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Diversity Matters – multiculturalism and Canada’s world

June 18, 2008

Yesterday in Vancouver : Michael Adams, founding president of the Environics group and author of such books as Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, gave a talk about multiculturalism in the Canadian context. Alas, i was unable to attend. Did anyone out there hear him? Thoughts? Comments?

I’m interested in his most recent book, Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism – Adams takes issue with one of my key worries, that Canada is “increasingly fragmented along ethno-cultural lines”. Armed with polling data that his company, Environics, specializes in mining, Adams is a high profile “data farmer” and posits that Canadians, new and old , embrace diversity. Has anyone read this book? I haven’t yet (another “to do” on my vast reading list) but in a past life worked with clients who used his firm’s many polling resources.

When I zip around the city on transit, and walk all our neighbourhoods, I worry that here in the Lower Mainland we’re increasingly segmented by income, language and ethnicity but maybe my anecdotal “evidence” is simply wrong? As a fairly typical “middle-class” Canadian, albeit with brown skin, maybe my tendency to extrapolate generally from books such as Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead leads me to see “diversity” as a potential wedge issue rather than a unifier. (Interesting to compare Jacobs with Jared Diamond). I have found it incredibly refreshing and thought-provoking that several commentators to this column have viewed Canada’s diversity in positive terms.

I wonder if being a “visible minority” in this country makes me overly pessimistic about the positive aspects of diversity – how do each of us arrive at understanding and how do we make meaning of all these terms “The Academy” uses – multiculturalism, diversity, pluralism, ethnocultural…

The folks I went to high school with, in my home town of New Westminster, didn’t necessarily use this kind of highly abstract language to define or self-analyse our community, which was extremely homogenous. I’m curious – what were the experiences of readers here in Canada and elsewhere in the world, while they were growing up, regarding cultural issues. Did anyone grow up with a consciousness of “multiculturalism”?

In France, for instance, cultural and lingustic diversity – pluralism – as concepts are sometimes viewed as dire threats to the “Republic”…one of my favorite film makers is controversial Austrian/french Michael Heneke, director of Time of the Wolf and Cache (Hidden). The latter explores several layered themes. Here’s the Village Voice, in a snippet on the movie:”The form of this unholy experience is so sublimely conceived that Haneke can rope in post-colonialist atrocity (specifically, the Paris drowning-massacre of protesting Algerians in 1961) and contemporary injustices (ever-present on Anne and Georges’s plasma TV), and make it all seem of a piece with the central issues of seeing-but-not-seeing, of bobo complacence in fragile balance with Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.”

A “dream” lecture would be to have Michael Adams give a lecture with stills of Michael Haneke’s film Cache projected onto a background screen behind the podium. If you were in the audience, what would you think?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. adamfritz permalink*
    June 19, 2008 1:45 am

    I think the important thing to remember when addressing Canada in general terms is that our country is big. We may have a relatively small population. We may all watch the same TV shows (except in Quebec). And we may all be happy to live north of the 49th parallel, but we should not forget the shear size of our land and the vast distances between us.

    That being said, how one views diversity will largely be a reflection of two things: where you live and what stories you listen to.

    I grew up in Fredericton. Diversity in Fredericton boils down to whether you spoke French or English and whether you knew the local black family. It’s not that we didn’t want a more diverse community, it just wasn’t a reality we understood on the day to day. The story of New Brunswick, however, speaks to the idea of different cultures coming together – for better or worse. Aboriginal and European. French and English. Acadian and American Loyalist. Although there were many sad and tragic events that unfolded from these mixing of cultures, the resulting community understands the trouble that arises when you fight and is learning to appreciate the strengths that come with working together. That, and we all end up leaving town to find jobs, so the large Maritime diaspora keeps the motherland informed of the ways of the world.

    When you speak of diversity in one of our three urban meccas, namely Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, you are speaking of a different reality. With millions of people from hundreds of cultures mixed together it is easier to find your own niche and blend into the “white” noise that surrounds you. It is also that much harder to form an overall community that the masses can rally around in mutual support. With a multitude of recent immigrants the stories are all new, so one persons lessons are not pertinent to those of your neighbour.

    It is basically a giant urban laboratory where municipal and provincial governments try to create order through a common language education, shared public facilities and a love of hockey. And somehow it works. If it didn’t work, then people’s attitudes towards diversity would change drastically. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

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