organizing content in a way that draws attention to some aspect of reality as normal or acceptable and away from others as inferior or irrelevant in the hope of encouraging a preferred reading), there is a raised risk of talking past each other.

Framing Appropriation as Appropriate: A Privileged Frame

I may vehemently disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it (Voltairian Principle)

To one side are those who dismiss the negativity of appropriation as a blanket application while rejecting its accusatory tones and sinister implications (P.S. Taylor 2017; Furedi 2016; Shriver 2016). They are scornful of the idea that certain actions can be criticized as cultural appropriation based on the assumption that a group, nationality, or ethnicity associated with the practice should be the only one to practice it – a hoard to be guarded rather than a gift to be shared insofar as those outside this group are disallowed from accessing it (Rappaport 2019). As far as they are concerned, appropriation is ok because there is no such thing as appropriation in the negative sense of the idiom. A freewheeling and open appropriation is both desirable and acceptable, and no artist or writer regardless of background should be denied the creative right to delve into other cultures, especially in a multicultural Canada with its Charter of Rights guarantee of free expression. As the much maligned and seemingly tone-deaf Hal Niedzviecki wrote in the preface of a Write magazine issue dedicated, ironically, to Indigenous authors:
I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’ld go so far as to say there should even be an award for do so – The Appropriation Prize for the best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.
Even the debate over cultural appropriation is dismissed as misplaced. According to Kenan Malik (2017), what is really being contested in the appropriation debate is not culture but in its policing by gatekeepers who appoint themselves as the moral guardians of sacred property in defining the rules of cultural borrowing (Furedi 2016). For him, the imposition of a gated appropriation is wielded to abort the natural process of cultural exchange in a cosmopolitan and interconnected world. Its weaponization reflects the emergence of new orthodoxies of social justice, one in which a politically correct censorship is imposed to the detriment of free expression (Shriver in Flood 2018) while the so-called cult of victimhood (Campbell and Manning 2018) becomes “a moral currency dependent on defining and policing the boundaries of human identity” (Lehman 2018:1). Such policing is problematic both politically and artistically. Instead of seeing society as a tangled web of complex interactions and networked flows, dangers lurk in fencing off it off into mutually exclusive gated realms that prohibit the swapping of cultural elements from one group to another (Malik 2017). The prominence of a bounded identity politics– that people of one group cannot be represented by another – not only eschews a commitment to common humanity people, it also prejudges people not as individuals but as faceless members of race, tribe, or ethnicity (Coyne 2019). The narrowness of such culturalism also accentuates a racialized essentialism at odds with an emergent world of hyperdiversities, transnational mobilities, liquid modernity, and cosmopolitan universalism (Fleras 2018a, 2019a; Friedersdorf 2017; Bauman 2000; Eco 2017)? For in the final analysis, we now live in a mobile and transcultural world, one in which cultures are interconnected and entangled with each other, where cultures do not stop at the borders of communities or nations but transverse them, and where interaction and exchange are not confined to the cultural cages of an old world order (Welsch 1999; Krystal 2017).
Others in the appropriation-is-ok camp frame it as inevitable, necessary and beneficial. Writers of fiction not only appropriate voices all the time, but doing so also enriches and expands. Moreover, contemporary white Canadian artists have little choice except to adopt the diverse voices and inhabit fictional world of peoples and cultures that differ from their own (see Renzetti, 2017; K. Taylor, 2017). Unless autobiographical in content, art and literature are about imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes, of learning from and being influenced by another, and of mixing and borrowing to forge something new rather than being boxed in by one’s genetic composition (Coyne 2017; Young and Haley 2009; Renzetti 2017; K. Taylor 2017). Of course, the privilege of writing on any subject should not be construed as a licence to ruthlessly plunder another culture. Rather, it requires due diligence, a sense of accountability, and a commitment to share in the proceeds (Coyne 2017). Still others have raised fears that small and well intentioned acts of censorship by appropriation could well segue into full fledged speech codes that shackle artistic freedom by segregating entire realms of human expression (Kay 2017). More worrying still, it is argued, is the prospect of framing free and creative expressions as a thought crime by victimhood fundamentalists whose Maoist style group-think and proposed re-indoctrination camps reinforce the oppressor/oppressed binary at the heart of how social justice advocates frame the world (Economist 2018; Buyokokutan 2011; Blatchford 2017). Consider as a cautionary tale the resignations of Hal Niedzviecki as editor of the Writers Union of Canada magazine, Steve Ladurantaye of CBC’s The National, and Jonathan Kay as editor in chief of Walrus magazine in the wake of comments supportive of open cultural appropriation (P.S.Taylor 2017). Finally, critics believe concerns over a closed appropriation go deeper than anxieties over cultural preservation or heritage plunder. Rather, reference to appropriation is accused of being manipulated as a smoke screen that masks the real issue: minority content creators want to be compensated. No more so, it would seem, when applied to a world where intellectual property as a prime generator of wealth (Scafidi 2005) involves fierce competition for the limited grants, royalty fees, and commercial sales that support artists and writers (Walkom, 2017). Or as put by Tanya Tagaq in criticizing the appropriation of Inuit intellectual property:” If you like Inuit throat singing”, she twittered on March 28, 2019,” please hire Inuit throat singers”.

