Muslim women shopping with hijabs in Morocco. CC-image courtesy of Flickr user "Alexbip."
Spring brings us a flurry of diversity-related news items in Canada’s provincial and national media.
In February, UBC professor Henry Yu describes a “not so quiet revolution” in Vancouver – with a challenge to official French-English Canada – he advocates updating educational language policies to include Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi and Tagalog, not just for continuing education but in regular K-12 programmes. An unsettling notion? Will our social cohesion as a nation be threatened? Statistics Canada reports on diversity projections for 2006-2031: up to 14.4 million people will be a “vis min” by 2031. Professor Yee challenges the term, “minority”: in cities such as Vancouver “non white Asians” will soon be 50 percent of the population.
CBC reports on a poll it commissioned: one in three Canadians believes “that Aboriginal Peoples and Muslims are the frequent targets of discrimination.” This month, the CBC website hosts a “point of view” space on multiculturalism, inviting stories of acceptance or discrimination. Canada’s “grand experiment in culture” continues. And here’s a disconnect: the reporters, news anchors, op ed writers, and radio hosts who document and reflect back to us the “news of the day” aren’t a very diverse lot. Perhaps this begs a “so what” response? But would coverage of “multi-culti” issues and then in response, the shaping of the conversation around such issues, change?
For example, a Canadian “opinion-maker” is once again writing about the wearing of the niqab, this time in a Montreal classroom : “ It is a fascinating story about reasonable accommodation, competing rights and where we ought to draw the line on tolerance in a democratic society.” Do we need to “draw the line”? What does that mean? Do younger multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Canadians, if they happen to read newspapers (doubtful?) just roll their eyes, and say, “get over it?” Does the wearing of a piece of cloth, when it covers everything but your eyes, push you into an “unacceptable zone”? What would happen to our “national discourse” on multiculturalism if at least one of the writers featured on the Globe’s masthead, and “visible” (pun) online, actually wore a niqab?
Just writing this makes me want to wear a niqab for at least two weeks, everyday, in public, and go about my business, sipping my tea, reading, writing and dreaming in English. I would be me, except, different. Would my attire push me into that “not reasonable zone”? What if I were to go “Goth” for the same amount of time, me with my progressive lenses, grey hair, brown skin and Goth? Would that be “crossing the line?” Is it disrespectful of me to suggest this, to those who choose to wear such garb?
The reaction of people, the world over, toward visible difference in outward appearance, of any kind, but particularly in manner of dress, interests me. What’s “too much”? What’s “acceptable”? When and why not? Many in France and many in Quebec, seem exercised on this subject – as if the ideals of The Republic or the nature of a “distinct society” are challenged by “too much otherness.” What ideals? What “distinctness”? What do we mean when we use these words? Are such notions “fixed” things – is language, for instance, a product we box and tie round with a ribbon, “inalienable?” Do our “vis min” cultures in Canada think just that and protect their notions of “language-culture” without a corresponding “respect” for what’s “dominant/main-stream”? Do each of us, in our countries, face “litmus tests of inclusion,” if we “deviate” from “the standard”? How do gay and lesbian people of colour feel about these issues? What’s it like to live in countries such as Saudi Arabia if you are “other” and does this have any relevance to our discussion in Canada?
This December (2009), witnessed on a local sky-train transit station: a young man, who spat on and swore at an older man, who wore a turban. When I mention this incident to a friend of mine, a lovely person, her family in Canada for many generations, her reaction: disgust, sympathy for the man in the turban, and then a desire to minimize the incident as “not common.” Perhaps she’s correct but then I don’t wear a turban, or a niqab. What’s it like out there in the world, if you are visibily different in the way you dress? How does Canada rate on a world scale?
What would happen if other news outlets in Canada hired excellent-in-English “vis min” writers for regular news beats, not just “guest columns”? Why aren’t more “mainstream” Canadian media outlets, ownership of which is concentrated in so few hands, not hiring more hungry-for-a-great-story beat journalists who just happened to be “vis min”? Because very few journalists are being hired anywhere, is probably a safe bet. But, isn’t it time for Rex Murphy to be replaced by a niqab wearing, Mandarin-English speaking host?