Canadian Identity After 36 Years of Official Multiculturalism


‘A Great Liberal Prime Minister and Architect of Modern Canada: Pierre Elliot Trudeau’ 

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), section 15, specifies equality rights for all citizens before and under the law, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.

Section 27 stipulates that the Charter itself is to ``be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.''

I want to offer a few observations on the policy of official multiculturalism now that it has been nearly four decades since it became government policy, and 25 years since it was formally enshrined in the Canadian constitution by way of Section 15 of the Charter.

Pierre Trudeau was a great man. I suspect that few among us here today would disagree with that statement. He certainly had an impact on Canadian politics, culture and society that, I dare to say, is unparalleled by virtually all who came before, or since.

Though Mr. Trudeau was indeed a charismatic and influential visionary, one who encouraged Canadians to reach their full potential despite differences of language, religion, and ethnicity, he was still a politician who lives in a political world with all its contradictory tugs and pulls.

A wide gulf exists between political theory and political practice; it’s not nearly as neat and tidy as it’s made out to be in university political science and history textbooks, which might explain why Bismarck once said, “There are two things that one should not see in life: the making of sausages; and the making of legislation.”

You may be surprised to know that Mr. Trudeau’s vision of official multiculturalism was largely a bi-product of his constant struggle against Quebec separatism. Those of you who remember the 1970s will recall that, during that time, Mr. Trudeau was locked in a titanic struggle with former Quebec Premier Rene Levesque over the very nature of the Canadian federation.

In 1976, Levesque was elected as the first openly separatist premier of Quebec. In 1980, he held a referendum on whether, in fact, Quebec should become a sovereign nation independent of the rest of Canada.

Trudeau, on the other hand, vehemently opposed Quebec separatism; instead, he argued that Canada should be recognized as an officially bilingual and bicultural nation.

Before Mr. Trudeau first became prime minister in 1968, his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, had set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (hereafter referred to as the B& B Commission) in the mid-1960s as a means of addressing some of the unrest that was growing amongst young Francophones in Quebec during a period that was known as ‘the Quiet Revolution.’

When the B & B Commission published its final report in the late 1960s, it recommended that the federal government implement legislation to officially recognize Canada as both a bilingual (French & English), and bicultural (French & English) country.

The reaction to this recommendation was mixed, to say the least. If you happened to be a member of either of the two dominant linguistic groups, then you were more than likely fine with the concept of Canada as a bilingual and bicultural nation.

On the other hand, if you were a Canadian of neither British or French descent, or whose mother tongue was neither English or French, then you probably felt left out of the picture, because there was no explicit recognition of any culture, or language, other than English and French, among the recommendations of the B & B Commission.

Being the astute politician that he was, Trudeau realized that a concept of culture that made no mention of the ancestral cultures of nearly one-third of Canadians by that time was neither just, nor complete; therefore, he as prime minister decided that, as official policy was concerned, language would be divisible from culture.

In short, while he supported legislation to implement official bilingualism, he declined to introduce legislation declaring official biculturalism. So, according to Trudeau’s official multiculturalism, English and French would rein supreme as the two main languages in Canadian public life, while there would be no ‘official’ culture, but, rather, the recognition that Canada consists of many different culture, with none of them being considered superior to any other.

Trudeau had to be practical; therefore, Canada was to welcome people from diverse cultures in both symbolic and real terms. In other words, his vision of Canada reflected the man himself, comfortable with more than one language and culture. He was, after all, Pierre ELLIOTT Trudeau, the product of a French-Canadian father and a Scottish mother.

But, Trudeau also saw official multiculturalism as a useful tool in his ongoing battle to diminish the threat of Quebec separatism, because in disentangling culture from language, he hoped there would be less emphasis on the notion of Canada being composed of ‘two nations/deux nations’, and more focus on Canadians as individuals whose first languages may be English and French, but had various different ethnic origins.

In effect, he used immigration and multiculturalism to further his own political agenda for the country. There is nothing wrong with that either, since politics, at its heart, the art of lining up the practical and the theoretical so that one’s idea of what is right is  accomplished.

Sometimes, supporters of the idea of multiculturalism regard Pierre Trudeau as a saint-like figure, because of his efforts, but the man and his motives were much more complicated than that.

Simply put, while an attractive concept in and of itself for Trudeau, above all else, he saw it as an instrument to blunt the threat to national unity posed by separatism in Quebec.

Now, let’s fast forward to today and what do we have? A Quebec more secure in its identity, which undoubtedly has something to do with Trudeau’s work in enshrining bilingualism as one of the touchstones of Canada’s national character, yet the old stock, or “pur laine” Quebecers are at the same time wrestling about the nature of the “Quebecois identity” in an increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic society.

For the past four centuries, the ethnically and linguistically homogeneous Quebecois perceived themselves as an embattled minority, or “nation”, constantly under siege in a sea of Anglophones on the North American continent.

The current “reasonable accommodation” debate going on in Quebec today is, in essence, a province-wide debate about whether it is better for the province to stay part of Canada and have the Quebec “nation” protected, or whether it should go it alone as its own sovereign country. And the answer to that question is basically pre-determined by whether the Quebecer answering is a federalist or a nationalist/separatist.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is a policy that aims to encourage people from all around to word to come to Canada and participate in all spheres of society and the economy, while retaining the unique customs and ways of living of their various and infinite homelands. However, the proverbial “canary in the mineshaft” on this policy has always been Quebec, because the fact that its distinctiveness has always been premised on “identity politics’, the province seems more anxious than its Anglophone counterparts over the existence of “the other” in its midst. Hence, the angst over accommodation of newcomers from widely different cultural backgrounds.

