Earlier this week, Time magazine's Person of the Year for 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stood at her party's annual convention to offer her thoughts on the Syrian refugee crisis and the country's outsized role in welcoming so many of the exiled.
Her speech took somewhat of a surprising turn. The Chancellor began talking about the "idea" of multiculturalism and the expectations she had for new immigrants. "Multiculturalism leads to parallel societies and therefore remains a life lie, a grand delusion," Ms. Merkel said.
She went on to say Syrian newcomers should quickly assimilate German values and culture and respect the country's laws. They should also be expected to immediately learn the German language and begin contributing to communities and work life, Ms. Merkel said. To her, multiculturalism represented the emergence of isolated societies, unwelcoming enclaves of the type that have been building up in Paris suburbs.
It was this type of isolationism that the German leader said was dangerous and gradually eroded the fabric of a country and its foundational values.
As I read Ms. Merkel's comments, I couldn't help thinking about how different our idea of multiculturalism is in this country. I think most of us believe that, for the most part, the multicultural experiment in Canada has been a success. People come from around the world with very few strings attached in terms of what we expect of them, certainly as it pertains to things such as learning one of our two official languages. In Canada, ethnic enclaves do exist and have for generations.
That doesn't mean, however, that we are always comfortable with the laissez-faire attitude we have adopted. As an example, there has been a controversy simmering for a few years now over the decision by some Chinese merchants in Richmond to post signage in Mandarin only. This has irked some Caucasians who live in the Vancouver suburb, which is, it needs to be pointed out, close to 50 per cent ethnic Chinese.
The city has been reluctant to take any type of action to deal with the matter. It has voted against creating a bylaw that would insist all signs include English as well. (The city estimates that only 3 per cent of the signs in the municipality are Chinese only.) Recently, council voted to create a full-time position for someone to go around and "encourage" those businesses advertising in Chinese only to put up new signage that includes English.
Needless to say, if this were Ms. Merkel's Germany, Chinese-only signage would never fly. It would likely not be allowed to occur in Quebec, either, where there are groups so vigilant about protecting the French language one recently made news by insisting sports commentators stop pronouncing Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban's name in English and embrace a French adaptation instead.
Personally, I'm of mixed minds about the issue. Part of me wants to say: Who are they really hurting? It's likely the shops that have them have a 99.9-per-cent Chinese clientele. Besides, they likely have the right to do what they're doing under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And finally, this is likely a generational issue anyway. The children of these shop owners will all speak English and will almost certainly post signs in one of our official languages if they open a store one day.
But then there is the Merkel view of the world, which a part of me can warm to. If you allow Chinese-only signs in Richmond, then you can't say anything about Indian-only signs in another community, or Farsi-only notices somewhere else. And that seems to be contrary to what we are building here.
We have two official languages and the expectation for newcomers should be that they need to learn one of them, as quickly as reasonably possible. And they need to recognize this fact when trying to connect with people via the signage in their stores.
Chinese-only signs say: Only Chinese welcome. And I don't think that is part of the deal we make with new immigrants to Canada. When you come here everyone is welcome, everywhere.