Multiculturalism:
The New Face of Earth

I was formally introduced to the idea of Canadian multiculturalism during my college drama elective. Our professor was a French-Canadian herself, a descendant of one of the early waves of immigrants. She made it clear at the very first day that we should always speak up, discuss each matter openly, and without fear of judgment or misunderstanding. That was something very important for us to hear, since the class consisted of people with so many backgrounds, there was no way to define us as ordinary Canadian students. Most of our discussions developed around such themes as Canadian national identity, aboriginal culture, queerness, and finally, multiculturalism. As is turned out, Canadian playwrights were often immigrants or descendants of immigrants themselves. They were the people to wonder about Canadian national idea and they shared their findings through theatre and literature. One of the plays we studied caught my attention in particular. It was Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia, a story close to every person who once left his country of origin and moved to a different, beyond far, and foreign place. It explores the hardships of someone who is certain to have lost himself on his way to a new world and is not sure what to call his home anymore. The moment you set foot in a new country, you experience your own foreignness. You are labeled with stereotypes only because your name, language, and appearance easily give out your origin. The life of a newcomer is affected by other people’s expectations even more than it normally would be.Verdecchia, the character of Fronteras Americanas, struggles to blend in, to be equal in the eyes of people surrounding him. Yet he is abruptly told to go home, to his own country.[1] He follows this advice eventually, just to realize that he is not welcome ‘home’ either.

“All sides of the Border have claimed and rejected me. On all sides I have been asked, “How long have you been…? How old were you when…? When did you leave? When did you arrive?” As if it were somehow possible to locate on a map, on an airline schedule, on a blueprint, the precise coordinates of the spirit, of the psyche, of memory” (Guillermo Verdecchia).[2]

With humour and irony, Verdecchia explores the theme of Canadian multiculturalism, giving his character a wonderful idea to cling to – he is neither Venezuelan, nor Canadian, but Venezuelan-Canadian. It is far from easy to grasp the thought of not just belonging to one single culture, but merging several cultures in yourself, being a citizen of two countries. Multiculturalism suggests that several cultures live independently on a shared land, interact in different ways, but preserve their own culture and language. Multiculturalism has a potential of uniting several cultures, several nationalities into a big and happy family, giving such struggling individuals as Verdecchia (the character) a new identity and a new home. That is what makes Canadian multiculturalism different from the same phenomenon occurring in other countries. Canada is already on its way to writing a new national story with all its nations and cultures intertwined.

The struggle within

With no doubt, multiculturalism is still a problematic concept for most modern countries. The sole reason for existence of prejudice and discrimination is based on the fact that we are different and we find it difficult to accept. As long as race and ethnicity remain a factor by which we judge and treat people, we will not reap all the benefits of multiculturalism. In most European countries I myself had traveled to, the idea of more than two cultures being in a close relationship is often not welcomed. Immigrants are expected to become accustomed to the traditions and culture of the country they came to, and their own soul and blood become an obstacle to their integration. It is either that or you will shun society for the rest of your life, live in a ghetto, and interact only with people sharing your place of birth.

Few countries among contemporary democracies have an intercultural approach. Some of them, like Belgium, recognize cultural diversity and adopt a multicultural model similar to the one in Canada to some extent. A while ago Belgium heartily welcomed working immigrants and asylum seekers from Turkey. Then suddenly, in the 1970s immigration to Belgium became forbidden by law.[3] A black market labour force took root, and Belgian government feared illegal refugees would overrun them. You would meet poor Turks on the streets begging for change. Now consider this. Years later, most Turks were assimilated and became established business owners. Today Belgium is still facing a threat of undocumented foreign workers. More and more refugees arrive there each year. In the second quarter of 2013, Belgium had to reject 81 percent of applications for asylum.[4] They simply do not have the same luxury of space Canada has. Most European countries also fear change and that fear is driving their hatred for immigrants.

For instance, consider Russia, a vast multinational country with a colourful history of her own. You would think there is place for multiculturalism there, yet unlike Canada Russia struggles to accept other cultures and make peace with them. There are more than 180 nations living on Russian territories.[5] After the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Russian people lost a valuable part of their national identity, which allowed those 180 nations to live in peace while believing in unity and equal opportunities. They have started to develop xenophobia that is utterly intolerable for a contemporary society.

Why you, Canada?

