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Multiculturalism, liberal democracy and changes to Canadian citizenship law – Clifford Orwin weighs in

May 11, 2009

Clifford Orwin, a prof at U of T and Stanford, has a column in the Globe today outlining his support for Jason Kenney’s ideas about citizenship and integration in Canada. The short version of his argument is that Kenney is right to assert that immigrants need to be better educated in Canadian values, and those values boil down to liberal democracy –  he claims multiculturalism is not nearly so important to Canadians as we have been led to believe.

To a certain extent, I agree with his argument – Canadian society and politics are based on liberal democratic values, and we ignore that at our peril. But translating that prioritization of liberal democratic values into (at best) negativity or (at worst) hysteria regarding the multiculturalist policies and values that have made Canada unique is shortsighted, reactionary and dangerous.

Orwin makes much of what Francis Fukuyama says about goings-on over there in “Europe” – this struck me as a weak point for two reasons: 1) This is Francis Fukuyama of End of History fame, a book that proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy in much the same way that Bush declared victory in Iraq from the flight deck of the USS Lincoln; 2) Talking about what’s happening over there in “Europe” is sort of like talking about what’s happening over there in “Africa.” I’m not sure if we’re drawing our lessons from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France, Britain etc. – all of which have different immigrant populations and very different approaches to integration.

Orwin/Fukuyama argues that Europeans are in a “quandary” because they have been too open to new immigrant communities and too incapable of defining what Europe stands for. “Having sought to accommodate the newcomers by reinterpreting Europe as a hollow shell profuse in apologies for its former self,” Orwin states “[Europeans] found that empty vessels exerted weak powers of integration.” Conclusion – we Canadians need to have a strong sense of self based on liberal democracy, and make sure immigrants know what that means.

I question this conclusion for more reasons than I can outline here. The European example I know the most about — France — offers a lot of evidence for the opposite conclusion about integration: that having too inflexible an idea of national identity leads to fragmentation and disunity. Riots in the banlieu didn’t happen because France threw open its doors and forgot what it meant to be France; they happened for many reasons, but partly because the intense anxiety the French felt about Muslim immigration and preserving their identity led to discriminatory policies and (more importantly) lots of discriminatory rhetoric, particularly regarding the veil and gender equality.

I’m a woman. I care a lot about gender equality. I care so much about it, in fact, that I would hate for it (and other watchwords of the liberal democratic tradition) to become a rhetorical device that comes to signify our distrust and dislike of Muslim communities. I fear this is where Orwin and Jason Kenney are going – or that even if they are entirely well-meaning, this will be what happens anyways. The worst-case scenario in the short-term is that our support for (and arrogance about) liberal democracy and “our” values leads to a situation where certain immigrant populations feel justifiably targeted, misunderstood, disliked and discriminated against.

The argument that France somehow forgot what it meant to be liberal democratic France is completely ridiculous – by “Europe,” Fukuyama must have meant “Britain.” The French experience suggests that assertions of liberal democratic identity won’t provide a solution to the problem of integration; in fact, they might very well make things more difficult. Smart multicultural sensitivity that demonstrates respect for, and willingness to learn from, other traditions — combined with a reasoned and calm assertion of values like religious freedom and gender equality — seem to me to be the two pillars of a potential Canadian solution.

A solution to a problem I have yet to hear defined clearly. Nevertheless, I’m open to the argument that in some instances our pendulum has swung too far in the direction of multiculturalist accommodation – but I am upset by any efforts to swing it in the other direction that don’t show an adequate appreciation for the practical success and intellectual innovation of multiculturalist thought. Or an awareness of the great danger of launching Canada into the kind of “Us” versus “Them”  debate that multiculturalism was designed to help us avoid – and has helped us avoid for the most part, if we’re really comparing our situation to what’s going on over there in “Europe”.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    May 13, 2009 10:57 am

    Great post, as others have said, and it certainly seems to have sparked a lively discussion. I would agree that liberal democracy is part of Canada’s identity, but surely a set of attitudes and legal norms that we share with many other countries can’t be the defining part.

    I thought it was interesting that Orwin dismissed “hockey and maple syrup and poutine” as things that could not possibly contribute to our identity because they were “subpolitical and completely irrelevant, civically speaking”. I’ve always understood identity to be at least as closely linked to culture as to politics, and Canada has plenty of cultural touchstones that are independent of liberal democracy. Hockey and maple syrup and poutine are pretty superficial, at least in my opinion, but Robertson Davies and the Group of Seven are perhaps a bit less so. Even in the political realm, we have institutions that cannot simply be described as intrinsic to liberal democracy, such as our monarchy and our health care system. I wouldn’t say that being a “good Canadian” entails liking or endorsing all (or even any) of these things, but is it too much to expect that any self-described Canadian would at least have a reasonably informed opinion about most of them?

