Heritage can’t be reduced to symbols and sentiment

Vancouver Courier
February 23, 1997

When I was a student in Moscow 18 years ago, Leonid Brezhnev was in his dotage, the Cold War was warmish, and a ruble was worth two Canadian dollars. (Given events since the late 1980s, this seems like ancient history—unreal, somehow.)

On May 1, 1979, I happened to witness the May Day parade as it marched along Gorky Street to Red Square. Ostensibly a popular celebration of labour (socialist labour, of course), nothing, not even the busloads of people brought in for the ritual, could hide the utter emptiness of it all. From the cheering and pre-fab slogans to the obligatory anti-American banners, it was a tightly contrived affair.

The parade was important, not for Soviet workers, but for the government. Big crowds gave the illusion that everyone was happy and that life was good. The people pretended to be enthusiastic, the state pretended to care, and then everyone went home.

This Russian flashback came to mind as I began to reflect on the past week, Multiculturalism Week, that is. Multiculturalism was invented in 1971 by the Trudeau Liberals to water down English-Canadian identity and to curry favour with ethnic voters. Nevertheless, the official noble fiction is that multiculturalism is all about pluralism and cultural tolerance, and therefore deserves to be celebrated as the defining nature of national culture. Thus, like those of the Soviet May Day parade, the superficial trappings of Multiculturalism Week serve ulterior political objectives.

If the intent of the week-long February event were to promote national self-awareness and unity, then it’s hard to see the point of celebrating and promoting other cultures. When people immigrate to Canada, they expect to become Canadians and join our culture. This is true of Vancouver’s Chinese community. As I noted about a year and a half ago, Jim Wong-Chu, one of the organizers of Vancouver’s annual Chinese-Canadian “Go For Broke” arts festival, says he is Canadian first and Chinese second. Symbols of Chinese culture are irrelevant to him and he feels no kinship with new immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong because they do not share his cultural history.

As Sheila Finestone, Hedy Fry’s predecessor as Secretary of State for Ethnic Hugs and Kisses, said: “Canada has no national culture.” In truth, multiculturalism is dedicated to reinforcing that very proposition, for the political reason mentioned above. But where does that leave immigrants who do want a national Canadian culture? What does multiculturalism mean to them? Not much, as it turns out.

Courier readers may remember a Nov. 13, 1996 interview that contributing writer Ann Sullivan did with Ntombi Mayaba, a Zulu woman returning to South Africa to find work. Mayaba condemned multiculturalism for being divisive and a waste of money. “(Multiculturalism) separates people,” she said. “It promotes the idea that there are old Canadians and new immigrants and it stigmatizes the new immigrants.”

She said non-profit organizations were more interested in organizing multicultural programs than in helping people develop language and job search skills. “I came here to be a Canadian,” said Mayaba. “I didn’t come here to be an African in Canada. It’s just impossible and it’s being funded.” She said African-Canadians would organize their own events, with or without government help.

Wong-Chu and Mayaba can see the nonsense of multiculturalism, but the dogma of the Canadian mosaic must be defended against all criticism and independent thought. As a consequence, Canadian heritage is defined as easily digestible slogans and symbols. For Canadians, acknowledging our heritage (at least our cultural heritage) consists in regurgitating the appropriate verities and slogans of the Department of Ethnic Hugs and Kisses. Critical thought is dangerous; obedience is good. It’s small wonder, therefore, that expressions of pride in our national heritage are limited to sentimentality and pious platitudes.

Last Monday, the Province ran a fuzzy story about immigrant teens and their projects to promote Multiculturalism Week. “A multicultural society is like a mosaic,” said a young Korean girl, unaware of the redundancy. A 16-year-old essay finalist said scholarships should go to students who promote good race relations, as if education could be predicated on social conduct.

As touching as all this may be, none of it is new, interesting, noteworthy, or related in any way to Canadian culture. A mosaic ensures Canada will always be less than the sum of its parts.

For native-born Canadians, things aren’t much better. Take the flag. Ordinarily, Flag Day passes with modest observance if any, and those who want a flag know where they can buy one. Minister of Heritage Sheila Copps, who oversees multiculturalism, decided to make the Maple Leaf the vanguard of a hysterical national unity effort: free flags for everyone (at a cost of $23 million) and the country will stay together.

Canada does have a rich heritage and Canadians have excelled in many fields. Multiculturalism Week is a destructive notion that denigrates the Canadian whole. People create culture, not governments.

Take heart, though: Russian culture survived despite the ministry of culture. Sooner or later, Canadians will survive multiculturalism.