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Canadians must never take multiculturalism for granted

Erna Paris's recent book on the subject of multiculturalism is From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale From Fifteenth-Century Spain

It may be un-Canadian to boast, but in the wake of Brexit, rising European xenophobia and the bellowing of Donald Trump, Canada looks like an island of stability.

In historical terms, most Canadians are immigrants, meaning that our leaders have had to nation-build with nuance and compromise. Because of jurisdictional quarrels between federal and provincial governments; flare-ups of endemic resentments in Quebec; a culturally disparate population huddled for warmth along the country's southern border; and a mouse-to-elephant relationship with the most powerful country on earth, steady pragmatism has been the key. We do that well in Canada.

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But there is another reason for our strength. Last week, Canada quietly celebrated Multiculturalism Day with good reason. We are the world's most successful multicultural society. And it is this value system that will shield us from the fear-mongering happening elsewhere, provided we continue to nurture it.

When Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced his multiculturalism initiative on Oct. 8, 1971, he faced no opposition in the House of Commons. Politicians were not about to vote against a policy that sought to combat discrimination. All the same, his proposal felt symbolic, even cringe-worthy. Canada would formally respect the diversity of its citizens' languages, religions and cultures, but didn't we already do that unofficially? And were we really supposed to don national garb and sing and dance for one another? Furthermore, the new strategy had transparent political ends. One year earlier, the Quebec politician Pierre Laporte had been assassinated by the Front de libération du Quebec – the day after the government had implemented its controversial War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties. So, yes, the crisis in Quebec needed to be addressed; and, yes, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism had recently made important recommendations to combat nationalism. But what about the rest of us, other cultural groups wanted to know? The multicultural policy was the Trudeau government's response to their concerns.

Then something unexpected happened. Over the next decades, official multiculturalism evolved into an ingrained collective value. Incrementally, Canadians began to define themselves as citizens of a multiethnic, multireligious society.

This represented major change, for we didn't always treat one another well. Before the Second World War, immigrants from outside Britain were rejected as "inassimilable," leaving Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and other cultural groups already in Canada unnerved and at risk. Eminent academics wrote off non-white immigration as "impossible." Mr. Trudeau's single most important statement as he introduced his new policy may have been that no singular culture could, or would, define Canada.

There's yet another explanation for the values shift: The underlying ideology of Canadian multiculturalism rejects a push to assimilation in favour of integration. Throughout modern history, societies that have insisted on the total assimilation of minorities have found themselves in trouble, for coercive assimilation demands what is humanly impossible. We cannot change our inner selves.

On the political side, the progressive face of the new policy became visible in 1975, when Canada admitted more than 5,000 Vietnamese refugees. In 1979 and 1980, 50,000 more from the region were admitted, many sponsored by ordinary Canadians who remembered the St. Louis, the ship filled with Jewish escapees from Nazi Germany that was turned back in 1939. In 1982, multiculturalism was written into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally ratified the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.

But there's also a darker side. Although a multicultural identity may shelter us from the xenophobia emerging elsewhere in the world, we are as susceptible as any to its provocative appeal. In the final days before last fall's election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper opportunistically unleashed the ever-present demons of bigotry by creating a snitch line to report "barbaric cultural practices." Although assaults on Muslims ensued in the immediate aftermath, Mr. Harper had strong public support, testimony to the powerful attraction of intolerance when the call derives from the top.

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"It is possible that man's major problems will never be resolved," George Orwell wrote in 1944. Sadly, he may be right, which is why the protection afforded us by our national commitment to multiculturalism must be defended by responsible leaders and nurtured by ourselves.

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