Vancouver Courier
January 21,1996

Canada became a sovereign state on Dec. 11, 1931, when the British parliament passed the Statute of Westminster. It would turn out to be a rather brief fling with unfettered self-determination. Soon after a depression and another world war, Canada again came under the hegemony of a great power, this time the United States.

Thus, we have the great existential dilemma of Canadian nationhood: how to pursue an independent domestic and foreign policy, maintain a sense of cultural identity, and present itself as an independent actor on the world stage, all the while remaining dependent upon American economic and military might.

Canadian governments are so fixated on self-esteem that they embrace policies to be different American. Such is the case with multiculturalism: if America has “the melting pot,” then Canada would have “the cultural mosaic.”

At the same time Pierre Trudeau was trying to “level the playing field” (see last week’s column), he was also seeking to promote a nationalism that distinguished Canada from the U.S. Nevertheless, the U.S. has its own version of multiculturalism, which, in the eyes of Orest Kruhlak, is the reason for the bad reputation of Canada’s policy.

Kruhlak, regional executive director for the Department of Canadian Heritage, which administers official multiculturalism, says the program is falsely accused of promoting hiring quotas and ethnic separateness because of a popular confusion with the American variant. If only we could clear our minds of this error, he feels, the true virtue of multiculturalism would be readily apparent and accepted.

(When you think about it, to say that Canada is multicultural is no more significant than saying it’s multiclimactic. For some reason, though, we don’t seem to need a federal policy mandating official “multiclimaticity.”)

Technically, Kruhlak is right. American multiculturalism, “affirmative action” and identity politics came out of the civil rights movement as a consequence of the problem of slavery. Thus, it has a strong tone of retribution, whereas Canada’s is more benign. But how useful is this distinction?

Given that images of identity politics bombard us daily through American films and TV, author Richard Gwyn writes: “That identity politics should now be as dominant here as (in the U.S.) reveals the extent to which Canadian value systems have become Americanized.” (The reason Gwyn gives is quite revealing: “We are especially susceptible to identity politics because we have no over-arching national creed.” As we all know, proponents of official multiculturalism deny that Canada has any national culture.)

For the American perspective we turn to Richard Bernstein, book reviewer and former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, who gave an address at David Thompson secondary in November. Bernstein argued that multiculturalism, however well-intentioned, undermines national unity, promotes racial antagonisms and exacerbates economic inequality. “The fundamental flaw with multiculturalism is that it carves up the economic pie multiculturally rather than economically,” said Bernstein. “It’s a fig leaf; it pretends to be a solution when in fact it doesn’t address the real problem.”

For example, he said multiculturalism gives a well-off, well-educated black woman economic advantages she doesn’t need but denies those same advantages to poorer white men or poorer blacks in general. Thus, for minorities multiculturalism amounts to a middle-class entitlement.

Bernstein has no problem with a policy to address historic wrongs done to blacks, as civil rights activists demand, but multiculturalism is another matter. “One of the unintended consequences of multiculturalism is to encourage and reward people to make demands on the system based on group identity... (and to) legitimize racial retribution.”

We can see the same degenerative dynamic at work in Canada. As Gwyn writes in Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, Canada’s Supreme Court has sanctified the cult of identity politics. He cites Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, who believes Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is designed “to remedy or prevent discrimination against groups subject to stereotyping.” Moreover, the court in 1992 became the first one in the world to accept the radical feminist notion of “hostile climate.” (Thanks to feminists, women have now become a virtual “culture” in their own right.)

In place of multiculturalism, Bernstein advocates its opposite—pluralism. Instead of making choices and value judgments based on race and sex, these factors should not be considered. Ironically, Kruhlak is also on Bernstein’s side, although he might not know it. Kruhlak doesn’t support hiring quotas, and believes only in a fair and equitable common citizenship for all Canadians—in other words, pluralism. Canadian authors Neil Bissoondath and Bharati Mukherjee, staunch opponents of multiculturalism, also share affinities for Bernstein’s pluralism.

For all the difference in genesis, Canadian and American multiculturalisms are more similar than different. If, as I said, pluralism lies at the heart of both Kruhlak’s and Bernstein’s philosophies, maybe it’s time we consigned multiculturalism to the great scrap heap of misbegotten political illusions, before the will to keep Canada intact disappears entirely.