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Irene Bloemraad
Irene Bloemraad

Irene Bloemraad

Multiculturalism has been Canada's solution, not its problem Add to ...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently made headlines when she pronounced multiculturalism in Germany a failure. Shortly before, a Globe and Mail editorial argued that Canadians should eradicate "multiculturalism" from their vocabulary and refocus on "citizenship." Multiculturalism isn't just out of style, these statements suggest - it's dangerous for building unity in increasingly diverse societies.

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Unfortunately, both analyses are dead wrong.

Social scientists can measure multiculturalism in a given society by examining the number and content of public policies and government pronouncements around cultural recognition and accommodation. Such indices show that Germany is not, and has never been, a multicultural society.

Multiculturalism can't have failed in Germany because it was never tried. Turkish guest workers and other immigrants were never welcomed as future citizens - only as temporary labour. If Germans are now concerned about the consequences, the blame certainly doesn't lie with multiculturalism.

These indices also group countries such as France and Norway with Germany as least multicultural, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States as moderately multicultural, and Australia and Canada as most multicultural.

Have Canada's past practices and policies hurt attempts to forge common citizenship out of diversity?

Absolutely not. Consider how many immigrants become citizens. The least multicultural countries count the lowest levels of citizenship; the moderate multicultural countries have somewhat more. In comparison, an overwhelming majority of immigrants proudly take up citizenship in Canada and Australia, the two countries that went furthest in the multicultural experiment.

The positive link between multiculturalism and citizenship is further supported by comparing Canadian policy with that of the United States. In 1971, the Canadian government began promoting a multiculturalism-based integration policy, which was enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and expanded in 1988, when the Multiculturalism Act became federal law. Over this same period, the U.S. enacted no formal immigrant integration program or multiculturalism policy.

In 1970, in both Canada and the U.S., about 60 per cent of foreign-born residents had acquired citizenship. By 2006, the American Community Survey estimated that, of the 37.5 million foreign-born people living in the U.S., just 42 per cent were naturalized citizens. By that same year, 73 per cent of immigrants to Canada had acquired citizenship, one of the highest rates in the world.

There are, of course, many possible explanations for this statistical gulf, but here are some factors that did not play a predominant role: different immigrant streams; the large undocumented population in the U.S.; different costs and benefits of citizenship; easier or faster processing in Canada.

My research points to multiculturalism as a key factor driving Canada's success at citizenship integration. It legitimates diversity, provides a sense of inclusion and, through the multitude of (oft-maligned) government grants given to community-based organizations - not only for multiculturalism but also for a host of integration programs - it provides the support structures to help newcomers join the country as full citizens.

Canadians certainly can, and should, have thoughtful debates about recognizing and accommodating diversity - just as we debate health-care policy or Stanley Cup contenders.

Like health care and hockey, multiculturalism has become a symbol of what defines Canada. In poll after poll, Canadians say multiculturalism is one of the top three defining features of the country. What's more, they are proud of it.

They should be. Over four decades, incredibly rapid demographic change has transformed Canada, especially its largest cities. In Europe, similar change has resulted in riots and cultural tensions that have tarnished the concept of multiculturalism there. But, in Canada, these changes, despite many challenges, happened peacefully, productively and positively. Multiculturalism was part of the solution, not the problem.

Irene Bloemraad is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and a scholar of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. She is the author of Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada.

 

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