Multiculturalism in Canada
The following text is the English translation of an article to appear in the March 2013 issue of La Raison, monthly publication of the French Libre Pensée (FNLP).
Multiculturalism is a form of ethnic essentialism masquerading as a corrective for racism. It reinforces differences between groups based on ethnic and religious identities. It grants certain “group rights,” often to the detriment of individual rights. It favours tradition over modernism and community over fundamental human rights. It supports and emboldens traditional religious leaders and is closely related to accommodationism, the practice of granting privileges — incompatible with universal principles — on the basis of membership in a religious or ethnic community.
I would argue that precursors of multiculturalism can be found in the effective imperial strategy, practised by the Persian and Roman empires in antiquity and by the British empire in more recent centuries, which facilitated the integration of a conquered people into the empire without unduly upsetting the local elite, a means of maintaining social control by making use of existing socio-politico-religious structures, while taking executive control of the territory involved.
In Canada, multiculturalism was formalized and elevated to government policy by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971. Outside of Quebec, multiculturalism remains a sacred cow, although some voices of dissent are beginning to be heard. The term is often used in contrast to intolerance or even racism, as if anyone who criticizes it must be a xenophobe who hates immigrants. If Muslims are involved, accusations of “Islamophobia” fall upon those who question multiculturalism.
But in reality, multiculturalism is itself a close cousin of racism because it exaggerates the importance of the community into which one is born, to the detriment of one’s individuality. In the words of Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, “labelling people as Muslim and Muslim alone is actually part of the process of constraining them in order to feign ‘representation’ [by religious leaders] and limiting their rights.” According to the political scientist Jackson Doughart, multiculturalism’s emphasis on affiliation with an ethnic, cultural or religious group “undermines the notion of a legal system that applies equally to everyone.” For Quebec author Djemila Benhabib, multiculturalism is simply “multiracism.”
The political left outside Quebec, and to some extent even in Quebec, is strongly supportive of multiculturalism. In Ontario, the left-of-centre NDP (New Democratic Party) fully supported the extension of public funding to the parallel Catholic school system to 100%. It was NDPer and former attorney-general Marion Boyd who in 2004 proposed including Muslim sharia law in arbitration of family law and inheritance. Fortunately, a widely based opposition, including the French Libre Pensée, succeeded in convincing the Ontario government to reject this idea and, further, to remove recognition of other religious traditions.
The left is so besotted with multiculturalism and accommodationism that it is sometimes outdone by the political right in matters of secularism. In late 2011, Jason Kenney, federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, adopted a policy banning the practice of wearing face-coverings during citizenship hearings, something which the multicultural left would probably never have had the courage to do.
The multiculturalist mentality can have surprising consequences. In the Ontario legislature, instead of getting rid of the tradition Christian prayer (as Quebec’s National Assembly did), several other prayers have instead been added in order to represent other religions. In Montreal, a childcare centre decided in 2011 to “accommodate” Muslims whose religion forbids music by forcing their daughter to wear noise-cancelling headgear. In 2008, although federal law criminalizes hate propaganda, the Canadian Human Rights Commission refused to investigate a complaint against a Salafist imam in Montreal who had advocated the annihilation of homosexuals.
Several years ago the Quebec public school system was secularized, at least in principle. But paradoxically, the curriculum now has greater religious content than the previous system because in 2008 the ministry of education implemented a compulsory programme called Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) which covers several major religions, especially Christianity, but almost completely ignores atheists and other non-believers, as if culture and morality were impossible without religion. This new programme was astutely promoted by a strong religion faction solidly established within the ministry of education. They did so with calls for “tolerance” and “openness” and by appealing to fashionable notions of multiculturalism.
But perhaps the worst aspect of multiculturalism in Canada is the insidious way in which it influences and distorts public discourse about secularism. We regularly hear statements that Canada is a multicultural country and therefore needs secularism in order to faithfully reflect its current religious and ethnic diversity. There are some serious problems with this line of reasoning.
First of all, if diversity is indeed a major motivator of secularism, then would it be sufficient to reduce this diversity — by closing our doors to immigrants for example — in order to reduce the need for secularism? Do countries where the religious landscape is homogeneous — such as Lower Canada (Quebec) in the 19th century or Argentina today — have a lesser need for separation between church and state? On the contrary! In a more homogeneous country secularism would be at least as important if not more so, in order to protect citizens, especially female citizens, from the monolithic power of a religious institution.
Furthermore, the idea that the institutions of a secular state should in some way reflect the religious diversity of the country leads us directly to what is called “open secularism.” This travesty of secularism can be recognized by its lack of respect for separation between religions and state and by its promotion of religious representation in public institutions. The ERC programme is a consummate example of this mentality. The supporters of ERC present it as “secular” when in reality it involves the diversion of public funds in order promote religions, granting to each religious community a portion of the programme corresponding approximately to its demographic weight, and protecting the jobs of theologians and other specialists who train teachers of religion, jobs which were threatened by the secularization of the public school system.