Why does multiculturalism work in Canada and is not even considered a policy in some other countries? It is true that Canada is a relatively young country. Her political course changed many times throughout history, but the idea behind always stayed the same: Canada is the land of new beginnings, where life with a fresh start is possible. Some of the decisions made during the country’s development have made multiculturalism not only possible but also successful. Not all of them were good decisions and there is no way to clear history from any wrongdoings. Equality and human rights were fought for. As a result, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy.[6] The year 1971 marked a new dawn in Canadian history. Race, ethnicity, language, and religion mattered no more. That was a very important change, which at first might appear as forced upon Canadian citizens, yet years later, it became part of their national identity. Recent research shows that immigrants are highly accepted among Canadian citizens.[7] The majority of Canadians view multiculturalism as a source of pride and believe that immigration benefits their country’s wellbeing. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms along with Canadian Constitution made this ‘Inclusive Citizenship’ possible.[8]

While researching the topic, I stumbled upon one most interesting clip from the CBC Digital Archives where the question ‘who is the true Canadian?’ has been given much thought.

“These days I am not sure if you can easily define a Canadian. I would not want try to suggest that a Canadian should know how to paddle a canoe, whether a Canadian should know how to use snowshoes in the winter. Whether a Canadian should have any set of characteristics that necessarily separate them from other people because I fully agree with the view that we have become nowadays a hugely diverse country and the very thought of a Canadian identity has become problematic” (Michael Bliss, historian).[9]

It is heartwarming to see members of such a diverse community embracing their multicultural identity. You do not have to belong to a certain nation to become Canadian and it is not something you are born with. Canadian society does not force integration upon its new citizens in a sense that you should become something you are not. It mildly offers to respect common values and principles that are the foundation of Canadian rights and law, often being the first reason for anyone willing to move to Canada. Immigrants of many backgrounds welcome these principles and are proud to call themselves ‘Canadians’. An Environics Institute survey suggests that Canadians recognize the fact that immigrants are likely to become equally as good citizens as those who were born in Canada.[10] With all my various European background, I was expecting Canadians to be as preconceived as everyone else. Turns out, they simply do not care about your origin. To a certain extent, of course. As long as you recognize and accept your rights and responsibilities in this country, they will not bother criticizing your accent or wonder about your place of birth. When applying for a job in Canada, you should not fear rejection based solely on the colour of your skin or your unreadably long last name. That is not the only meaning of equal opportunities. Thanks to multiculturalism, Canada’s political process also became more inclusive. Canadians of all origins believe that it is their duty as good citizens to participate in Canadian public life more actively not only as voters but as party members and political office candidates too. Other countries following a multicultural model demonstrate lower rates of public life involvement among cultural minorities and immigrants.[11]

Citizens of the World

While there is evidence that multiculturalism served Canada well in the past forty years, the policy is still highly debated. Those who saw how European countries struggled to adopt multiculturalism, argue that it results in ethnic isolation and ghettoization and is nothing more than an instrument of integration for immigrants. They insist on changing the policy completely while presuming that Canada will share the future of European countries that have failed multiculturalism. However, there is no evidence that Canada is moving in the same direction as Europe. Still the land of new beginnings, remember? Instead of abandoning multiculturalism completely, Canada should learn from the European experience. It is important to understand the idea behind multiculturalism: all humans share equal rights and opportunities regardless of their origin, ethnicity, faith, and personal views. This means acceptance and a way to bring people together instead of labeling and placing them into separate communities. We ought to remind ourselves about this constantly, until the very day it becomes part of our national identity not as Canadians or citizens of any other country, but as Humans.


References

[1] Verdecchia, Guillermo. Fronteras Americanas. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2012. Print. 9.
[2] Verdecchia, Guillermo. Fronteras Americanas. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2012. Print. 29-30.
[3] Wets, Johan. The Turkish Community in Austria and Belgium: The Challenge of Integration, 2006. PDF. 92-93.
[4] http://tribune.com.pk/story/615453/pakistanis-made-6000-asylum-requests-in-second-quarter-of-2013-eu-data/
[5] https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=846655
[6] http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/multiculturalism/citizenship.asp
[7] Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. The Current State of Multiculturalism in Canada and Research Themes on Canadian Multiculturalism 2008-2010, 2010.
[8] http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/multiculturalism/citizenship.asp
[9] CBC Digital Archives. True Canadians: Multiculturalism in Canada debated, 2004.  http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/language-culture/making-the-mosaic-multiculturalism-in-canada/true-canadians.html
[10] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/immigrants-the-proudest-canadians-poll-suggests-1.1225782
[11] Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. The Current State of Multiculturalism in Canada and Research Themes on Canadian Multiculturalism 2008-2010, 2010.