Thirty-five years after multiculturalism became official Canadian policy in 1971 under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canadians remain committed to a vision of the country that welcomes immigrants in their cultural and linguistic diversity.
But, as a new poll makes clear, there are limits to what Canadians regard as acceptable in the name of multiculturalism. Overwhelmingly, Canadians hold that if multicultural values clash with the equality rights of women, then gender equality must prevail.
That Canadians think gender equality should trump cultural values is good news. It means, first, that Canadians of all backgrounds are solidly behind the equality of men and women. This was not a given as recently as the 1970s. It also means, no less importantly, that Canadians are confident enough in their system of core values to expect all residents of Canada to abide by those values.
The poll was conducted for the Pierre Trudeau Foundation, in preparation for a conference, Muslims in Western Societies, it is holding Thursday in Vancouver. The survey of 2,021 Canadians found 75 per cent felt Muslim immigrants make a positive contribution to Canada.
As well, 49 per cent had a generally positive impression of Islam. Those who did not feel positively toward Muslims cited the treatment of women, association with terrorism, intolerance, and extremism as reasons.
The survey also found a majority of Canadians rejected the idea that a law-abiding Muslim Canadian should feel personal responsibility for violent crimes carried out by anyone claiming to act in the name of Islam. The more contact Canadians have with Muslims, the poll showed, the more positive their feelings are about Islam.
There are traces of current events throughout the poll. Maher Arar's terrible journey to a Syrian torture chamber is one. Another is the clash last year over an ill-advised flirtation in Ontario with sharia law, which happily ended when Premier Dalton McGuinty rejected the idea.
The dangerous foolishness of assuming that Muslims are guilty of crimes committed by other Muslims, here or elsewhere, was brought home in the recent hearings into the mistreatment of Arar, an Ottawa telecommunications engineer arrested in New York on the most tenuous of connections to Muslim terrorists.
Canada emerges from this poll as a pragmatic, egalitarian nation. We are tolerant and broad-minded, but not to a fault. There are limits, and they have to do with respect for the individual. We can be proud of this, but also prodded to action. Legislation should make clear that a practice such as female circumcision will be prosecuted under the law as assault. Nor should anyone be denied education, or married involuntarily.
Multiculturalism has served Canada well, and there is no reason to shrink from it now, as long as we are all clear about its limits.