‘A work in progress’: after 50 years Canada’s multiculturalism policy a ‘model,’ but must shift to ‘dismantling’ discrimination, say panellists

Good overview of the plenary with three good speakers but Nenshi, as often happens, stole the show with his blending of the personal and political:

Fifty years after Canada made multiculturalism an official policy, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi contrasted his life under the system to another political figure who, like him, was born within months of its enactment in 1971: the prime minister. 

Both men turn 50 within a matter of weeks of each other, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) this coming Christmas Day and Mr. Nenshi a few weeks later, in February. During an Oct. 6 panel dubbed “Multiculturalism@50,” Mr. Nenshi said the last five decades and the two leaders’ paths to politics reveals some of the impact of the world-leading policy put in place by Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, when he led the country.

“He grew up in a life of great privilege. But in a life where, as a formally bilingual white person in this country, he had a very different view of what multiculturalism meant than others may have,” Mr. Nenshi said in his set-up, contrasting that with his early years and how he—that “baby boy”—grew up in Canada.

“He grew up as a person of colour, who could not avoid conversations about racism, or multiculturalism, because they were actually part of his life, every single day.”

During the 2019 election, Mr. Trudeau pointed to his privilege to explain how he as a teenager, and a man in his 30s, chose to don the racist garb of blackface and brownface.

Following the revelations, Mr. Trudeau said he had “a massive blind spot” borne from his upbringing in “a place of privilege.” His critics, including NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (Burnaby South, B.C.), have noted a disconnect between his words and actions.

Last week, and again on Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau apologized for choosing to vacation in Tofino, B.C., on Sept. 30, the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The Vancouver Island town is a few hours’ flight west of Kamloops, B.C., where, in May, the local First Nation announced it had found 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school.

Mr. Nenshi did not mention the last campaign’s scandal or the prime minister’s record, but noted in thinking about “the different paths that we’ve taken, and where we’ve ended up, both he and I in public life, through very different ways, we start to understand, I think, what the impact of that policy has been,” Mr. Nenshi observed.

Canada’s multicultural policy, adopted in October 1971 in a world first, is “one of our country’s greatest achievements,” said Independent Senator Donna Dasko (Ontario).

Sen. Dakso, also a panellist for the Metropolis Canada event, credited the elder Trudeau for his “vision,” and though the approach had its detractors, she said it did not “impede its progress.” She said Canada “marched forward” with the approach, adopting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, which “recognized the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural character of Canada,” and, in 1988, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney passed the Multicultural Act, further “entrenching the principles and practices of multiculturalism.”

These efforts “marked Canada as the first country in the world to adopt these measures. And really, we did become a model of intercultural relations in the world,” said Sen. Dasko, a former pollster who said she has followed public opinion shift over the years so it’s now accepted as a “core feature of our national identity.”

Now, after 50 years, it’s time to focus on “dismantling,” and actions to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, said former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Augustine, who became Canada’s first female Black MP when she was elected in 1997.

Despite equal pay legislation and commitments to equality, she questioned why Black Canadians are overrepresented below the poverty line and in Canada’s prisons.

“We need to ask questions. We need to get more complete answers. That is the only way that we can continue to write the story and also tell the story of a more accurate, inclusive, and genuine multicultural Canada,” said Ms. Augustine, who served as minister of state for multiculturalism between 2002 and 2004. 

Still, Ms. Augustine said she remains “steadfast” in her support of the policy, invoking Winston Churchill’s remarks on democracy; that it is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.

“We can say the same about multiculturalism. It is the best form and the best set of policies to enable us to be the Canada of the future. This is a work in progress,” she said. 

Canada must “meaningfully address barriers” diverse cultural groups face and “meet the challenges head on,” she said.

“The full dream of what Canada can be will only happen when we embrace true inclusion and equity. And this demands that we situate our approach to multiculturalism within a space that is anti-racist, and anti-oppression.”

While Canada is “immeasurably better” than it was when Mr. Nenshi’s parents first came to Canada, the mayor noted the country is still in a time when politicians deny systemic racism persists. 

This week, Quebec Premier François Legault doubled down on past statements saying it doesn’t exist in his province, following the release of a coroner’s report into the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who filmed herself being insulted by hospital staff before she passed. Mr. Legault “incorrectly” defined the term to “bolster his argument,” said Mr. Nenshi, noting the province’s so-called secularism laws are “blatantly discriminatory.” One law prohibits some civil servants from displaying religious symbols, such as wearing a hijab or turban.

That means lawyer-turned-NDP leader Mr. Singh, if he had practised law in Quebec, would be denied a path to ever be a judge. The topic came up in the English-language federal leaders’ debates, when moderator Shachi Kurl also described the law as discriminatory and asked Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, in light of the law, how he could say the province doesn’t have a “problem with racism.”

Remarking on the flood of criticism Ms. Kurl, a woman of colour, faced in the Sept. 9 debate’s aftermath, Mr. Nenshi said people of colour are often challenged for daring to “play the race card,”

“Let me tell you something, the race card is very rarely part of a winning hand,” said Mr. Nenshi, who, 11 years ago became the first person of colour to head Calgary and a major city in Canada, and the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city. In the city’s 136-year history, he’s one of seven non-white members elected to council, according to Mr. Nenshi.

But it was his religion that propelled him to the pages of the likes of Time magazine—even though it had barely registered in his municipal campaign. He could have said “no” to all those dozens of media interviews, he noted, but multiculturalism, in part, pushed him to have those public conversations.

“I thought that this was an opportunity to tell a story of a place where it does work [and] use my own ordinary, typical immigrant story as a beacon of hope for Canada and for the world,” he said, and while that story still feels real and true, “things feel different now.”

Mr. Nenshi said there’s been a shift in the last four or five years, though nominal compared to the flood of hate women of colour experience when they enter public life. 

“It seems that voices of division, anger, and hatred are growing louder and louder in our communities. And they sometimes seem to be winning.”

Echoing Ms. Augustine’s assessment, Mr. Nenshi agreed the next stage means a move from pluralism and multiculturalism to “true anti racism, to true reconciliation.”

Mr. Nenshi said he doesn’t know what that looks like, but he’s optimistic Canada can get there.

“But it starts by recognizing where we are. It starts by recognizing how far we’ve come, but it also starts by recognizing how far we have to go.”

Source: https://hilltimes.us10.list-manage.com/track/click?u=a90bfb63c26a30f02131a677b&id=dace268bc7&e=685e94e554

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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