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Mengyi Fu, 10 receives, a Canadian flag as her parents Jing Shan Fu and mom Mao Qiong Lin watch during a Canadian Citizenship ceremony in Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail)
Mengyi Fu, 10 receives, a Canadian flag as her parents Jing Shan Fu and mom Mao Qiong Lin watch during a Canadian Citizenship ceremony in Ottawa on Sept. 29, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail)

Canada: Our Time to Lead

Part 6: Editorial: Strike multiculturalism from the national vocabulary Add to ...

The tired, flawed debate over the benefits of multiculturalism - that it gives newcomers a sense of belonging - and the disadvantages - that it emphasizes differences - has been on a continuous loop since the 1970s.

With Europe's retreat from multiculturalism, the debate has become more fraught, while the terminology has ceased to have any real meaning. It signifies very different things to different people, and has turned into a flashpoint and a distraction.

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Multiculturalism should be struck from the national vocabulary.

Instead, Canada needs to refocus the debate, and have the courage to build a successful society around the concept of citizenship.

Canadians should not be afraid to articulate - to the native-born and to newcomers - a sense of what defines the country and the idea that citizenship brings with it responsibilities, not just rights.

The country aims to attract 250,000 people a year, of different racial, linguistic and geographical origins. There are 15 nationalities that each have more than 100,000 people here. This pluralism is healthy and adds to the texture and innovation of the country. Canada has more immigrants per capita than any other country except Australia; 17 per cent of the population is foreign-born.

Immigrants come because they see Canada as a beacon of opportunity and freedom - values that shouldn't be lost in an endless discussion about the accommodation of differences. Canada cannot replicate their homelands, nor should it strive to.

Immigrants should know they have an obligation to learn one of Canada's official languages, to understand that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees both freedom of religion and expression, as well as women's right to be treated equally. In turn, the host society has an obligation not just to recruit newcomers and their families, but also to find a place for them and to make use of their considerable talents. Immigrants care more about equal access to jobs, housing and education, than about support of cultural enrichment.

The age of pluralism

Canada's multiculturalism policy, when introduced in 1971, had four pillars: the need to respect diversity; to also promote integration by having newcomers learn French or English; to participate in cross-cultural exchanges; and to engage in mainstream institutions.

Few today are aware of this nuanced vision, but mistakenly believe the policy was only about celebration of ethnic foods and dances - the celebration of what makes us different, not what we have in common. This vision alienates many newcomers, who say it puts them into ethnic "boxes" or silos that further distance them from the host society.

"Community is not the community you come from but the community you want to belong to," says Hussain Amarshi, president of Toronto-based Mongrel Media, a film distribution company. "I did not come to Canada to be defined as a South Asian or visible minority. Mine is a community of artists and filmmakers."

By doing away with the term multiculturalism, and replacing it with pluralism, Canada can refocus the debate. "Pluralism asks people to define themselves as individuals," says Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder of the Historica-Dominion Institute, "and have their rights recognized, but also to take their civic role more seriously."

He proposes that Canada mark its sesquicentennial by creating a charter of citizenship, articulating civic responsibilities, and that mandatory voting and a new citizenship test in high school should be considered. In this way, newcomers, as well as native-born Canadians, will become familiar with the symbols and institutions rooted in Canadian history - as well as the contributions made by more recently arrived groups of people - and the fundamental Canadian values of freedom and democracy.

Camille Orridge, a Jamaican immigrant and CEO of the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network, believes there may be an appetite for such discussions. "Don't assume citizenship is a right. We have to join in and belong, and fight to maintain what Canada has. With citizenship come responsibilities, not just privileges."

Let's put Canada to work

Finally, Canada must work harder to resolve the country's failure to properly use the skills of immigrants, a failure that costs the country $5-billion a year in lost productivity, according to the Conference Board of Canada. For too long, the country has courted smart, educated people, who then arrive here only to have their dreams dashed. A PhD from Bangalore University is not recognized; a decade with Xerox in Lahore counts for nothing.

Australia conducts rigorous language testing and credentials recognition before immigrants set foot on Australian soil, guaranteeing a smoother transition. Canada should consider this model. It would ensure that the country remain a favoured destination for the best and the brightest. They come here not because they aim to recreate the lives they have left behind - but because of Canada's own unique culture and way of life: its democratic institutions; freedom of religion and expression; respect for equality under the law; and awareness of and efforts to combat racism and discrimination.

These fundamental concepts have far more resonance than another rehashing of the meaning of multiculturalism. Canada's future depends on it.

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