I’m not sure how, but about two months ago, I received a letter from a Canadian lobby group that will remain unnamed, which started off as follows: “British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have all declared multiculturalism to be a failure.”
Part of their argument was around the rise of religious extremists in the past 10 years, and how such extremists are negatively impacting the progress of Western states. The organization was soliciting monetary contribution for ongoing research and policy work. As one of my friends would go on to say: “I was shocked & offended.”
I’ve always seen Canada’s multicultural fabric as its strength, as an opportunity to exercise tolerance and learn about people and their practices, and benefit from their strengths. Inevitably, however, there is the reality that different cultural groups will look to ‘their own’ as they make significant transitions (i.e. migration), or hold onto traditions that are important to their identity. But that shouldn’t be a limiting factor in defining what Canada is or represents, and suggesting that multiculturalism as a policy has failed is simply not fair.
Back in October 2011, I spent two weeks in Guyana, a country situated in north of South America, bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. It’s the only English-speaking country in South America as a former British colony. The name Guyana derives from a root word meaning ‘the land of many waters’ as three major, and many hundreds of other smaller, rivers traverse the country.
In Guyana, there is a mix of people of East Indian, African and Aboriginal origin. There is a mix of Christian, Hindu and Muslim religious practices and celebration. The food reflects these diverse traditions. Different cultural and religious groups have united through marriage or business, yet when it’s election time (as when I was there), there is a strong polarization between those who are Afro-Guyanese and those who are Indo-Guyanese.
In some ways, Guyana is multicultural. But the multiculturalism there is not the same as the multiculturalism here in Canada. Here, there are Canadians of Guyanese origin, and Canadians with origins in countries representing the world from Mexico to Nigeria to Poland to Pakistan to China. The list can go on. Canada is thus also like a ‘land of many waters.’ There are the Great Lakes, of course, but it is the diversity in people that makes us so unique.
Differences are not meant to divide, as the media might promote, but rather to recognize varied expressions of the human experience. This diversity strengthens our advancement as country by providing perspective on a range of issues, whether they are political, economical or social. If we don’t optimize on this expression, then yes there is a chance that our elections will become polarized. Yet, there are just so many different groups that such polarization will not come so easily. In a speech given in the 1960s,
Malcolm X said: ‘Unity is the right religion.’
Differences aside, multiculturalism can help with such unity, and in the expression of these varying cultures through film, music, art, comedy or poetry there is undoubtedly a lesson for people to learn about people.