From an outsider’s perspective, some of the angst one witnesses in Quebec’s reasonable accommodation debate is quite hilarious, and often, downright pathetic, to be frank. For example, some of the witnesses that have appeared before the Bouchard-Taylor Commission that has been touring the province have gotten themselves all worked up over highly visible yet relatively innocuous religious symbolism, such as the burka or hijab, yet they show no similar level of alarm over the presence of the Jewish Yarmulka (skull cap), or a Christian cross. However, to be logically consistent, if one is against the presence of religious symbols in secular public spaces in a broad sense, then the symbols belonging to one relaigion should not be a matter of contention to any greater degree than those of any other faith.

What we are seeing in Quebec’s reasonable accommodation debate, then, is the exaltation of the religion of secularism above all other religions. If the Quebec government follows the advice of many of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s witnesses, and implements forced religious “de-symbolism” (forced secularism) in the public sphere, then we would be seeing the ludicrous and impractical division of secular triumphalism in public, on one hand, and the existence of religious triumphalism in private.

For Muslim women, in particular, it seems the message from old-stock Quebecois is: “Cover yourselves from head to toe in private, but be wild, immodest and free like the rest of Quebec women in public.” Similarly, for Christians, the message is: “You can wear your crucifix (cross) in your own house, but you’d better well remove it from view when you’re in public,” in order to avoid offending the majority of Quebecers’ secular sensitivities.

To some of you, it may come across as far-fetched for me to characterize the situation in such stark terms on a night like tonight; however, we would be wise to remember that, although the extremism of the reaction to integrating  “the other” on display in Quebec is unlikely to be as strong in the rest of Canada, no society is immune from these kinds of “tugs and pulls.”

Some of these contradictions are, in fact, rooted in how we see ourselves as a society. To be specific, do you see yourselves as Bangladeshi-Canadians, or as a Canadian of Bangladeshi origin? The difference in the two terms of identity may seem largely semantic and, therefore, trivial, but which term one chooses could be very telling.

From what I understand, your ancestral homeland of Bangladesh is largely racially, linguistically, and religiously homogeneous, but note the emphasis on the term “largely”. I do realize that, through the use of means both subtle and overt, there has been an attempt by Bangladeshi political leaders to turn the country into as Islamic state, which, if I understand correctly, has resulted in the expulsion of Hindus, Christians, and others.

Now, that is one way a society can try to come to terms with diversity; get everyone to be like the majority, and simply exclude or ostracize those who won’t comply. In a way, one could say that old stock Quebecers are saying much the same thing in the reasonable accommodation debate: “In order to be a real Quebecer, all you non-white, non-francophone newcomers to the province need to act more like the majority.” At the risk of seeming facetious, it translates into this: “Don’t give us any of this religious symbols crap, just speak French and drink good wine.”

Such an approach, I suggest, will eventually lead to confrontation, if not worse, between the majority and minority populations. And, for those of you in this room tonight who see themselves as, first and foremost, and as Canadian secondarily, then your successful accommodation in contemporary Canadian society might be similarly difficult to the situation I just laid out in Quebec.

On the other hand, for those of you who self-identify as Canadians of Bangladeshi origin, I suspect the road to successful accommodation will be smoother. Presumably, you may even become integrated to such an extent that you begin to question some of the long-held assumptions that seemed natural when you lived in Bangladesh.

For example, the longer you are in Canada, the more you may begin to ask whether in fact a population must necessarily be mono-religious, mono-cultural, and mono-racial in order to form a cohesive society. You may even find yourself asking fundamental basic questions, such as: “What do I believe?; Why do I believe this to be true?; and, Do I have to do as I say and do.”

In other words, as tolerant and open a society as Canada is, real multiculturalism and successful integration in a country as diverse as Canada frequently demands intense introspection on the part of recent arrivals to this land. After this process of questioning basic assumptions, some of you may still believe that being Bangladeshi is the essence of your identity, yet others may reach the conclusion that, if Bangladesh was so great, then why did I come to Canada?

I can’t answer those questions for you, nor would I presume to attempt to do so; however, in this country, though we pride ourselves on our nation’s diversity, there is always a “but” (qualification). No society worth its name can maintains social cohesion and unity if it tolerates the views of a group, or groups, that are hostile to the core values of that society.

So, I go back to where I began tonight’s talk: Section 15 of the Charter says that the  rights of “all citizens  are equal before and under the law, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, “ . . . and Section 27 stipulates that the Charter itself is to ``be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.''

So, the fundamental question, then, for any Canadian citizen, which is particularly more acute for recent immigrants who become citizens, is: “Do I, or does my group, discriminate against people on the basis of any of the following: race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability?”

The point I’m triying to make here is that these questions are not just for the host society, but also for the would-be Canadian citizen. And, while we may look at the reasonable accommodation in Quebec as something strange, if not ludicrous at times, all societies must return to their first principles (Why they exist as a unit), so to speak, on a regular basis.

We need to remember that the project we are all engaged in this country involves the evolution of a Canadian society, composed of people from all backgrounds, rather than a Bangladeshi society, or a Sri Lankan society, or an Islamic state, or any other sort of mon-cultural society.

I’d like to conclude my talk tonight with this final thought: How you, the people in this room, answer the questions outlined above will have a lot to do with how well Canada succeeds in its goal of being a unified, harmonious, integrated, and fair society. Thank you very much for your time and attention.