January 14, 1996
As defenders of multiculturalism go, perhaps no one is more articulate than Orest Kruhlak, regional executive director for the Department of Canadian Heritage. A civil servant who began his career during the Trudeau years, Kruhlak says that what critics say about multiculturalism and what multiculturalism actually does are two entirely different things. In an interview conducted last November, he said those who condemn multiculturalism do so out of ignorance and misperception.
Rather than a Balkanizing, destructive policy, he said: “Multiculturalism is a program designed to promote the equality of all people in Canada and to recognize that everyone, irrespective of ethnic background is legitimately Canadian.” Prime Minister Trudeau, therefore, promoted multiculturalism as a way to level the Canadian playing field so that, in Kruhlak’s words, “everybody could be made legitimately Canadian instead of someone of an ethnic or racial origin.”
Trudeau's great worry was French-Canadian nationalism. He wanted to show French Canada that English Canada was not threatening. He did this by promoting the dilution of English Canada's cultural cohesion—to the extent that such cohesion could be said to exist.
“Trudeau saw the legitimization of non-English, non-French Canadians as another countervailing force in Canadian society,” said Kruhlak. “It was also to say to French-speaking Canada: 'The English-speaking community was not a monolithic bloc standing in opposition to the aspirations of French-speaking Canada,’ as many French Canadian nationalists were portraying English-speaking Canada, and still do.”
Kruhlak said Trudeau was a liberal in the tradition of John Locke, the 17th-century English political philosopher and intellectual progenitor of the American Declaration of Independence. The idea that American liberal individualism could be foisted on conservative, Tory English Canada seemed neither odd nor bad to Kruhlak; in fact it was eminently necessary: “I don’t think (Trudeau) would argue that the Canada that existed for up to 100 years was a fundamentally unequal Canada.” It was a Canada, he said, wherein French Canadians, aboriginals and minorities were at best second-class citizens in a country where only Anglo-Saxon Canadians mattered.
All multiculturalism seeks to do, he said, is to promote a common citizenship, and those who object do so out of ignorance, misunderstanding and a longing for the good ol’ days of Anglo-Saxon privilege. Canada has no national culture, and this is not a bad thing, for culture, he says, is not national.
If multiculturalism is so obviously the saving grace for Canada how come one in two respondents to a 1992 immigration department poll “expressed the fear that they were becoming strangers in their own land?” How is it that the 1991 Spicer Commission found public anger toward multiculturalism came second only to that for Brian Mulroney? Why did a 1994 poll find 67 percent of Torontonians discontented with multiculturalism? The sad fact is that Kruhlak’s rosy arguments aren’t exactly airtight. In his new book Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, (the source for the polling results) Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn argues that by undermining English Canada, multiculturalism undermines the whole nation and promotes inequality.
First, he writes that the tolerance argument doesn’t hold water, because Canada’s social values were already moving towards greater tolerance. By 1962, the last of Canada's restrictive racial legislation was repealed, allowing for free immigration from Europe, and in 1967 immigration was opened to the world. “We stopped being (parochial and colonialist) for quite some time: within the lifetime of almost every Canadian adult, our attitudes have undergone a sea change,” he wrote. Multiculturalism was irrelevant before it even began.
Second, Gwyn said the image of the downtrodden “ethnic” is fiction. Cultural groups do fine on their own, and besides, Ukrainian Canadians were the only ones demanding the 1971 multiculturalism act.
In fact, multiculturalism has only served to promote dissention between the majority culture and the “multicultural communities”: “Overwhelmingly, the anti-racist programs of the department of multiculturalism are directed at white or European Canadians as if racism were a function of colour instead of race itself.” Kruhlak’s condemnation of “the old Canada” seems to assume an underlying bigotry among Canadians that only high-minded multiculturalism can cure.
This is not only ludicrous it is condescending and an insult to all Canadians. How are Canadians supposed to react when they’re being brought up to disrespect their British heritage in favour of a nihilistic policy that, for example, puts refugees on the same constitutional footing as citizens? What is Canadian citizenship worth? This is the crux of Gwyn’s criticism.
Kruhlak may disagree with this assessment, but perception and reality are indistinguishable. Kruhlak’s interpretation of multiculturalism may in fact reflect Trudeau’s thinking and may also have been done with good intentions, but it no longer matters. The abovementioned polls only make sense if looked at from Gwyn’s point of view. Canadians are decent, tolerant people, but they strongly resent having their country, like the proverbial rug, pulled out from underneath them.
In fact, no multiculturalist has made the case that the program is necessary. It has survived for as long as it has only because the Liberals need ethnic votes and large immigration quotas, especially for Toronto, to stay in power, so no serious examination of the issue is likely.
Kruhlak says we must water down our attachment to our British past in order to develop our own, Canadian mythology. He is certainly right that we need such symbols, but myths and symbols must be developed over lifetimes. Turning our back on our past is psychologically self-destructive.