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Corporate Multiculturalism – do we have it ; does it need to change?

July 14, 2008

Does Canadian multiculturalism need some tweaking or a major overhaul? This past spring, Trevor Phillips, Chair of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission visited Toronto, generating as always, discussion about the nature of diversity and citizenship in a post 9/11 world. I was fortunate to hear Phillips several years ago at a conference on multiculturalism sponsored by SFU’s Dialogue Centre.

A key idea from Phillips: replace corporate multiculturalism with progressive integration. Old lefties such as the former Mayor of London, Ken “the red” Livingston have accused Phillips, a charismatic black Briton with a savvy media style, of “pandering to the right.” Maybe – or perhaps a breath of fresh of air?

Corporate Multiculturalism – passive, state sponsored, respects difference and exaggerates it;associated with corporate m.c. is hostile co-existence. Phillips thinks both pose serious risks to a stable peaceful productive society. In corporate multiculturalism, we share song, food, dance but not language, which is seen as “too complicated to be negotiated.” Sound familiar? And we don’t drilll down into the tough stuff – where does your culture bump up against mine?

One idea that grabbed me: Phillips talked about the “lethal inertia” of corporate multiculturalism where communities use cultural sensitivity and a hostile public space to stay separate and unknowable, and where sometimes, “my culture” becomes an excuse to disobey the law of the land. Phillips cited the example of a black child who died in state care – UK social services agencies, when interviewed, claimed they were “afraid” to intervene because of cultural sensitivities. Can you think of similar examples in Canada?

Phillips wants core values to trump diversity. And he defines these values as respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and other western liberal humanist codes of conduct. What do you think? Do core values exist? Thou shalt not kill. I’m really into that one.

But there’s a ton of thought out there that posits that values are transitive. Again, I agree, to a point. But if everything is subjective, and abstracted to its relative context – where does that leave us when we disagree? Particularly if we disagree in a co-existence characterized by diversity. Without an agreed rule of law, how does it work between us?

Phillips claims you don’t have to be white and male to subscribe to a belief in the rule of law. He states that you can’t have legal equality, for instance, between the sexes, and cultural values that might “go against equality”, co-exist as equal values. What do you think?

I wrote to Phillips and he mentioned an interesting device: the circle of friends test: who do you know? How socially integrated are your networks? How many languages do your friends speak? His point is that too often corporate multiculturalism fosters the growth of shallow head nodding to dance and dress and not much genuine integration underneath. What do you think about Canada’s multiculturalism?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. AvB permalink
    December 20, 2009 10:28 am

    I furrow my brow now when someone asks “How socially integrated are your networks?”. It used to be a fairly straightforward question to which I’d look expectantly for an answer as it inevitably came up during extra-curricular academic arguments – who will prove more progressive?

    I admit I have more experience observing and participating in conversations about gender equity rather than ethnic, but I think it fits here. At least, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    A friend very active in the “queer movement” still asks often about a mutual friend of ours who at one time identified as gender queer. This self-identification was encouraged by our activist, if not suggested. He didn’t mind the encouragement during moments when he was exploring his own identity, but now feels uncomfortable around him, as his identity has changed with time.

    I get an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach when I hear people ask how socially integrated our friend groups are. It makes me wonder whether some aspiring progressives struggle to collect people like children would hockey cards to gain credibility of opinion.

  2. Scott Y permalink
    July 23, 2008 5:01 pm

    Cheers Renee.

    I’ve followed Trevor Phillips’ work closely for the past while. But I’m not an uncritical fan. (see below)

    Just for the record, I’m 1.5 generation Canadian. My mother immigrated from South Korea in the early 70s. My father’s parents immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the early 20th century, and they were originally from Guangzhou. Myself, I was born in Vancouver.

    My heritage is exactly why I’m highly amused by the notion of the hyphenated Canadian. I self identify as a Canadian, not as a Korean-Chinese-Canadian. Aside from serving as a stupid method of defining a person, if I were to marry a English-Italian-Scottish-Ukrainian Canadian-born girl, would our kids then be Korean-Chinese-English-Italian-Scottish-Ukrainian-Canadians? The absurdity is immediately self evident.

    I do have one concern, or rather a anecdote of interest, about Trevor Phillips. If he were Caucasian, would he be given the same liberties in free speech that many people seem to deny Bruce Allen? Is Trevor Philips’ being Black have any impact on how his comments are received? If a WASP were to utter the same words, would he be ripped a new hole by the PC police? Or on the flip side, if Bruce Allen was instead Bruce Singh, or Bruce Wong, would his comments have offended as many people? I believe that we have constructed a society that preaches equality AND free speech, but does not practice equality IN free speech.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    July 23, 2008 4:06 am

    Hi again Scott,

    Sorry. Forgot to say, thanks for the nat post link – i’ll have to read and follow up on that. R

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    July 23, 2008 4:05 am

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your detailed comments – noting of the nuances of “minorities” within “minorities” – eg re Indo Canadians was very much appreciated (Ask me why!)