Framing Appropriation as Inappropriate: Indigenous Frames

To the other side are those who believe all appropriation is misappropriation. Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities tend to dislike having their stories pilfered and rehashed by outsiders, their artwork commercialized for mainstream audiences, intellectual property and cultural treasures commodified for sale or profit, human remains and sacred sites trivialized or trashed by opportunistic whites, and their artifacts displayed without context in overseas museums (Tsosie 2002; Ziff and Rao 1997; Wright 1997). For too long, argues Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm 2017), Indigenous voices have been silenced, including a long history of not being able to speak for themselves while being spoken to in a patronizing manner to the point of reinforcing their erasure from Canadian history. Unsurprisingly, those who have had their land and society stolen under colonization may be unwilling to share their culture unconditionally or be complicit in the co-opting of their sacred and religious iconography for profit making purposes (Lehman 2018). Hostility to an open cultural appropriation intensifies when members of the dominant group are seen as cherry-picking aspects of Indigenous culture and art, while continuing to marginalize or oppress the very peoples whose culture they appropriate (Cooper 2017). No less damaging is the appropriation of Indigenous elements out of their context and without regard to their spirituality and cultural meaning (Alexis, 2017). Indigenous stories are inextricably connected to land, ancestors and kinship, and the oral tradition of specific communities, as Shannon Webb-Campbell (2017) explains: “… storytelling is integral to every Indigenous nation. Storytelling is sacred, and filled with a deep sense of responsibility. Many Indigenous peoples believe stories are acts of ceremony. Some Indigenous laws and protocols around storytelling include what stories are allowed to be written and shared and what stories are not meant to be made public.” Or to quote Aaron Mills (in Lederman 2017) in criticizing the commodification of Indigenous artefacts, “no one can appropriate my stories because Indigenous stories are not just an intellectual commons for the picking if the author does not have a deep and abiding relationship to the stories”. In short art, culture, and identity may be so fused for Indigenous peoples that any infringement which strips culture of its context for commercial purposes is deemed to be offensive and in violation of their human rights (Sponsler 2002; D.H.Taylor, 2017; also Friedersdorf 2017).
Reference to a wider context is critical to understanding the appropriation pushback. It’s commonly known that the “[t]he history of European colonization of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific is also a history of wholesale appropriation” (Cuthbert, 1998:257). A history of appropriation is foundational to Canada’s constitutional and legal order, deeply institutionalized, and inextricably linked to the expropriation of Indigenous lands and resources (Houpt 2017; Fleras 2017; Lehman 2018). The harmfulness of appropriation is reflective of how it intersects with the dominating system to silence those already socially marginalized (Matthes 2016). The appropriated culture rarely receives proper credit or compensation; instead, it’s demeaned, bastardized and devalued to the level of a cliché or a commodity. Appropriating the history, experiences, and culture of Indigenous folk is thus perceived as an act of humiliation that perpetuates the intergenerational trauma of historical exploitation (Riley and Carpenter 2015). Finally, cultural appropriation resembles yet another entitlement in the quiver of white privilege. White privilege thrives in a Eurocentric system that seemingly entitles and empowers members of the dominant culture to poach whatever they like from a pick-and-choose world of disembodied ideas and stories, then justify this invasiveness as commensurate with the freewheeling principle of free speech, artistic freedom, and liberal ideals (Anyangwe 2018). Access to an unfettered freedom of expression is largely a Eurocentric-biased and elitist-based mindset that is employed to rationalize access to whatever it wants without fear of repercussion, responsibility, or respect for the viewpoints of those whose world views and lived realities are differently aligned (Tweedy 2016). As Brittney Cooper (2017) points out, speech is rarely without consequences, although those fixated on the unfettered right to speak don’t want to be held accountable for the harm their work causes, particularly when speech styles that analytically frame reality as objective and independent of their context stand in contrast to the more holistic styles of Indigenous peoples (Mark and Lyon 2010; Geeraert 2018). Such intellectual imperialism may well have the effect of defiling a peoples’ spiritual realities, trivializing intellectual property, or lampooning those oral traditions whose rules of dissemination may differ from the Eurocentric logic of a print world (Webb-Campbell 2017. It may also foreclose opportunities, as Yen-Rong Wong (2017) writes:
The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their right to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share. In other words, the subaltern continues to be silenced, and cannot speak.
Therein lies Brittney Cooper’s (2015) scathing criticism of Iggy Izalea’s white rapper appropriation of Blackness. The artist is criticized for profiting from a field pioneered by Blacks but also of committing a verbal blackface by commodifying and commercializing a black sound for a predominantly white audience (also Lenard and Balint 2019):
Iggy profits from the cultural performity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected without having to encounter and deal with the social problems that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness, and lewdness. If she existed in hip hop at a moment when Black women could still get play, where it would take more than one hand to count all the mainstream Black women rap artists, I would have no problem”
In that appropriation is about structural injustice and power imbalances – that is, minority cultures only taken seriously when they are represented, used, or taken by the dominant sector, in effect denying a voice to the marginalization – the wrong of cultural appropriation is rooted in the imbalance of power (rather than in the appropriation itself (Matthes 2019) , prompting Shen-yi Liao in Strohl and Willard 2018 to argue that a more productive debate must move beyond identity category and focus on systems and relations of power.

