Getting Past “Yes” or “No”

Our debate over multiculturalism needs more nuance.

Almost anything that goes wrong in minority communities can be blamed on multiculturalism, in the minds of some of its critics. They say multiculturalism, by celebrating diversity, not only encourages minorities to maintain possibly anti-democratic or sexist cultures and extraneous political agendas in Canada; it also exempts them from criticism based on mainstream values. Incompetence is excused, crimes are condoned and terrorist threats are ignored, all because multiculturalism makes people fear that criticism of minority groups, or even individual group members, will bring down accusations of racism. In this vein, recently former British Columbia premier Ujjal Dosanjh blamed multiculturalism for helping promote Sikh extremism, because it has been distorted to claim that “anything anyone believes—no matter how ridiculous and outrageous it might be, is okay and acceptable in the name of diversity.”

On the flip side, almost anything that goes right in minority communities can be, and has been, credited to multiculturalism by some of its proponents. They claim that by recognizing and supporting minority cultures, multiculturalism promotes social inclusion and helps integrate minorities into the mainstream. Whether it is minority businesses being successful, minority kids doing well in school, or even Ujjal Dosanjh becoming the first South Asian immigrant premier of B.C.—all these are possible because multiculturalism encourages a sense of belonging among minorities and reminds everyone of the positive potentials of a diverse society. Citing such positive experiences, the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, internationally renowned as a theoretician of multiculturalism, announced in his 1998 book Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada that “the multiculturalism program is working.”

Canadians express both pros and cons, but tend to come down on the pro side. They think multiculturalism is generally a good idea. Since the policy was introduced in 1971, successive opinion polls have shown solid majorities backing multiculturalism. Many see it as part of the national identity. Pollster Michael Adams asked Canadians in 1985 what made them most proud about Canada and found multiculturalism on the list at tenth. He asked again in 2006, and it had climbed to second place. Celebrating multiculturalism is, according to him, nothing short of “the Canadian Dream.”

There have been critics from the beginning. Sociologist John Porter, whose 1965 classic The Vertical Mosaic defined questions of diversity for a generation of Canadian university students, thought multiculturalism would marginalize minorities. Such concerns faded after the policy became established, but re-emerged in 1994 with Neil Bissoondath’s book Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Bissoondath complained that multiculturalism divided Canadians by emphasizing their differences. As a writer, he felt that his work tended to be seen in terms of his visible minority status as Trinidad-born of East Indian origins. He felt stereotyped, and he blamed multiculturalism.

Bissoondath’s criticism received a lot of media attention, but it barely made a dent in popular support, as polls continued to show. Multiculturalism in Canada may have been buoyed by its warm reception internationally. It was adopted in 1978 by Australia, and in the 1980s and ’90s by a number of European countries, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. An international consensus was proclaimed in 1997 by the American sociologist Nathan Glazer: We Are All Multiculturalists Now.

This international consensus was upended by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the war on terror and various events, including the Madrid bombing in 2004, the murder of film maker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, more bombings in London and widespread disturbances in Maghreb communities in France. Suspicion focused on Muslim immigrants generally, fuelled by criticism of Islamic attitudes toward women symbolized by headscarves and veils. Doubts were raised about the whole idea of support for minority cultures. U.S. and British academic critics including Brian Berry, Samuel Huntington and Amartya Sen added weight to the backlash. In 2007, a column in The Economist said of multiculturalism that “almost everyone now agrees it has failed.” And Francis Fukuyama blamed Canada for exporting an ideology promoting violence.

Through all this, stalwart Canada has stuck with multiculturalism. This raises a question: are we out on a limb? According to a new book by Phil Ryan called Multicultiphobia, we do “need to talk.” Multiculturalism critics may be wrong-headed at times, and some of their views poorly reasoned, contradictory and empirically doubtful. But they are not racists or bigots—although they may suffer from “diffuse anxiety.” They have raised legitimate concerns that should be addressed. We should examine items of criticism, “acknowledging those that contain some truth, challenging those that do not.” A reasoned analysis based on evidence is certainly the right direction to take. And Ryan, a professor of public policy at Carleton University, is not known as a partisan in this debate.

To frame a discussion of Ryan’s book we need a working definition of the core subject, and here is mine: Canadian multiculturalism recognizes and supports minority cultures, but also underscores the goal of social integration. The initial announcement in 1971 offered assistance to cultural groups to “develop a capacity to grow and contribute to Canada,” meaning in practice a small program of grants to cultural organizations. Explicitly integrative provisions encouraged full participation in society, inter-group exchanges and official language learning. The policy has evolved, with entrenchment in legislation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the basic idea remains the same.

