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The differences between the different cultural groups co-existing in the Lower Mainland are very evident. People go to different places to worship. They listen to different radio stations, read different newspapers, eat at different restaurants, idolize different movie stars and cheer on different types of sports.

No one would worry much if the lines of demarcation are drawn according to age, gender or socio-economic status. But all kinds of alarm bells sound when the lines are drawn along cultural or ethnic lines — particularly post 9/11.

People are worried that new Canadians living in such cultural and ethnic enclaves will form ghettos that become hotbeds of segregation. At the very least, these cultural groups, critics maintain, will never be fully integrated into mainstream Canadian society.

The fact is, it is only human nature to gravitate towards others who share a similar cultural background in a new environment. It is also human nature that over time, people will venture to explore other cultures surrounding their communities. And in the long-run, through greater interaction, the communities will integrate with each other.

In order for that to happen, the host society needs to be willing to welcome the new culture and accept the new comers as equals. At the same time, the new comers have to be willing to learn and adapt to the new culture without feeling pressured to giving up their own.

The ideal state for multiculturalism is to achieve a state that best described by a Chinese proverb: “Harmony but distinct”

A harmonious but distinct society is like a symphonic orchestra.  The strings sections congregate together in one section while the winds sections sit together in another. No one in their right mind would suggest that the violinists in an orchestra form a ghetto. Under the baton of a good conductor, the musicians play beautiful music together. Each section contributes to the making of a glorious concerto penned by a masterful composer.

In a multicultural society, our Constitution is our song sheet and our political leadership is our conductor. The Constitution lays out shared values as a society. Within that broad framework, our political leaders are free to guide each segment of the society to achieve their maximum potential for the common good of the country.

The challenge facing our multicultural nation now is twofold. First, we are more like a jazz band having its first jam session than like a well rehearsed orchestra. Second, while we have a good piece of music, our conductor lacks the understanding of the nuances of various instruments that make up the orchestra.

In a typical orchestra, while the people who plays string instrument are likely not good at playing percussions, they generally do not look down upon the percussionists. Musicians also tend to have some basic understanding of each other’s contribution to the performance of the masterpiece.

Judging from some of the criticisms leveled by some people towards our minority cultural groups, it is evident that not everyone in our country is respectful of newcomers nor appreciates their contributions to the society in a multicultural context. It is also entirely possible that not all members of our society, including but not limiting to the different cultural groups that are new to this country, have a good grasp of the values expressed in our Constitution.

A jazz band can only make good music if each player has a good feel of the other players’ mood, ability and tempo. This can only be achieved by consistent practice and keen ears. For a multicultural society to become a harmonious and distinct civilization, we also need to practice our art of living together by learning to appreciate each other’s mood, ability and tempo.

Our political leaders and government bodies also need to be more reflective of our multicultural society in order for them to have a better understanding of the aspirations of the various minority cultural groups.

Our federal, provincial and municipal bureaucracies need to have processes and systems in place to ensure that different cultural perspectives and interests are brought into play in the design of policies.

I hope that Canadians will continue to make wonderful and glorious music in a harmonious and distinctive way.

Citizenship is a state of the mind

Citizenship is a state of the mind. It is about personal identity and loyalty. Citizenship does not exist in a plastic card or a little blue covered booklet. It is not what other people say who you are, but who you think you are.

Canada has a long history of accepting people holding dual allegiances. Indeed, this country was founded by people who had a strong desire to swear allegiance to the British monarch as a colony rather than as an independent state.  The French population in the formative years of Canada held similar allegiance to France. The aboriginal people of Canada have never given up their hope of nationhood.

When the First World War broke out, although Canada was not directly attacked, our forefathers proudly went to the aid of England, the homeland of many of the Canadians of the time. By action and by deed, we, as a country, had demonstrated that dual allegiance was not only acceptable, but honoured.

In the last three decades, we, as a nation, have grown up. We are now more confident of ourselves. We now have our own Constitution.  Our Supreme Court is now the final Court of Appeal. We no longer need to seek the approval of another country to change our Constitution.

Some think that with that we need to cut our ties with the country whence we came. Still others argue that Canadians should swear allegiance only to Canada and no other country.  

Some people also point out that Canadians should be allowed to carry only one plastic card proclaiming their Canadian citizenship. Canadians, these critics say, should not be allowed to carry another little booklet that identifies them as citizens of another country.

But is this what citizenship is all about?

During the Second World War, our soldiers did not fight to defend our territory. They fought to defend our way of life. They laid down their lives so we could enjoy our freedom. Their sacrifices allow us to live in a society that is ruled by law. Laws that are enacted by a freely elected assembly; interpreted by an independent judiciary; and applied by corruption free law enforcement bodies.

In other words, they fought to defend our values. The values that they fought for include equity, due process of the law and fairness.

In my mind, citizenship is about sharing and subscribing to these set of commonly held values.  Canadians may express these values in a variety of ways based on their cultural, economical and religious background. People may have different priorities when it comes to these values, but these values set us apart as Canadians.

So as long as people subscribe to and willing to defend such values, why should we care if they also hold citizenship of another country? And if people do not share or subscribe to such values, what good is it for us to limit them to just holding a Canadian citizenship to the exclusion of all others?

Of course, there are practical matters to consider. Things like the cost of providing consular services to Canadians of dual citizenship who chose to live abroad. Matters like the cost of providing medical services to the Canadian Diaspora population when they grow old and decide to return to Canada to live. Issues like the cost of providing education to the children of Canadians who chose to live and work abroad, but leave their children behind.

I believe there is a simple solution to these economic concerns.  Canada should implement an income tax regime similar to the United States. As long as a person is a Canadian citizen, he or she should be required to file annual Canadian income tax returns regardless of his or her place of residence.

With close to 2.7 million Canadians living abroad according Asia Pacific Foundation, our government should be able to collect sufficient tax revenues to look after current and future services to the Canadian Diaspora population.

Since we cannot have taxation without representation, we should put programs in place to encourage Canadian overseas to participate in federal and provincial elections based on their last place of residence in Canada. In so doing, we will ensure that they stay connected to Canada and we stay connected to them.

The positive effects of having 2.7 million committed, connected and concerned Canadians living abroad can only be limited by one’s imagination.

These people could promote two way trades with their current place of residence. They could encourage cultural exchanges. They could act as our good will ambassadors.  

For all these reasons, I am in favour of keeping our proud tradition of allowing people to have dual citizenship.

Beyond Multiculturalism

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.

© The Vancouver Sun