Redefining multiculturalism

Par AM Hirotaka Yamashiro

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In the last three weeks, I've been party to the following scenes:
First, I had the opportunity to attend my 20th high-school reunion in Guelph. An interesting experience to be sure, given that it really highlighted the fact that when I was in school, the milieu was the opposite of the multicultural Toronto of today. With the perspective of time, this allowed me to see how my experiences growing up shaped my outlook on the future.
Then, the other day I was at a conference in beautiful St. John's, Nfld., which unfortunately took me away from the final meeting of the Community Editorial Board, but provided an opportunity to hear a colleague from Montreal spout off about multiculturalism. Specifically, he labelled multiculturalism a "colossal failure" that should be abolished.
The reasoning of this fellow, an anglophone from Montreal, emerged from his experience with a particular patient. A child from the Chinese community, despite being born and raised in the local area, reportedly could not communicate in English or French because with the "ethnic ghettos created by multiculturalism, one can function without English nor French completely."
He went on to praise the current Conservative government and said that one thing Stephen Harper could do was "get rid of multiculturalism" as it was a "clear failure."
Finally, in the last two weeks, you have heard from two of my colleagues on the Community Editorial Board who have highlighted the unique views one gets when you look at any country from the outside.
In particular, the article by Adrienne Lei made the interesting observation that, in many ethnic groups, verbal bilingualism may exist but full bilingualism is less common. She showed that for the individual child, smart parenting attitudes are paramount for a child's success. There is no question that a "homestay program" that would allow Canadians to see how the rest of the world lives would be tremendously enlightening.
The above events certainly provided food for thought; specifically, why are there increasing numbers of ethnic enclaves, recently highlighted by Statistics Canada, and is this a product of multiculturalism? Is it anyone's fault? The government's fault? Or do we all need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture if we are to have a more pluralistic and inclusive future?
One thing that must be clarified is what multiculturalism really is. As a government initiative, it started as a way of recognizing the fact that this country is a land of immigrants and to provide funds that would allow ethnic groups to not only preserve their cultural identity but also to promote understanding of their culture by other groups. The policy had nothing to do with immigration or where immigrants would settle, and somewhere along the way it got reduced to funding ethnic newspapers and dance festivals.
However, it has become a target for those who say you can't have it both ways, be loyal to another country and loyal to this one. Somehow, "multiculturalism" ballooned in some eyes to being the root cause of isolation and ethnic ghettos, contributing to the feeding of racist attitudes.
Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. So why in this day and age when overt racism is not supposed to exist do we continue to have concentration along ethnic lines?
The key difference between 25 years ago when I was growing up and now is the nature of immigration and settlement. We have "astronaut" immigrants who buy houses and then happily live elsewhere while maintaining citizenship, having babies here and then moving elsewhere happy that the child now has Canadian citizenship.
We live in a global economy where skills such as multiple languages are a key asset, yet something seems to be missing. Even within ethnic groups you have separation between the "born here" and the "not born here" groups. Obviously, if you consider yourself Canadian, there needs to be a different approach.
The problem is not where people are living, but whether those people are involved in the community or the political process to create a synergy with their neighbours.
Instead of funding ethnic dance shows, the government needs to modernize immigration and settlement programs into one basket with the common goal of not only enriching what we have here, but to provide the country with access to the skills that will allow it to connect better with the new global economy. Thus, you reframe "multiculturalism" as "strength through integration of diversity."
A forward-thinking government would grasp this and revamp the appropriate ministries. It remains to be seen if a governing party beholden to rural interests will be inclined to do so.


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