Ryan’s pragmatic approach to assessing multiculturalism’s critics resonates with Canadian public opinion. Canadians are proud to support the principle of multiculturalism, but they also want immigrants to blend in, and they worry whether they do. Polls show that majorities agree “too many immigrants do not adopt Canadian values.” Canadians do not necessarily blame these problems on multiculturalism. If critical views can improve policy, they should be heard.

There is a lot at stake here. Canada has a much larger investment in immigration than most other countries. Since 1990, well over four million new immigrants have been admitted, mostly members of visible minorities. Toronto alone ­welcomes nearly 100,000 new immigrants each year. Compared to others, we have more to gain from bringing immigrants into the mainstream of society—and more to lose if we fail.

Many factors affect immigrant integration, and the debate over multiculturalism ultimately should be seen in that context. Immigrant selection policy is a priority. Access to settlement assistance, housing, language training, recognition of immigrant skills, education and business opportunities—all are important. Multicultural-type issues, such as possible isolation in ethnic enclaves, or holding to cultural values not typical of other Canadians, are somewhere on the list of concerns, but how important they may be is an empirical question.

Unfortunately, the debate over multiculturalism is not always conducted with such a broader context in mind. The question often becomes simply: multiculturalism, yes or no. As his own presentation unfolds, Ryan unwittingly becomes preoccupied with defending multiculturalism, which distracts him from his stated intention to consider how to improve both it and immigrant integration generally.

Two periods are distinguished in the book: pre- and post-9/11. Pre-9/11, Bissoondath and three other so-called “classics of multicultiphobia” from the 1990s—books by sociologist Reginald Bibby (Mosaic Madness: Pluralism Without a Cause, 1990), journalist Richard Gwyn (Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, 1995) and historian J.L. Granatstein (Who Killed Canadian History?, 1998)—established a clear critical position. Selections after 9/11 suggest the critical themes were fading in Canada, despite the international backlash (which Ryan does not discuss). Daniel Stoffman’s book (Who Gets In: What’s Wrong with Canada’s Immigration Program—and How to Fix It, 2002) is mainly about immigration, not multiculturalism, and Martin Collacott’s Fraser Institute report (Canada’s Inadequate Response to Terrorism: The Need for Policy Reform, 2006) contains only a brief section on multiculturalism.

After 9/11, it was in the news media that critical debate in Canada continued most persistently, perhaps reflecting international experience. Ryan’s analysis of selected Canadian newspapers showed “comfort” with increasing diversity, but also the critics’ concerns: ghettoization, dual loyalties, cultural relativism, disdain for the cultural majority and failure to promote Canadian identity.

In discussing what we need to talk about, Ryan probes two issues: relativism and shared values. On relativism, he says that theoretically it has little to do with multiculturalism, but of course critics are concerned with social impact more than with theory. On shared values, Ryan argues that since it is difficult to articulate these usefully, we should emphasize citizen engagement as a process. This makes sense, but the question is how to do that.

Ultimately, social impact is the key, so we need to look at actual dynamics of inter-group relations. Ryan reviews relevant studies in his section  on how we are doing. He finds “no obvious evidence to support the more alarmist claims of multiculturalism’s critics,” and “much evidence to suggest we are doing quite well in the integration of ethnic minorities.”

It is in this research review that Ryan most clearly falls into the pattern of simply defending multiculturalism from critics, rather than improving the policy. It is true that Canada’s record of integrating immigrants is good by international standards, but where problems exist, they should be addressed. If evidence doesn’t support the most alarmist claims of critics, it is also pretty weak in supporting the more positive claims of proponents, at least in my reading. Ryan tends to dismiss immigrants’ problems as not being the fault of multiculturalism, and this gets in the way of assessing their significance, or what should be done about them if multiculturalism as it stands is not enough. Opportunities to improve policy are missed.

The most useful research compares countries with and without multicultural policies, and the few existing studies show little effect either way. One of these (by Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka) showed multiculturalism policies in 21 countries had little relation to the strength of the welfare state. This undermines the critics’ claim of divisiveness, but does not support proponents’ claims of enhanced cohesion either.