Framing Appropriation as Claims-making: A Contested Frame

Not all reactions to cultural appropriation are binarized as either inherently good or intrinsically bad. Many believe the concept is much too complex to be dichotomized into simple category of right or wrong. Any assessment requires a more nuanced approach that encompasses its many dimensions as simultaneously right and wrong, good and bad, based on the context in which it occurs, the criteria employed for evaluation, and the consequences of the appropriating act. Nor can the concept of appropriation as a social construct artifact rather than a naturally occurring phenomenon out there be divorced from debates over competing rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is adamant that no right is absolute or more important than another although certain rights may require limits in contexts when they interfere with the rights of others. Both the right to free expression and minority/Indigenous rights are equally valid rights that negate any easy resolution except by way of a balanced compromise on a case-by-case basis. The challenge lies in balancing the constitutionally guaranteed right of free expression including the right of writers to imagine other cultures across the human spectrum, with the right of minority and Indigenous cultures to protect the remnants of their intellectual property from encroachment or misrepresentation. Furthermore, any balancing act is contingent on being open and closed at the same time. Ethnic, racialized, and Indigenous groups are encouraged to share, be accessible, and make their cultures inclusive as part of a move toward a multicultural and liberal cosmopolitanism. Yet they also are under pressure to protect their distinctiveness since not doing so may compromise their claim for access to government resources (Nagle 2008).The end result? What is defined as acceptable (good) or not (bad) in the appropriation debate is perspectival rather than objective, situational rather than absolute, and subject to negotiation, adjustment, and claims-making rather than a fait accompli (also Buyukokutan 2011).
Reference to cultural appropriation as conditional reinforces its contested status as a claims-making activity, one in which a wronged-group believes a problem exists in need of amelioration. To paraphrase Spector and Kitsuse (1977), a claim is made by an aggrieved group, based on the morally legitimated demand that a right be recognized or an existing condition be ameliorated, in part by defining a situation in such a way that the definition becomes the normative basis for ameliorative action. Applied to cultural appropriation, an appropriation claim entails a request from group members that non members refrain from appropriating a given element of a group’s culture. In contrast to non members who claim that anyone can take and use (“appropriate”) anything they like from other cultures within the confines of property law, group members counter-claim that such appropriation from marginalized groups is wrong because ignoring such appropriation claims constitutes a breach of group intimacy (Nguyen and Strohl 2019).
To be sure, a proposed balancing act still leaves answered the question of where to draw the line in terms of what’s acceptable, who has the final say, and on what grounds? At what point does the right to freedom of speech to imagine encroach on the rights of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities to preserve what little they possess? But not everyone is convinced of the value of a balanced compromise, regardless of the level of empathy or good intentions (Kooji 2017). Any progress in moving the yardsticks on the cultural appropriation front must acknowledge three priority factors: the primacy of Indigenous rights, the importance of context most notably the relations of power, and centrality of Indigenous perspectives as the final authority of what’s borrowable, how, and by whom. After all, those who suffered under the crippling effects of colonialism ought to possess the moral authority to have the final say in what constitutes the theft intrinsic to cultural appropriation. Even the compromise of a balancing act may not be helpful in sorting out the conflicting claims and competing rights that contribute to impasse. As Janet Rogers, Mohawk/Tuscarora writer on Canadaland (quoted in Coyne 2017) stipulates “Write about how my reality affects you, don’t write about me. Write about your relationship to Indigenous issues, communities, and experiences; don’t write as if you were me. I’m here. I can write my own stories”.
Nor does everyone agree with the postmodernist [2] position that frames cultural appropriation as a matter of sorting through competing truth-claims. They are unwilling to debate the issue of cultural appropriation on the postmodernist assumption that, in a mind-dependent world, all truths are relative to a particular time and place. Rather, Indigenous activists and artists believe that all truth claims must converge on a single and inescapable reality: the centrality of colonialism, the destructiveness of exploitation and expropriation, and the inseparability of cultural appropriation from the constructs of power (Kooji 2017). Any debate over appropriation must acknowledge priority of an Indigenous perspective, including the rights of Indigenous peoples as set out in Section 31.1 of the UNDRIP to control and protect their intellectual property related to heritage, knowledge, and cultural expressions including visual and performing arts. For Indigenous peoples, stories, visuals, and performing arts are not just entertainment to be plucked and picked, as much as discourses of legitimacy, spirituality, and authenticity in need of respect and deference. As Keeshig-Tobias (1990) wrote years ago in launching the cultural appropriation controversy when equating the theft of Indigenous stories as no different than the theft of land or religion: “[t]hey reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships, and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture, thinks. Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders”.
Table x Framing the Cultural Appropriation Debate

