Newcomers' integration: under threat

Voters will face twin political snares that could fragment their ballots and schools

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When Ontario voters go to the polls Oct. 10, progressive conservatives like myself, whatever their party affiliation, will find themselves caught in two political snares. Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government has added a referendum to the electoral vote, asking if our traditional, first-past-the-post system for selecting representatives should be replaced with mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation. Meanwhile, as a centrepiece of his platform, Conservative Leader John Tory is advocating public funding for faith-based schools. True progressive conservatives, leery of leaps into the void, ought to be chary.
Instead of these schemes, each leader should address the central challenge that Ontario faces today: the integration of new Canadians into society. Our self-ordained success as a multicultural society may be a myth - as chagrined residents of the United Kingdom and continental Europe have already concluded about themselves. Are we, too, sliding into what Nobel economist Amartya Sen calls "plural mono-culturalism" - groups that live side by side "but do not touch," fostering resentments based on historic grievances? As a condition of citizenship, do new Canadians accept the nation's principles: liberal, pluralistic and democratic; the rule of law; the rights of individuals versus groups; the concept that rights bring obligations?
So far, the news is not heartening. University of Toronto sociologists Raymond Breton and Jeffrey Reitz have found that second-generation Canadians are apparently less integrated than their parents. German research into second-generation residents of Turkish descent comes to the same conclusion. Perhaps, to use Francis Fukuyama's phrase, Canada is also challenged by that pernicious hole in Liberal theory: What degree of political deference do liberal societies owe to groups as opposed to individuals?
In this situation, any measures that could hamper integration by tinkering with tried-and-true policies could bring dangerous, unforeseen outcomes. If you find yourself in a hole - and Ontarians may be in one - stop digging.
Both Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Tory are refusing to lay down their shovels.
Sure, on the surface, the MMP blueprint appears to have merit. Why should 45 per cent of the vote deliver 63 per cent of the seats? But the proposal - which would see 30 per cent of the seats apportioned to individuals on a party slate - is risky. Today, parties engage their backers in policy trade-offs prior to the election, so voters know their platforms. Under the proposed system, with the chance to gain Legislature seats with just 3 per cent of the vote, multiple parties would likely arise, including many representing special interests. As extremist views emerged, groups that would normally contribute to the platform of a mainstream party would form parties to counter them.
Because no party would likely gain a majority, parties would bargain after the election to achieve power, making concessions to placate tiny groups. Only after the election would voters learn what their government proposes to do. When the priority is integration, this measure would be tragically counterproductive. As Queen's University emeritus professor Dan Usher concludes in an analysis of this proposal, "In the end, electoral systems must be judged not by their intended virtues, but by their likely effects." Spoken like a true progressive conservative.
Mr. Tory justifies public funding for non-secular, faith-based schools as an issue of fairness. After all, the Roman Catholics have it. This is disingenuous, at best, and Mr. Tory should know better. His proposal, aimed at gaining incremental votes in marginal ridings, is an exercise in cynicism. It is not favourable for the progressive integration of our society.
We could have a referendum on the unification and secularization of all publicly funded schools. Despite my own Roman Catholic secondary schooling, I could support this. But it would be divisive.
I would rather cite our history and traditions. In 1774, the British Parliament gave Catholics the then-unprecedented right to sit in the Quebec Legislature. Other electoral and educational rights were subsequently granted, culminating in the British North America Act of 1867 which explicitly protected the education rights of Protestants in Quebec and Catholics in Ontario. The result was not a fragmented society, but an integrated one. Most satisfyingly, the ultimate result was a civil and secular society. Successive waves of immigrants have supported that ideal.
Today, it is the secular public school system that is best positioned to integrate newcomers and their children into this system of values. Without propinquity, there can be no integration. Without integration, there can be no equality of opportunity. Without both, we fail as a civil society.
For progressive conservatives, this election could be a bet on discontinuities. I will vote No in the referendum and, as always, Yes for the Conservatives. I trust the innate common sense of the electorate on the referendum. And I rely on the wisdom of former premier William Davis, who advises Mr. Tory, to dig him out of the hole that he is still digging.
Chair of council and vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada


Tom Kierans1 article

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Chair of council and vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada

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