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Diversity, Fragmentation and Opinion Polls in Canada

September 2, 2009

Someone at the Globe and Mail seems to have decided it’s necessary to hold up a journalistic microscope to the fault lines in Canadian society. First there was a piece by Daniel Stoffman on the balance between multiculturalism and integration, ably dissected by our own Renee, and a somewhat rambling response by Rick Salutin. Now we have an essay by Michael Valpy on “the end of the age of our social cohesion”.

At first Valpy merely appears to be worried that Canadian public opinion is has undergone too much “fragmentation” to generate meaningful poll numbers for the likes of Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, which I would regard as no bad thing. However, Valpy soon quotes Ignatieff’s own book True Patriot Love to bring out some deeper concerns:

We need a public life in common,” he writes, “some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.”

Although I haven’t read True Patriot Love, I can’t help wondering if Ignatieff was thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s bleak poem The Stranger, which must be one of the most eloquent appeals ever written for xenophobia or at least xenoskepticism. A particularly evocative stanza runs:

The Stranger within my gates,
He may be evil or good,
But I cannot tell what powers control–
What reasons sway his mood;
Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
Shall repossess his blood.

However, Valpy seems remarkably unconcerned with strangers from other lands in his account of declining social cohesion in Canada (who knows why – I cannot tell what reasons sway Valpy’s mood). Valpy frets about generation gaps, rural/urban divides, and even declining newspaper readership, and I wouldn’t dispute the importance of these points. But on the one reality that most conspicuously promotes social fragmentation in Canada, Valpy is eyebrow-raisingly silent. He simply never mentions the fact that we have gone from the traditional two solitudes of British and French Canada to a multitude of potential solitudes with roots all over the world.

I don’t think the gods of far-off lands are about to repossess anyone’s blood – if nothing else, I hope it will be a while before the Morrigan repossesses mine. However, it seems almost axiomatic that, whatever the official line on multiculturalism or integration, mass immigration must have reduced the number of loyalties, sensibilities and cultural reference points that the Canadian public can be presumed to hold in common. Diversity and fragmentation, at least if diversity is more than skin deep, are just two ways of saying the same thing. This isn’t to say that such fragmentation is without advantages – but if Valpy really wants to know why pollsters can’t get a decent answer out of the Canadian people, part of the answer surely lies in Kipling’s poem.


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2009 7:51 pm

    No pre/emption whatsoever – it’s a pleasure to read your and our colleagues thoughts on all issues; in fact, especially on the topics related to the “Diversity Beat” which sometimes feel a bit too “on the nose” for me to write about, if you know what i mean. Write more about these issues!

  2. September 2, 2009 3:48 pm

    Thank you for writing about this Cor, with an eye-opening twist, for sure: Kipling! I’ve been mulling over Valpy’s article for days and toddled off to the local library (er, there may be a wee bit of the Scot in me, at least about buying books not about er, say, clothes/shoes/bags/belts/necessities of life) – at the library i found a book published in 2003 The New Canada by the Globe and Mail – Valpy was a contributor/editor. More, later.

    The thing about Valpy’s article – which I though well written and engaging although i’m not sure about his generalizations/conclusions, was exactly what you’ve pointed out: his blind spots!

    I’m enough of an old partisan (ahem) to think, uncharitably: Ah, Valpy, Ignatieff, Trudeau – the old “Natural Governing Party” – Valpy “locates his discourse” (jargon alert!) inside the “narrative frame” (sorry) of one who is neutral, unbiased, centralist. The Reasonable Man. I think bringing up Kipling (!) is strange (my highest compliment) in exactly the way it should be. Kipling’s odd “in the blood” theories of culture/identitydeities still run strong.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      September 3, 2009 11:42 am

      Yes, I realise that Valpy and Kipling make a pretty odd pair – but you know, when I first read the quote from Ignatieff in Valpy’s article, that poem by Kipling instantly occurred to me. I guess it was suggested by the word “stranger”, coupled with the sense of potential alienation Ignatieff was talking about.

      Anyway… I hope my post about Valpy’s article didn’t pre-empt anything you were planning to write. I try not to venture onto your turf too much, but sometimes I can’t resist.

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