Canadians have successfully proselytized for multiculturalism overseas for years. Scholars trooped to European capitals to give PowerPoint presentations. Canada was the multi-culti go-to nation.
But at a major conference on social cohesion last month at a hotel in the British Midlands, the Canadians suddenly found themselves on the defensive. Canada, it seems, no longer has any lessons for Europe. Multiculturalism looks like yesterday's "ism."
Trevor Phillips, chairman of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission, called it self-limiting. "Why should people be limited or trapped by their ethnicity?" he told the U.K.-Canada Colloquium. "In a liberal democracy, people should be free to be liberated from the accident of their birth, be it gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation." The multicultural model, he added, doesn't help with the inequities that visible-minority newcomers suffer, or promote interaction among different groups.
As Britain, France, the Netherlands and other European countries change course, Canada too has begun to re-examine the way we manage diversity.
This week, Statistics Canada, in its 2006 census snapshot, reported one in every five Canadians was born outside the country. That is the highest level since 1931 - a time when an overtly racist immigration policy excluded non-whites.
Today, 58.3 per cent of newcomers come from Asia and the Middle East, and two-thirds of the 250,000 who arrive each year settle in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The census revealed more than 200 mother tongues. Policy-makers have to make sure the new arrivals have access to jobs, adequate language training and a chance to interact with mainstream society.
Jason Kenney, the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity (the "identity" part of the title was added early this year), was a keynote speaker at the conference.
"There is a lot of evidence to suggest that newcomers aren't integrating as quickly or as easily as previous generations," he commented in an interview. "This may have something to do with urban concentration." Most immigrants want to "join the Canadian circle of prosperity," though, he said, social cohesion cannot just be taken for granted.
The U.K., after suffering major terrorist attacks and thwarting plots by homegrown jihadists, is now working on an integration model designed to promote Britishness. The government has introduced a test that requires all new citizens to embrace the country's "essential values." A public search for a national motto was recently launched - prompting joking suggestions such as "Land of yobs and morons," "Once mighty empire, slightly used" and "At least we're not French."
As for Canadians, we continue to support high immigration levels. Toronto may be one of the world's first really "plural" cities, in that nearly half of the residents were born somewhere else, and no one ethnic group dominates.
We also continue to support multiculturalism, which Pierre Trudeau introduced in 1971 as a way to encourage newcomers to keep their cultures while adapting to the country's norms. Still, according to an Environics poll in 2006, 65 per cent of us also feel anxiety about their cultural integration - hence the national debate about just how much accommodation is fair and pragmatic, and about how well recent newcomers are actually doing.
Mr. Kenney said that his government wants to accommodate cultural diversity, while emphasizing a strong national identity. "I do think that there is a growing concern to ensure that talk about diversity isn't cover for opting out of the basic contract of liberal-democratic values," he said. "Pluralism is a deeper concept than multiculturalism, which in many people's minds is stuck in 1970s food and folklore. Pluralism is a deeper respect for differences of belief."
Us and them
Quebec's commission on reasonable accommodation has opened the floodgates for a lot of anger - and xenophobia. Quebeckers have voiced concern over everything from kosher labels on food, to Muslims washing their feet in the sinks of public washrooms.
Quebec, of course, differs from the rest of Canada in that francophones are a linguistic minority worried about their long-term survival, and also a cultural majority within Quebec. In contrast, the Us-Them model - you must adapt to our way of life - will never work in English Canada. Who would the "Us" be, anyway?
But debate about accommodation has also gone on in British Columbia and Ontario. In 2004, some Ontario Muslims wanted to use Islamic sharia law to arbitrate family disputes; the upshot was an end to all religion-based arbitration. And John Tory, the Conservative leader who lost in Ontario's recent election, had to backtrack on his promise to extend funding to Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and other religious schools, not just Catholic ones.
Most such disputes are resolved case by case - and may not be, in the final analysis, the biggest challenge.
Study after study shows that today's immigrants are not doing as well as those who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s. Often they cannot find jobs that match their qualifications, and are not prospering economically as much as their mostly white predecessors. Some complain of discrimination. New Canadians are three times as likely as their Canadian-born counterparts to have low incomes, according to 2004 Statistics Canada data.
Defenders of the multicultural model say it was never meant to reduce economic inequalities. "Multiculturalism is still legitimate and socially useful in Canada, even considering the present xenophobic reaction in Quebec," said Denise Helly, a conference presenter and professor at the Institut national de recherche scientifique in Montreal. Minelle Mahtani, a University of Toronto assistant professor who specializes in diversity, added: "Multiculturalism shouldn't be the fallback guy for all the racial and religious ills in the country. We need to focus on employment equity, job training and foreign credentials."
Another troubling development is the increase in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal of ethnic enclaves where more than a third of residents are from one visible minority group. While some of these 254 neighbourhoods, such as Richmond, B.C., are well-heeled, others are marked by poverty.
In Scarborough, a Toronto suburb where 54 per cent of 600,000 people are foreign-born, there is violence between and within ethnic groups. Of the 52 gun deaths in Toronto in 2005, more than half involved first- or second-generation Jamaican-Canadians, mostly in their teens or 20s. Flemingdon Park, a community of 27,000 in northeast Toronto where more than 90 different languages are spoken, is home to two youth gangs. In the past two years, there have been two fatal shootings and two fatal stabbings. In an altercation that lasted for six hours in the summer of 2006, a group of teenagers beat, stripped and stabbed to death a 17-year-old, the son of Jamaican immigrants - all in broad daylight. Nobody called the police.
Another disturbing trend is that, according to recent research, second-generation visible-minority immigrants report more incidents of discrimination, and integrate more slowly than their white counterparts. (Some scholars say the explanation is the relative youth of the former, compared to the latter.) Though Canada is not the U.K., or France, with its burning suburbs of disengaged Arab and African immigrants, these issues are clouds on the horizon.
Keith Banting, a professor with Queen's University's School of Policy Studies and a speaker at the colloquium, recently replicated some landmark research by the American political scientist Robert Putnam.
Prof. Putnam had measured habits of voting, volunteering, charitable giving and community involvement, and found that interpersonal trust was low in racially and ethnically diverse American neighbourhoods, which lacked social and civic networks. Instead, people were hunkering down in front of their television sets.
Likewise, Prof. Banting found lower interpersonal trust in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Canada. He asked people how likely it was for a lost wallet to be returned with the money in it if it was found by a neighbour, a police officer, a grocery store clerk or a stranger. The larger the presence of visible minorities, the less trusting are the white majority. Members of racial minorities, in contrast, are much less trusting in neighbourhoods with a strong white majority, and their trust rises as ethnic diversity increases.
But Prof. Banting's research did not show lower voter turnout in diverse neighbourhoods - or less support for the welfare state or community group involvement. "We do find on the interpersonal trust story similarities with the U.S," he said. "But it is a decline, not a collapse, in trust, and doesn't lead to a decline in participation in civic organizations."
Some observers wonder whether the federal government should try to articulate a set of core Canadian values. Others say we aren't united so much around shared values, as around the principles of equality and freedom, as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, points out that the Charter also recognizes multicultural heritage, religious freedom, aboriginal peoples and official language minorities.
Clearly, we should pay attention to warning signs, and not shy away from a debate about how to improve the current model. Requests for reasonable accommodation are less problematic than whole neighbourhoods of poor newcomers who cannot get ahead. The country needs more aggressive strategies to make sure that social mobility is still possible. That is why immigrants come to Canada. Abstract debates about multiculturalism and pluralism mean less to them than being given a real chance to succeed.
Marina Jiménez is a Globe senior feature writer, specializing in immigration