Multiculturalism, or what?

by Terence MacNamee

In Quebec, there is renewed talk lately about the pros and cons of multiculturalism, and what stance to adopt with regard to cultural diversity in French Canadian society.

Multiculturalism is, as it happens, a very Canadian notion. It is a policy developed at the end of the 1960s by the federal government in Ottawa under Pierre Trudeau as an explicit contrast with the American “melting pot”. It was proclaimed that Canada had two official languages, but no official culture. Now, if you know anything about cultures and their relation to languages, this must sound like a highly dubious proposition. Yet multiculturalism became by default the trademark of Canada, and today English Canada is officially, self-designatedly, multicultural. The minority of people who do not buy into it are branded as rednecks (and usually they are).

Dissenting voices from Quebec have never been lacking, however. French Canadians, who are ethnically homogeneous, saw multiculturalism as an attempt by English Canada to dilute their identity. They tried to go their own way in dealing with the fact of immigration by coming up with an alternative approach, something they call interculturalism (meaning exchanges between cultures rather than cultures being interchangeable) and by designating French as the language of public communication between cultural groups. Language is much more of an issue for them than for English Canada, where people have the luxury of not worrying about the supremacy of English.

There, multiculturalism is a policy which has become an unquestionable ideology – that is not to say it is a reality on the ground. English-Canadian journalists, politicians and academics keep proclaiming that the country has “moved on” from its traditional French-English antagonisms and is now benignly multicultural. The less palatable reality is that immigrants have to adopt the English language and with it Anglo-Saxon cultural ways to the ultimate exclusion of their own. English Canada disguises its grey monolithic identity with the red herring of multiculturalism. The suspicion in Quebec that multiculturalism is part of a plan to undermine French Canada is not without foundation. Anglo apologists of multiculturalism often use it to disguise their antipathy to French Canada in an age when ethnic antipathies are no longer allowed to be expressed openly.

The problem is that multiculturalism is itself a cultural product, which makes sense in one society but not in the other. There’s no getting outside culture, even when you talk about culture.