    On the one hand activities like “sharing food/breaking bread together” can hold deep even mystical significance; on the other, i think most of us in Canada are near to groan/roll eyes over the more superficial aspects of some “state” sponsored multi-culti events.

    It may be that for us “second wavers” it’s time to drill deeper into the issues that both divide and unite us (e.g. like our discussion here!)

    I am always intrigued by broadening the context about these issues to include Canada and the world – yup; guess that’s our thang here at the blog – so your commentary re immigration vis a vis Canada’s electoral system and european countries: a good reminder for me to find time to read some of my fav online newspapers from EU countries such as Le Monde (despite less than stellar french) and english news clips from Italy, UK etc.

    Trevor Phillips is a charismatic man. Not infallible but a blast of fresh air. Did you hear him speak as well? I’m always looking for new links to his stuff so let us know…

    And i welcome more of your insights as a Canadian with experience re the “pigeon/hole” effect. Yup. I get that.

    Best, R

  5. Scott Y permalink
    July 22, 2008 6:14 am

    I agree with Trevor Philips more often than not, maybe because as a Canadian-born ‘ethnic’, I feel like I’m constantly trying to be pigeon-holed by my fellow Canadians into an ethnic group, and can’t understand why I reject the label of being anything but Canadian. Trevor Philips quoted Rodney King at that SFU Dialogue event, asking “Why can’t we just all get along?” Good question, still no answer.

    I am a big critic of Canada’s model of multiculturalism, more specifically, our segregating mosaic. Believe me, I enjoy a good politically correct ethnic celebration as much as the next person, but my concern with state-led multiculturalism is that it oversimplifies, illegitimates and trivializes the sheer complexity of different cultures. For example, not all Indians speak Punjabi or celebrate Diwali. Yet, by creating politically-correct ethnic celebrations, we assume that all Indians engage in those activities. I’m proud of my diverse ethnic heritage, but I don’t need the state to do it for me.

    On the France issue, I really am skeptical of all Canada-Europe comparisons. There are many similarities, sure, but also many differences. In this discussion though, the important difference is that France, Great Britain, Germany, etc were never immigrant-receiving countries. Sure, large numbers of immigration has occurred in the late 20th century (and primarily from former colonies), but for me, the most important fact is that none of thsse Western European countries have ever self-described or self-identified as immigrant-receiving nations. More over, all those countries have political parties that are highly critical of mass immigration (National Front in France, British National Party in UK). Canada doesn’t have that,

    In Canada, we are unique among Western democracies where we don’t have a national political party that is anti-immigrant. The closest we came was the Reform Party in the 1990s, but even Preston Manning realized that he would never win with even a barely immigrant-critical position because immigrants dominate many of the urban ridings.. By the way, I absolutely am not supportive of the Reform/Canadian Alliance parties. Also, I should mention that I would not exist without immigration. My mother was an immigrant; my paternal grandparents were immigrants. The Liberals and NDP have always encouraged high immigration levels. Harper’s Tories have tried to woo the immigrant vote. Why? Two important stats: approximately 80% of immigrants become citizens (and potential voters). And approximately 80% of immigrants vote for the party that was in power when they arrived (out of loyalty?). The result is a very tempting demographic for savvy politicians.

    Last but not least Renee, you mentioned the unfortunate case of a black child dying in UK government care. It made me recall an absolutely tragic story that was in the National Post two months ago (I hope the url works!):

  6. July 21, 2008 9:23 pm

    two things in response. first, I think it’s probably too early to say whether Canada’s approach works, and second, a really key difference between Canada and, say, France, is that it’s relatively easy to incorporate new cultural understandings into the Canadian myth than it is for France – they simply have more of an agreed-upon cultural identity, which makes incorporation that much more of a tricky negotiation.

    So, we should definitely share our experience, but with the mega grain of salt of Canada’s very unique historical development and character. We really are unique among the major post-colonial states for the fact that there is no ‘independence’ myth. Britain left, and we were still left with a majority British population, along with a totally strange French rump that we still have trouble dealing with.

    here’s my take on the France situation from november 2005, if anyone’s interested:

  7. July 17, 2008 6:59 pm

    to derrick (and anyone else who feels inclined to comment)…

    i was very interested in the story about canada sending “experts” over to france after the riots in the suburbs in order to offer advice about how to make things work in a diverse society. despite the qualms expressed about “corporate” multiculturalism, is there something valuable about the approach taken by canada – valuable enough that we should attempt to share it with the world outside our borders?

  8. Adrian permalink
    July 16, 2008 4:52 am

    That should read “Trevor Phillips is an interesting guy.”

  9. Adrian permalink
    July 16, 2008 4:42 am

    Hey Renee
    Interesting take. Trevor Phillips is an interesting buy. Not sure I always agree with him.