cultural appropriation in -table in augie article 2019

Sorting Through the Impasse: Theorizing Cultural Appropriation as Micro-aggression

Is it possible to theorize cultural appropriation as an explanatory framework? Is there any justification in deciding which (if any) frame should take priority as the final say when ruling on the rightness or wrongness of cultural appropriation? I believe there is, and it reflects a theorizing of cultural appropriation as a racialized micro-aggression whose implicit racism is receiver-dependent rather than sender-oriented (Fleras 2016; also Haughton 2017). And yet, while cultural appropriation may be framed as a form of racism, it does not represent racism in the conventional sense of deliberately doing something to others with an intent to hinder or hurt. Nor is it racism in the systemic sense of seemingly neutral rules that when evenly and equally applied inadvertently exert biases that deny or discriminate (Fleras 2017). The ontological status of racism is also up for debate. Whereas positivists tend to believe racism has objective and measurable reality at individual, institutional or societal levels regardless of peoples’ awareness, interpretivists believe racism embodies an inter-subjective dimension that constitutes the core meaning of racism, making it critical to gain insight into the lived-world of social actors and from their point of view. It is this radically subjective dimension of racism that aligns most closely to the concept of a racialized micro-aggression as it applies to the cultural appropriation controversy.
Cultural appropriation epitomizes a lived-racism known as micro-aggression (Fleras 2016). The concept of a racialized micro-aggressions refers to those covert and nuanced expressions of everyday racism (from slurs to slights) that superficially look innocuous but implicitly convey an affront that’s identified as such by the micro-aggressed. Racialized micro-aggressions consist of those commonplace indignities – from the intentional to the inadvertent, from the verbal to the nonverbal, from the visual to the behavioural, from offhand comments to social slights and slurs – that racialized minorities experience (ie are perceived, processed, and defined) as dismissals, bullying, or denials, regardless of whether transgressors are aware of their indiscretions or they deny any intent to harm (Huber and Solorzano 2014; Sue 2010). However inadvertent or benign-sounding, these micro-aggressive banalities are imbued with potentially toxic coded messages, varying from confirming stereotypes to privileging whiteness, from essentializing all group members as undifferentiated to normalizing the exceptions and the exceptional (Das Gupta 2009). To be sure, those who perpetuate micro-aggressions may intend no malice, while rejecting any allegation of complicity in communicating putdowns (Sue et al 2007; McWhorter 2014). They also tend to dismiss the salience of seemingly banal acts such as careless works or thoughtless gestures by downplaying their repercussions (Wesley and Shiels 2007). Paradoxically, however, while these allegedly harmless or unintended slights may be sloughed off as akin to making a mountain out of a molehill, they can carry an emotional punch that inflicts psychological scars (Huber and Solorzano 2014:8).
The defining aspect of micro-aggression resides in assigning definitional priority to the victim’s lived-experience. In that the focus is on how minorities see and assess these covert micro-aggressions as well as how they are affected by and react to them, a micro-aggressive racism is no longer about intent but about impact or consequences; not about a condition but a claims-making activity; not as something inherent in an act but about the context in which it occurs; not as naturally occurring ‘out there’ but about the intersubjective ‘in here’; not as the formal and the abstract but about people’s lived experiences; and not as a relatively static and objective reality (racism as ‘noun’) but more as a dynamic and relational process (discursively speaking, racism as ‘verb’) whose ‘realness’ is applied after the (f)act, and contingent on the circumstances (Fleras 2016). In contrast to the concept of everyday racism (Essed 1990) which refers to how racialized minorities process and react to routine acts of racism in their daily lives, reference to racialized micro-aggression focuses on how mundane actions are perceived and interpreted as racist by racialized minorities (Torino et al 2019). The distinction between everyday racism and a racialized micro-aggression is captured by rewording Donald Wing Sue’s (2010:3) oft quoted definition of micro-aggression as “everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate (emphasis, mine) hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their group membership”. Compare this sender-oriented definition to a more receiver-dependent definition of micro-aggression as those ‘everyday verbal and nonverbal acts (“slights, snubs, or insults”), whether intentional or unintentional, that are experienced as hostile, derogatory, or negative by persons based solely upon their group membership. In other words, the defining feature of micro-aggressions goes beyond the subtlety of the slur or the naivete of the transgressor’s slights (Essed 1990) Its centrality resides in privileging the subjective realities of the micro-aggressed by prioritizing their interpretation and reaction to these covert putdowns, in effect shifting the focus of micro-aggressive racism from the “do-er” to the “done-to”. Redefining the politics of who decides what counts as racism, what racisms count – from the sender-oriented (do-er) to the receiver-dependent (done-to) – may well signify a paradigm shift in realigning the discursive status of racism (Fleras 2016).
