3 min

Which future?

The double-edged sword of multiculturalism

What’s it going to be? Are we going to be a mutually respectful multicultural society? Or are we going to be an increasingly divided, progressively intolerant society of feuding groups?

One of the side-effects of Bill C-38 – the same-sex marriage bill – is that it’s bringing some of the internal contradictions of multiculturalism into focus. Multiculturalism, an official federal policy since the early 1970s, suggests that immigrants to Canada can keep their language, their traditions and their religious beliefs while simultaneously finding a comfortable space in the Canadian mosaic.

Trouble is, this often clashes with the highly secular, pluralistic project that came up with the idea of multiculturalism. Those who celebrate pluralism say to religious minorities: we don’t condone bigotry against you because of your religion, so we don’t accept bigotry from you regarding the role of women or acceptance of homosexuals.

But to some members of some religious groups, their opinions about the role of women or about the legal status of homosexuals has nothing to do with bigotry. It has to do with right versus wrong. About the word of God as passed on to them through their holy books.

And these people are getting active. They united in British Columbia to fight same-sex adoption rights in 1997. They lost. They united in several cities – with a major demonstration in Vancouver – to fight Svend Robinson’s Bill C-250 in 2003-4. They lost again. And now they’re uniting, big time, to fight same-sex marriage equality.

They’re coming to Parliament Hill Apr 9 en masse – more than 80 organizations – to demand that Paul Martin’s government abandon Bill C-38. The Liberals – the official party of multiculturalism – are under siege from the very diversity they nurtured. The liberalism of secular, pluralistic policies has given birth to its antithesis: an increasingly self-confident social conservatism within religious and cultural minority communities.

Still, those social conservatives do not speak for these communities, despite their claims. There will be Muslim groups marching against Parliament on Apr 9. But on Feb 1, the Toronto-based Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) endorsed the bill in a press conference. Riwana Jafri, MCC president, told reporters that Muslim Canadians have relied on the Charter to protect their rights and the same rights should extend to sexual minorities.

“This legislation is not about religion,” said Jafri. “It is about fundamental and universal human rights that are a guarantee that all Canadians, irrespective of their religious or ethnic background, feel part of the same family. While within this family we may agree to disagree, we must respect each other and treat others with dignity that is a hallmark of a civil society.”

History’s at work here. The first generation of immigrants tries to hang on to both the good and the bad of the culture they left behind. But their children and their children’s children increasingly jettison the less desirable aspects of the old culture, while merging the best of it with the best of what Canada has to offer.

The grandchildren of immigrants are as secular and pluralistic in their beliefs as are other Canadians. And no wonder: other Canadians are themselves the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of immigrants. Of immigrants whose narrow views on moral and cultural issues led to genocide against our First Nations people; head taxes on Chinese immigrants; withholding the vote from women, First Nations and Chinese-Canadians; jailing homosexuals; treating alcohol as the “Devil’s drink;” sterilizing the mentally handicapped and the morally “loose;” putting Japanese-Canadians in internment camps, etc, etc.

Hey, there’s a reason why the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms was far more popular with the Canadian public than it was with provincial politicians. Generations of Canadians had suffered abuse and knew they needed protection – from each other.

It all just means we progressives have our work cut out for us, building alliances between gays and lesbians on the one hand, and our allies within religious and cultural minorities on the other hand.

The alternatives are too frightening to imagine: A gradual victory of social conservatives on the national political scene. Or the adoption of the restrictive policies against religious minorities we’ve seen in recent years in France and the Netherlands. I’ll take the bridge-building, thanks.