    Here in BC, in a period of economic growth, we are seeing dramatic increases in inequality. For example, in health care for example, care aids, cleaners and others have seen their jobs privatized and their salaries reduced by legislative fiat. Everyone else in health care has received a raise – some of them quite large. The HEU workers who have lost in this exchange are disproportionately women and visible minorities.

    Sadly, entrenched inequality will exacerbate societal tensions and undermine our ability through any multicultural policy to develop common understandings. And the growing divide to the extent it occurs on ethnic in addition to class lines, may scupper both an open multicultural policy or an attempt however muted to build a common understanding of values. You lose the public space to build any kind of understanding. Something more to worry about.

  10. July 16, 2008 3:37 am

    Hi d’wayne…thank you for your comments…re “Maybe the
    shallow nod will lead to a deeper understanding.” Yes. I think this is one of the strongest arguments for any type of multi-culturalism – one has to start some where and it seems that in all cultures the breaking of bread together is a valid, symbolic, practical and sometimes even mystical starting point.

    I’m currently reading a book of jewish spiritual practice called Everyday Mussar…perhaps a topic for another day.

    Always appreciate your comments. R

  11. July 16, 2008 3:33 am

    Hi Derrick,
    As always, i’m most appreciative of your detailed thoughtful comments. Ah the Mennonite connection…my parents, when they were fresh from Mumbai to NFLD in the ’60’s worked at the Grenfell Mission in Labrador – with American mennonites from the eastern US ; our family formed lasting friendships with these folks. ‘Twould be interesting to hear from our readers who may have mennonite connections…a strand of our cultural fabric in Canada and the U.S.

    I’m also very interested in the “French experience” particularly with regards to that whole diaspora of youth seemingly “doomed” and living the the Paris suburbs.

    Thoughts anyone? Derrick, look forward to more!

  12. July 15, 2008 9:07 pm

    I wrote a little about this some time ago, I think in 2006, when France was having major difficulties in their suburbs. Generic ‘unrest’, I guess – burned cars, rocks and tear gas that was blamed on ‘unintegrated’ and ‘disenchanted’ youth, primarily immigrants from African nations. One of the French gov’t responses was to ask the Canadian gov’t to send over experts on multiculturalism – supposedly, we knew how to make it work, and they needed our advice. I remember how completely obvious this was taken as in the press – Of course, it works here, so we can certainly teach those wacky French how to do it right!

    My first experience with ‘corporate multiculturalism’ was in elementary and secondary school. Every year we had careful, sanctioned celebrations of Chinese New Year and Diwali that everyone loved – a day off from classes to eat weird food! Little old women would teach us ethnic crafts!

    I also remember Multicultural Potluck, where someone always had a very popular dish, someone had a very unpopular dish and would have to lug it all home, and at least one kid would end up vomiting from a bad combination of flavours, an unknown allergy, or just too much excitement.

    The underlying message that I took from it all was that Canada had absolutely no real history or culture, but every other country, the US aside, did. Their history and culture, however, could be boiled down to bright clothes, weird food, and archaic music. Also, the message was more generally made that culture was something that only ‘brown’ people had, and that white people had only one real story – they came from Europe in the 1800s and built the Railroad.
    (The only “White Myth” we got to study was on Remembrance Day, which was always very awkward for me, as the German side of my family was in the German army, and the Mennonite side were conscientious objectors.)
    This assumption of culture was problematic on all sides – the brown kids are novelties, and they have to tell the whole class their family stories over and over in some weird fetishization, while the white kids, who all have family stories too, are generic Canadian, their stories homogenized.
    This was especially weird for kids of mixed heritage, who
    had to choose one or the other.

    That’s my first personal response – that multiculturalism for me means school holidays where we got lots of new food – but I’m going to think more about the concept of Corporate Multiculturalism. I remember when Ontario was considering setting up Sharia courts, and how strangely I felt about that. There’s a lot to explore here.

  13. d'wayne marsonis permalink
    July 14, 2008 9:20 pm

    I think we need both — corporate/government multiculturalism and progressive integration.
    I think the majority of Canadians would agree that there are certain core values that we hold dear like the equality of the sexes and the rule of law. Our core values will probably change over time, especially if the demographic make up of the Canadian majority changes. Instead of English and French as the core languages, it might be Punjabi and Cantonese if there are way more Punjabi and Cantonese speakers than English ones in the next hundred years or so. Change will happen but let’s hope it happens peacefully.
    If a culture in Canada which now has minority status has a practice that can not be accommodated within our core beliefs then I think it’s up to the minority culture to assimilate. Not a politically correct sentiment but there you go.
    I see corporate/government multiculturalism simply as an arm of political correctness and I think it needs to remain if only to force people to at least consider others who are not like them. Maybe one day we will be able to do away with it when everyone is viewed as an individual. Maybe the
    shallow nod will lead to a deeper understanding.

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