A similar line of reasoning can be applied to the micro-aggressive politics of cultural appropriation. Those who deny the idea of appropriation or who defend it as beneficial or harmless tend to underestimate how appropriation constitutes an act of micro-aggressive racism that reconstitutes (ie reflects, reinforce, and advances) broader patterns of power and privilege (Langley-Hawthorne, 2015; Suleyman 2014). Good intentions are less important than consequences in deciding rightness or wrongness in the cultural appropriation debate. Those in positions of power and authority are no longer in control of defining what is acceptable in a domain increasingly receiver-dependent rather than sender-oriented. The final say is accorded to how the micro-aggressed experience and define appropriation as unjust or an injury since they are the ones who endured the historical injustices and must cope with the consequences as best they can (Keeshig-Tobias 1990). Just as the politics of micro-aggression transfer the frame of reference from the doer to the done-to, so too does the debate over the right or wrong of cultural appropriation assign priority status to racialized minorities and Indigenous peoples as final arbiters. The words of Laura Kooji (2017) resonate powerfully in framing cultural appropriation as micro-aggression along these lines:
The bottom line here is, if you are not indigenous, you do not get to define what indigenous cultural appropriation is or isn’t . . . Ultimately, in light of 500 years of colonial violence, you don’t get to explain to anyone how you are entitled to use, redefine, and profit from everything you see. You do not get to decide what is harmful and not harmful when there is very clearly a long and bloody trail of destruction that has paved the way for you to conceive yourselves as the experts and the beginning and end of all things. Not everything is yours for the taking. That is changing, like it or not.
In the case of cultural appropriation as with micro-aggression, context is critical. Isolated acts of appropriation are unlikely to inflict much harm in the long run, although one should never underestimate the truth in the slogan ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Likewise, intermittent acts of cultural appropriation may not raise the ire of aggrieved groups. But a history of appropriation that intersects with racist policies, institutionalized discrimination, and relations of power tends to compound the indignities implicit in the theft of culture, voice, and subjecthood. History matters, or to cite William Faulkner’s oft cited phrase when applied to the domain of cultural appropriation, ‘the past is never dead, its not even past.’ In addition, as many have noted, micro issues have a way of connecting and converging with so called macro issues to normalize yet amplify contexts that perpetuate stereotypes and dehumanize the other. In acknowledging that the micro matters because the macro exists, the primacy of an historical framework within a power matrix raises the bar for reframing cultural appropriation debate along the lines of micro-aggression, one that prioritizes the rights of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities without revoking the right to free expression (within limits) in a multicultural Canada. For in the final analysis, a just society is one that strives to privilege the voices and rights of those historically disadvantaged in deciding what is right and acceptable as the basis for living together differently rather than one that incorporate differences as a default to be tolerated at mainstream convenience.[3]
[1] The emergence of cultural appropriation as principle and practice reflects the appearance of a new morality, one in which cultural beliefs and practices are themselves imbued with a moral status that renders them off limits to those differently positioned in a moral hierarchy (Campbell and Manning 2018). This new morality entails a set of unwritten norms that inform a new victimhood around a high level of sensitivity to slights, real or perceived; an emphasis on a person’s victimhood as the basis for compensation or preferential treatment; and a demonization of offenders who oppressed the aggrieved and continue to benefit from this dominance. The creation of new categories of offense against social groups that historically occupied a lower social status but that few objected to it in the past is consequential. It means that many practices now labelled as appropriation under a victimhood culture were once admired as virtues including a multicultural openness to the diversity of others and their experiences (Campbell and Manning 2018). Similarly, grievances under micro-aggression may proclaim a generalized moral shift from honour/dignity cultures of the past to the emergence of a victimhood culture (Campbell and Manning 2014). The role of social media is critical. A digital activism intensifies the rhetoric of victimhood in the cultural appropriation debate since it provides people with a script and a stage for the public performance of sanctimonious indignation and self-righteous outrage. For Frank Furedi (2016), when someone tweets that a pop star is culturally insensitive , it draws attention to that cultural crusader’s bona fides as ‘wokeful’.

