What the world can learn from Canadian multiculturalism

Bucking the trend in the rest of the world, Canada’s immigrants are settling very nicely in this easygoing country.

Worshippers take part in the Friday prayers inside the mosque at the Mississauga Muslim Community Centre in Mississauga
A much larger percentage of Canadian Muslims are satisfied with the way things are going than is the case in Europe [Reuters]

Many years ago, on a long cab drive through Vienna, I was engaged in a conversation about immigration which sounded utterly alien to me as a Canadian.

“The Turks … they come here but they don’t act Austrian,” my interlocutor told me in a voice noticeably rising with indignation. “They come, and more and more they stay here, but they still don’t ever become like us. … Is it the same in Canada?” This to me sounded a bit like an accusation mixed with a question, but I had to say that my answer to this query was an honest “no”.

Multiculturalism is often seen as a defining aspect of Canadian identity, and it is exceedingly rare to hear complaints and recriminations such as this one in any Canadian city. But inasmuch as this feeling of mutual separation and hostility – both among immigrant communities and “native” ones – was common throughout Europe, it led me to reflect: Why is Canada so different? What makes multiculturalism work in one place and fail in another?

Multiculturalism’s fall from grace

Across much of the West, it seems as though the appeal of multiculturalism has lost its lustre. A 2011 poll of European countries showed that 65 percent of Spaniards, Italians and Brits believed there were “too many immigrants in their country”. The rising popularity of anti-immigration parties across the continent is a testament to the depth of this feeling, and even mainstream politicians like Angela Merkel and David Cameron have expressed similar sentiments.

Culture is a fluid thing, and as history has shown, attempts to define an airtight cultural character are usually projects of delusion and denial.

The flip side of this is the increasing Balkanisation of urban areas in many European cities. Immigrant quarters are sometimes considered no-go zones by locals, and the sense of separation between different races and ethnicities is perceptible to any observer. Minorities are often viewed as “the other” and they often come to view and define themselves that way as well.

Even among second- and third-generation immigrants this feeling often persists, giving rise to a new class of people who do not feel truly at home in their place of birth nor in their place of ancestry. These are the new “globally homeless”, and it is unsurprising to see the self-destructive expressions of anger, hopelessness, and even nihilism that this type of alienation can generate among some. As a French-Algerian friend once poignantly told me, “In France they call us foreigners and in Algeria they call us Frenchmen … home is on a plane.”

Canada’s surprising success

While I was born in Pakistan, I spent my formative years in Canada, and for the most part what I have observed is the seemingly effortless success of Canada’s multicultural society. The “otherness” of minorities in Europe is conspicuously absent in Canada, despite the fact that over one-fifth of Canadians themselves are foreign-born.

In major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, roughly half the population consists of visible minorities, yet the type of social segregation and alienation prevalent in Europe is nonetheless conspicuously absent.

While immigrants tend to settle in the same neighbourhoods upon arrival, they also partake in Canadian society to a far greater degree than their European counterparts. Immigrants to Canada tend to achieve economic success, high levels of education, and social integration at a level unseen in European societies. Correspondingly, Canadians also tend to have a much more positive opinion of immigration than Europeans. In a 2006 poll asking what made them “proud to be Canadian”, multiculturalism ranked second place, behind only the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Furthermore, while immigration from Muslim-majority countries has become an increasingly contentious issue in many Western countries, the experience of Canadian Muslims defies many of the stereotypes promulgated about this community. In his book, Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism, the Canadian author Michael Adams conducted one of the broadest studies of the Canadian Muslim population ever, and found a community which strongly identified with the country and its institutions. To this end, a 2007 CBC News poll concluded that “Canadian Muslims appear to be the most contented, moderate and, well, Canadian, in the developed world.”

Thus, if multiculturalism has failed, one would be forgiven for being oblivious to this as a Canadian, where it is widely considered one of the nation’s most cherished attributes.

Rejecting false homogeneity

So why the discrepancy? What makes multiculturalism work in one place and fail in another? The easy answer is that different immigration policies attract different social classes of immigrants; but in reality this only tells part of the story. While Canada is home to many professional immigrants, it is also home to vast numbers of  refugees from across the world. Despite this reality, they have still not encountered the difficulties and stagnation experienced by their European counterparts.

The real answer may be in something more deeply rooted in conceptions of national identity. European nation states were born with specific cultural criteria that defined the boundaries of inclusion in the community. Thus, there is an expectation that immigrants will conform to – but not in any meaningful sense change – the supposedly static “national culture” of their new homes.

But culture is a fluid thing, and as history has shown, attempts to define an airtight cultural character are usually projects of delusion and denial. In this sense – and as many European intellectuals themselves have pointed out – “European identity” itself is something of an arbitrary construct. Demanding strict adherence to it is simply an exercise in moving the goalposts on otherwise law-abiding new immigrants.

Herein lies the great success of Canadian multiculturalism; a society which integrates newcomers not by force but through generosity, benevolence, and sincerity to its values and principles.

Multiculturalism is a culture

Given this reality; asking, for example, Turkish newcomers to Austria to not only obey the law and pay their dues to society but to also immediately “act Austrian” is a poor recipe for achieving social cohesion. It is unsurprising it has led to the divisions and hostility which much of Europe experiences today.

Canada, in contrast, is a nation with a full awareness of the amorphous and fluid nature of its own culture. Canadians are bound together by a set of values and beliefs which are able to accommodate a broad range of cultural expressions and do not demand any strict homogeneity. All that is asked of immigrants is what is asked of any members of society: respect for the laws and institutions of the country, social amiability, and contribution to the maintenance and improvement of public works.

Given such an easygoing attitude, it is not surprising that many immigrant Canadians on their own tend to naturally adopt “traditional” Canadian attitudes and mores. Today hockey games are often broadcast in Punjabi as well as French and English, and Canadians of every ethnicity and religion come together in enjoyment of the same foods, pastimes and holidays.

Further, polls have repeatedly shown that immigrants are in fact among the proudest of Canadians. All this is compelling evidence that “integration” tends to work on its own when it is not being forcibly compelled, and when it is not a zero-sum game where newcomers are expected to conform but not create.

A welcoming nation

This multicultural attitude recently appeared to come under siege when French-separatist politicians in Quebec – mimicking their ideology counterparts in Europe – caused a stir by introducing laws to ban hijabs and other religious attire in their province.

The feeling of dread amongst many immigrant Canadians – especially Muslims – that they were about to become the target of politically-charged xenophobia during an election season began to rise; but what was most telling was the reaction of the rest of Canada to these moves. Instead of winning support,  the Parti Quebecois  has come under fire while the rights of minorities have been overwhelmingly defended.

Politicians across the political spectrum spoke out to denounce the crude – and, significantly, un-Canadian – attitude taken in these proposed laws. Incredibly, newspaper ads were even taken out in other provinces welcoming Muslim women with the message: “We don’t care what’s on your head, we care what’s in it“. This is a sentiment which strikes to the core of what most people understand a multicultural Canada represents, and it is thus unsurprising to see why Muslim-Canadians identify so strongly with their country.

Herein lies the great success of Canadian multicularism; a society which integrates newcomers not by force but through generosity, benevolence, and sincerity to its values and principles. Given such a national character it is unsurprising why Canadian immigrants of all backgrounds tend to become “Canadian” so enthusiastically – and it is for this reason that Canada has become an exemplar of social cohesion in an increasingly globalised world.

No system is perfect, but broadly speaking, multiculturalism works. Those who claim otherwise or who are simply struggling to apply such a policy in their own countries should look to Canada’s success as a model to adapt.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.