This article is extracted from a speech I gave at a dinner in May 2007 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the right to vote for Canadians of Chinese heritage.
Multiculturalism, contrary to popular belief, is not new to this country. As early as 1903, Sir Wilfred Laurier had declared: “For here in Canada, I want the marble to remain the marble; the granite to remain the granite; the oak to remain the oak; and out of these elements, I would build a nation great among the nations of the world.”
Sir Wilfred’s remarks were echoed some 58 years later in 1961 by another Prime Minister, the Right Honourable John Diefenbaker: “Canada is a garden . . . into which has been transplanted the hardiest and brightest flowers of many lands, each retaining in its new environment the best qualities for which it was loved and prized in the native lands . . .”
Then in 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau formally introduced multiculturalism as a state policy. The spirit of multiculturalism was enshrined in our Constitution in 1982 in Section 17 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”
The state policy of Multiculturalism finally became law under the Mulroney government in 1988.
But what does it all mean to us, particularly for those Canadians who are members of the multicultural communities?
Two policies in the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 are of particular relevance:
e. Promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and the elimination of any barrier to that participation.
f. Encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character.
In addition to the two policies mentioned above, the Act specifically charged all government agencies, departments and Crown corporations to provide leadership in the implementation of all policies listed in the Act.
While considerable amount of time and energy were spent on promoting “multiculturalism”, the efforts has produced results that can at best be described as mediocre when measured against the policies and objectives stated above. In terms of equitable participation, the number of elected representatives coming from the multicultural communities is small relative to their population base. In terms of inclusion, members of visible minorities’ participation in public hearings, public debates and public consultations are rare occurrences. A casual glance at the weekly recap of appointment to senior corporate positions in one of the nation’s business newspaper tells the story that the power corridors of this nation’s economic institutions are not yet reached by members of the cultural communities.
In the very Government agencies and departments that were charged by Law to promote inclusion, the number of senior department heads who are of Asian heritage is negligible.
The sad part is that while the government’s efforts over the years have not succeed in its stated goals, multiculturalism was criticized as divisive because it emphasis what is different, rather than the values that are Canadian. Some says that under multiculturalism, “Canadians become strangers in their own land.”
Their point of view is best reflected in a speech by a member of parliament who spoke in the House of Commons in 1975: “(Asians) are imposing a great social burden in this country. Chinese people … who cannot be absorbed properly into the country and who cannot find jobs suitable to them are being admitted under the Immigration Act…. These people are coming in so rapidly that they are not fitting in properly to the fabric of society. They are locating in ghettos, dozens to a house… They come in planeloads, 350 at a time, and there is just no way to assimilate them.”
While I fundamentally disagree with such sentiments, the slow pace of new Canadians integrating into our society socially, culturally and politically does pose a challenge to our country. Many recent arrivals may also mistakenly believe that under Canada’s multicultural policy, not only they can retain their own cultural identify; they are under no obligation to learn and adjust to a Canadian identity.
The challenge for us as Canadians is to articulate clearly what constitute a Canadian identity. We need to let our new compatriots know in a systemic fashion what we stand for. With that in mind, I believe we need to:
• Strengthen our education system to teach Canadian values such as equity, due process of the law and fairness.
• Include the teaching of Canadian values in the citizenship process. Prospective citizens do not have to agree to those values but they need to at least know that those values are what set us apart as Canadians.
• Cross promotion of the various cultures that make up our communities. While most Canadians, Christians or not, celebrate Christmas, not many, other than Asian Canadians, celebrate the lunar festival. Wouldn’t it be nice if, as Canadians, that more of us also observe Yom Kippur, Vaisakhi, Diwali, Ramadan or other significant cultural days regardless whether one belongs to that particular culture?
• Ensure political leaders, government bodies and media institutions to be more reflective of our multicultural society. The importance is not just the counting up the number of people with a different skin color but to ensure that these people’s point of views are listened to and respected.
• Government institutions need to put processes and systems in place to ensure that different cultural perspectives and interests are brought into play in the design of policies and programs. In order to ensure full participation in the consultative process, governments need to go into the different communities’ natural gathering places, provide interpretation services and, to the extend possible, include people from various cultural communities on the consultative panels.
Integration is not a one way street, new Canadian communities also need to:
• Encourage full participation of community members in the consultative processes of government policies. Community leaders need to set a good example but ordinary folks need to invest their time and effort to voice their opinions.
• Encourage the promotion of their own culture and value to people outside of their own cultural community:
• There need to be more English publications covering the ethanol cultural communities. Publications such as the Chinatown News of old and Rice Paper, Asian Post and the Canadian Immigrant Magazine play an important role as windows for the larger community to understand the new comers’ communities.
• Share programming between non-English language news outlets with English language news outlets. The cross ownership of the Toronto Star and Sing Tao Newspaper is, in my view, an under exploited opportunity.
• Encourage participation in the political process, not just during election time but in policy conventions of political parties.
As we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the election of Douglas Jung, the first Member of Parliament from the Chinese Canadian community, it would be a great tribute to his pioneering work by resolving to working harder to make every cultural community an integral part of the Canadian mosaic.