[2] Consider, a postmodernist approach to the debate over the ontological status of truth-claims in a mind dependent world. Our increasingly post-truth world reinforces the postmodernist credo that truth, objectivity, and social reality do not exist per se in the naturally occurring sense of the word. For postmodernists there is no such thing as objectivity or truth, only discourses about truths and objectivities that play out within contexts of power.
[3] Leonie Sandercock (2003) has argued that the good society is one that accepts the reality and desirability of cultural diversities, and then restructures society and political life accordingly, rather than one that defines a particular vision of a good society and then asks how much diversity it can tolerate within the limits of that vision.


50 Years 0f Canadian Multiculturalism:

A Riddle, A Mystery, An Enigma


Introduction: A Mixed Milestone

Fifty years of official multiculturalism puts pressure on re-assessing its role and worth as a Canadian icon (Paikin 2021; Adams 2021; Cardozo 2021). Despite international praise and domestic popularity, Canada’s official multiculturalism continues to receive a mixed assessment that amplifies its ambiguous status as a solution in search of a problem. Multicultural success stories are offset by program failures; its popularity conceals substantial pockets of indifference or resentment; and its impact is not nearly as progressive or comprehensive as widely believed. The ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies that inform 50 years of Canada’s official multiculturalism point to the necessity of a discursive reassessment (Fleras 2021a). Instead of framing multiculturalism in the language of “is” or “ought”, or around the binaries of “good” or “bad”, perhaps it’s time to reframe it around its puzzling and paradoxical dimensions as both progressive and transformative, yet also contradictory and obfuscatory (also Barrett 2015). When searching for a turn of phrase that captures multiculturalism’s complexities and contradictions without falling into the trap of carping negativity or fatuous platitudes, what comes to mind is Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted assessment of pre-Second World War Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Framing an official multiculturalism along similar lines – as a riddle, a mystery, and an enigma – yields a new interpretative lens that offers fresh insights into a stale topic. What is the meaning of an official Canadian multiculturalism (‘riddle’)? How does it work (‘mystery’)? Has it made a difference in remaking Canada (‘enigma’)? In short, the deeper we delve into the murky depths of Canada’s official multiculturalism as minority governance and diversity management, the greater the urge to refract it through a prism that conveys its mixed and messy status.

Canadian Multiculturalism as Riddle: What does it really mean?