If multiculturalism has little negative effect (Ryan overlooks negative European studies, for example by Ruud Koopmans and by Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn), that may be sufficient reason to keep it. But does it have the positive effects claimed by proponents? Ryan relies here on Will Kymlicka’s positive claims in Finding Our Way quoted above, without noting later revisions in Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity, deciding “we cannot simply declare multiculturalism to be either a ‘success’ or a ‘failure.’” A close reading shows virtually all of Kymlicka’s 1998 evidence on integration has other explanations, not necessarily multiculturalism. Most analysts attribute Canada’s successful integration of immigrant minorities mainly to our skill-selective immigration policy. To entirely credit multiculturalism is, frankly, absurd.

Canadian multiculturalism is often compared to “assimilationist” policies in the United States, although official U.S. policy is actually laissez-faire. Many such comparisons are not relevant to multiculturalism. The more negative status of minorities in the U.S. mostly has other reasons. The legacy of centuries of slavery in the U.S. could hardly be ended by adopting official multiculturalism any more than multiculturalism solves English-French relations in Canada. Nor would multiculturalism in the U.S. transform undocumented immigration from Mexico into a popular cause. Multicultural Canada is also averse to undocumented immigration, illustrated by the strongly negative reaction to a few Chinese people arriving off the B.C. coast in 1999.

When “fair” comparisons are made between Canada and the U.S., focusing on similar groups of immigrants—for instance, highly educated immigrants from China, India or the Caribbean—any differences due to Canadian multiculturalism appear quite small. Rates of economic and social integration for comparable immigrants are virtually identical in the two countries. Higher rates of inter-group marriage in Canada are sometimes cited as showing greater inclusiveness here, but recent studies reveal this difference as more a result of demographics and opportunity, not preferences arising from multiculturalism. The most convincing positive evidence comes from a study (by Irene Bloemraad) showing that government funding of ethnic community organizations produces higher citizenship acquisition rates in Canada. How this affects the social integration of immigrants is not known, however.

Ryan’s book omits emphasis on issues of religion and the status of women. Related to this, there is little discussion of Quebec, the controversies over “reasonable accommodation” of Muslims and other religious minorities, or the Bouchard-Taylor report on these matters commissioned by the Quebec government.

Quebec policy is symbolically different, suggesting possibly useful comparisons with the rest of Canada. In Quebec, ambivalence toward multiculturalism resulted in a provincial policy of “inter-culturalisme” instead. This difference reflects the initial politics of multiculturalism. Re-emergence of national identity in Quebec during the 1960s raised issues of culture as well as language, eliminating traditional assimilationism as an option. Multiculturalism was chosen instead of bi-culturalism to accommodate immigrant groups, leaving many Quebeckers feeling their interests had been downgraded.

Since much of the hypothesized impact of multiculturalism is at the symbolic level, does Quebec’s use of a different word make any practical difference to immigrant integration? Results from Statistics Canada’s 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey suggest not. Apparently governments may usefully express support for diversity even without multiculturalism.

Significant problems of immigrant integration are mentioned in Ryan’s text, but generally dismissed simply on the basis they are not caused by multiculturalism as it currently exists. Visible minority group members often report experiences of discrimination, for example. Here Ryan acknowledges grounds for “concern,” but then drops the matter. Economic problems and poverty among recent immigrants are mentioned but also dismissed as not due to multiculturalism. Potentially significant problems are deflected to defend multiculturalism as it is, without considering how policies including multiculturalism or related policies might be improved to address them more effectively.

Immigrant enclaves are downplayed as a potential problem as well. Yet findings on enclaves might inform multicultural policy. Residence in enclaves helps immigrants feel at home, but also tends to isolate them. This is an actual finding based on my own recent analysis of the Ethnic Diversity Survey. Persistent diversity both promotes and slows the process of integration, depending on different aspects of that process. This suggests multiculturalism policy might consider ways to establish stronger exchanges among Canada’s cultural communities.

Overall Ryan mainly endorses Canada’s multiculturalist consensus, with few directions for improving policy. The dominant feeling is one of complacency. Given the significance of immigration in Canada, and the existence of real problems, complacency is not what might be expected from policy analysis. Multiculturalism likely does not cause all the difficulties about which critics worry. However, multiculturalism also does not guarantee the smooth integration of the two million immigrants likely to arrive in Canada during the next decade. If multiculturalism makes little difference to immigrant integration, then an ongoing debate over multiculturalism yes or no may distract us from addressing the most critical issues.