    Perhaps we should promote poutine awareness among potential immigrants, as well as instilling the tenets of liberal democracy. I really don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that newcomers adapt to our norms, both political and cultural, but of course this doesn’t entail becoming exactly like some notional “average Canadian”. What it does entail is a willingness to defer on points that Canadians consider extremely important – approximate gender equality is a good example – while potentially retaining a large package of cultural practices that don’t clash too badly with mainstream sensibilities.

    Of course, our government’s ability to affect the behaviour of immigrant communities is limited in any case. Uncle Jason (I think that should be his official nickname on this blog from now on) can certainly yell at them to integrate, but whether they agree to do so is another matter entirely. If Uncle Jason demands a specific concession that a given community refuses to make, some kind of battle of wills is inevitable. I do think that Europeans, Canadians, and indeed Americans have often been too quick to concede such battles, and too eager to avoid them in the first place.

    Ultimately, coming to mutually acceptable terms with large numbers of immigrants – let alone assimilating them in any meaningful sense – is always going to pose challenges. I suspect that our current levels of immigration, which are very high by both historical and international standards, are basically unsustainable in the long run.

  2. Tanya permalink
    May 13, 2009 12:22 am

    Very interesting post. I’m over ‘there’ in Europe and it’s interesting: I would never have thought to say that policies here have been too open to immigrant communities. In fact, I would have said the opposite. Switzerland is also clearly a very different case when compared to Britain, as is Italy. Examples: in Switzerland they have never really been open to immigration and the ad campaigns of the SVP party can attest to that. Do I even need to begin with Italy and it’s Roman and African populations? Not to mention the Chinese in Milan. It’s hard to get into Europe, and depending on which country you’re in, it’s even tougher to feel welcome. Britain? Well they’ve clearly made some mistakes. In an effort to be inclusive, they have gone all the way overboard, but I would still hardly call them ‘too open’. I agree with you: I too am upset by any efforts to swing in the other direction that don’t show an adequate appreciation for the practical success and intellectual innovation of multiculturalist thought.

    Society has evolved so much because of new technology and new ways of communicating. I hope we can continue to evolve in positive ways and that we don’t let our misconceptions about what defines national identity hold us back.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    May 12, 2009 10:29 am

    And thanks to Reilly and subsequent commentators for the ability to deconstruct: “Europe”/”liberal democratic values”/”Canada” – yikes.

    Reilly, your description of France and its banlieus:
    “Riots in the banlieu didn’t happen because France threw open its doors and forgot what it meant to be France; they happened for many reasons, but partly because the intense anxiety the French felt about Muslim immigration and preserving their identity led to discriminatory policies and (more importantly) lots of discriminatory rhetoric, particularly regarding the veil and gender equality.”

    -I would like to read more of your thoughts on this. Have you seen M.Haneke’s “Cache”?

    That Orwin appears in the Globe, reminds me of Robert Fisk’s comment several months ago – (sic) “the Globe and Mail seems to want Canada to be only Anglo-Saxon.”

    My only quibble is that we are all too soft on the puffery of Minister Kenney, he of the self-description, “Uncle Jason.”

  4. May 12, 2009 9:13 am

    interesting post…I haven’t read Clifford Orwin so I can’t continue the conversation on that front, but has Orwin and Kenney really tried to gut Canadian liberal democratic values from notions of pluralism and multiculturalism? What whitewashed version of ourselves are they hoping to project in the workshops for new immigrants?

  5. May 12, 2009 7:50 am

    Orwin is a Straussian and an almost-neocon, so I guess it’s not surprising to hear this talk about the fall of Europe and the importance of a cohesive social order. Multiculturalism becomes dangerous cultural relativism. Like you say, though, what this tends to lead to is simply cloaking xenophobia in “democratic” language.

    It’s interesting, just to add to what you’re saying, that Orwin thinks “Europe” should be defining itself as a whole. Europe isn’t a nation. I wonder if he would apply similar arguments to the effect that “North America” needs to work more towards developing a collective identity.

    Furthermore, it’s interesting that after all the ranting is over, the best Orwin can settle for as defining Canada is this vague notion of “liberal democracy.” He doesn’t make any case for why he believes that is at the core of our identity – he just says it, and therefore it is (presumably) true.

    It is, however, an argument that is trivially easy to challenge. For one thing, most of Canadian history is a history of the struggle to secure those “inalienable” rights by one group of individuals or another. And for another thing, to compress centuries of history into such a vague and contrived sentence, well, isn’t that the sort of “let’s forget our identity” reductionism that Orwin is so critical of?

    • May 12, 2009 9:02 am

      yes! i could have written three times as much about this subject, but i had to stop myself. oversimplifying our identity, reducing it to (undefined) liberal democratic values, would be exactly the kind of loss of canadian-ness that orwin (and kenney) purport to want to avoid.

      thank you rev dave for your thoughtful and intelligent comments. i really appreciate it.

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