Canada may be the world’s quintessential multicultural society (Guo and Wong 2015). Yet successive Canadian governments have never tried to define an official multiculturalism for the benefit of the general public (Thurairajah 2017). Any reference to multiculturalism reflects a largely unplanned and ad hoc trajectory bereft of conceptual clarity or ideological precision – a situation that, paradoxically, may work to Canada’s advantage (Kymlicka 2015). Multiculturalism rarely means what it says or says what it really means (“polysemous”); as a result, it can it can mean everything (“a floating signifier”) yet nothing (“an empty signifier”) (B’beri and Mansouri 2014), or whatever the context allows it to mean (“a sliding signifier”) (Hall 2017). Misperceptions abound because the term itself remains a misnomer. For example, an official multiculturalism is not about making Canada more multicultural and diverse, as implied by the term “multi” + “cultures”. Rather it’s about making it more inclusive through minority accommodation and migrant integration in ways doable, necessary, and fair. A commitment to multiculturalism is not about supporting expressions of cultural diversity but of precluding them in public to abort the possibility of messy ethnic entanglements. Consider how Canada’s multicultural model eschews the promotion of differences, preferring, instead, to depoliticize diversity by channeling it into harmless outlets. Nor is it about promoting ethnicity per se. The rationale behind an official multiculturalism is to capitalize on peoples’ ethno-diversity as a stepping stone to facilitate their integration on terms that work for them. In saying one thing but doing something else, an official multiculturalism exemplifies a classic case of double talk. Canada may be at the forefront in consolidating a principled multicultural society. Yet, paradoxically, it also epitomizes one of the world’s most successful integration regimes (Rao 2007).

Multiculturalism as Mystery: Is it Working?

Considering multiculturalism as a mystery triggers a set of questions that elude any simple response. Is an official multiculturalism working? Who says so? For whose benefit? Does it work to improve the settlement and integration of newcomers to Canada or, alternatively, to whitewash a largely racialized status quo, with its prevailing distribution of power and privilege? On what grounds can such an assessment be made? Is success even measurable? If multiculturalism is a causal factor in a multicultural makeover of Canada, is it possible to disaggregate it from the mix to determine its input? Will a state-centric multiculturalism continue to work with the onset of a more unruly and contested post-multicultural world (Fleras 2019)? Finding answers to those difficult questions constitutes the mystery of Canadian multiculturalism.

For some, reference to “it works” is reflected in the popularity and support of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism works by advancing a Canada that no longer openly champions the primacy of a white supremacist society, rejects flagrant expressions of racism and discrimination, espouses respect for cultural differences, and endorses principles of inclusion (Cardozo 2021; Adams 2021). For others, multiculturalism works in Canada but rarely elsewhere because it represents a low risk option for integrating migrants and accommodating minorities, most of whom have arrived through legal channels, possess liberal values, and are labour-ready for participation in the modern economy (Kymlicka 2012). Others still find multiculturalism works because it legitimizes a racialized-in-whiteness social order by concealing those uncomfortable truths that conveniently whitewash a monocultural regime (Bannerji 2000). Still others believe multiculturalism works because it keeps Canada afloat by depoliticizing the potency of diversity to fragment, divide, or ghettoize (Fleras 2019). To complicate matters, minority perceptions of what works differ from the mainstream. For example, new Canadians may perceive multiculturalism as a platform for maintaining multiple identities, including an involvement in homeland politics. Yet this perception may be dismissed as unCanadian by the mainstream who insist newcomers park their past at Pier 21 (figuratively speaking) as the price of admission into Canada (Thurairajah 2017).

50 years of multiculturalism as official policy have made one thing abundantly clear: we don’t fully understand how or why it works. Yes, multiculturalism may be associated with the transformation of Canada along more inclusive lines, yet its overall impact has proven difficult to measure except, perhaps, to make Canadians more self-consciously aware of Canada as a multicultural domain. Positives associated with an official multiculturalism may reflect other factors such as (a) the internationalization of human rights agenda, (b) a progressive and highly selective immigration program that admits the brightest and best, (c) a commitment to aggressively pursue the settlement and integration of newcomers, and (d) relatively open pathways to citizenship through naturalization (Hansen 2017). Or, if multiculturalism is acclaimed for creating a more inclusive and equitable society, such an assessment may tap into Canada’s status as one of the world’s most immigrant-friendly countries (US News 2021). Perhaps its true value lies in fostering a social climate that, not only endorses diversity initiatives in general (Adams and Omidvar 2018), but also legitimizes a controlled immigration program that works to Canada’s advantage (Fleras 2014; Hansen 2017). Popular support for multiculturalism equips immigration policy makers with considerable latitude (“political capital”) in implementing immigrant policies and settlement programs, without fear of public criticism or electoral backlash (Reitz 2014). The conclusion seems inescapable. Any claim of success for an official multiculturalism may be spurious and correlational rather than causal and direct, nearly impossible to measure, or difficult to operationalize except in terms so vague as to border on baseless.

Multiculturalism as an Enigma: Has it been worth it?

Has 50 years of official multiculturalism had an appreciable impact on Canada and Canadians? Responses tend to polarize. For some, Canada has evolved into a truly multicultural society that abides by the principles of multiculturalism, despite some lingering monocultural residues from past. For others, Canada remains a predominantly monocultural regime, despite a half century of multiculturalism, with a few multicultural bits thrown in for good measure to foster the illusion of inclusion? Aligning responses along this continuum contribute to the enigma that is multiculturalism.

Consensus is lacking in deciding whether 50 years of official multiculturalism has proved a deal-breaker. To one side, a multicultural Canada in 2021 is positively different from the Canada that prevailed in the decades prior to 1971 (Paikin 2021). Open expressions of racism are no longer acceptable under an official multiculturalism, diversity is sourced as Canada’s strength, minorities and migrants are confirmed as integral to Canada-building, a commitment to multiculturalism is central to national identity, and mainstream institutions increasingly accept a duty to accommodate (Adams 2021; Cardozo 2021). To the other side, 50 years of multiculturalization has made little difference in reconfiguring Canadian society. Canada may be more multicultural in lip-service, add-ons, and window-dressing, yet it remains rooted in the monocultural assumptions of white supremacy, the foundational principles of a Eurocentric constitutional order (Fleras 2021b), and the fundamental duality of its French-English core (Haque 2012). True, multiculturalism as an aspirational ideal may commit to a rethinking of what Canada is and what it means to be Canadian. Nevertheless, the monoculturalism of a settled whiteness continues to blanket the national agenda in defining what is normal, right, and desirable. Finally, while many regard multiculturalism as a catalyst in advancing a more equitable Canada, in reality, many racialized minorities are inclined to disagree as they struggle with the inequalities of exclusion (Block and Galabuzi 2018; Fleras ‘’2017), alongside an amplification of anti-Black racism, anti-Asian pandemic-related hate, Islamophobic violence, and continuing anti-Semitism (CRRF 2021).

Conclusion: A Reckoning with Multiculturalism

Let’s problematize 50 years of Canadian multiculturalism as diversity discourse and governance framework. Applying the lens of a riddle/mystery/enigma nexus to an analysis and evaluation of official multiculturalism exposes how the idea and the practice are more contested and contradictory than widely perceived. Championed yet maligned, idealized as well as demonized, official multiculturalism simultaneously evokes a multi-faceted preference for change yet stasis; of conformity yet diversity; of control yet emancipation; of exclusion yet participation; of hegemony yet resistance. Neither the benefits nor the costs of multiculturalism should be underappreciated in any analysis or assessment. As Paul Barrett (2015: 9) points out, reframing multiculturalism in terms of its “simultaneously disabling and enabling quality” empowers activists with leeway and legitimacy to call out Canada for not living up to its obligations, thus reflecting the ability of the powerless to repurpose the very tools of control into levers of resistance and change.

Such a mixed assessment – multiculturalism as a progressive tool as well as an instrument of division and danger – ups the ante for a more nuanced analysis than many are willing to concede. Canadian multiculturalism as a political project for engaging minorities and managing diversity should not be discursively framed as an either/or proposition. More value can be gleaned by framing it as a both/and discourse – namely, as a platform for resistance and oppression as well as a resource for reform and repression – with a capacity to generate positive social changes, yet simultaneously reproduce the very conditions that necessitated the change in the first place. An official multiculturalism may be slow in advancing the ideal of a lived inter-existence (Fleras 2019), yet it also embodies a work in progress in advancing innovative possibilities for living together differently (Ghosh 2011). Assessing 50 years of official multiculturalism as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma provides a timely reminder of how the idea of multiculturalism as governance may be mined for new insights that shed light on old orthodoxies.

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