For someone like me, a European in favour of mass immigration but critical of multiculturalism, the Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizens’ that took place last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was both intriguing and fascinating. The Foundation was set up in 2001 in memory of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a key architect of Canada’s multicultural policy. Its aim is to promote and fund research in the humanities and social sciences and, while not attached to any political party, the Foundation’s work is indelibly stamped with the liberal humanitarianism that many see as Trudeau’s principal political legacy and which, in many ways, has come to shape Canada’s self-definition. Multiculturalism, in this sense, is to Canada as the welfare state is to Britain.
Two themes seemed to run through ‘The Making of Citizens’ conference. The first was the belief that the debate between multiculturalism and its critics maps neatly on to the debate between those who favour immigration and those who are hostile to it; in other words, that those who oppose multiculturalism necessarily oppose immigration and that those who defend immigration can only do so by defending multiculturalism. The second theme was the insistence that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the European version, and suffers from none of the defects of the latter.
The first point is unquestionably false. In Germany, for example, multiculturalism developed as a means of denying citizenship to Turkish migrants. Turks had come to Germany originally as temporary ‘guestworkers’ but had subsequently become permanent residents, largely because Germany continued to need their labour. The German government, however, until the law was changed a decade ago, did not wish to grant citizenship, even to those of Turkish origin born in Germany. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep own culture, language and lifestyles. Multiculturalism developed, in other words, not as a means of embracing immigration but as a way of keeping immigrants at arms’ length. In Britain, multiculturalism developed as part of the ‘twin track’ strategy on immigration: on the one hand the imposition of increasingly restrictive immigration controls, initially designed specifically to exclude non-whites, and on the other, the creation of a social framework aimed at facilitating the integration of black and Asian communities into British society.
In Canada, too, the relationship between multiculturalism and immigration is far from straightforward. Historically, the policy developed as a way not of welcoming immigrants but of mitigating the impact of ‘biculturalism’ – the fracture and tensions between French and English speaking Canada. And, for all the insistence that Canada has a liberal immigration policy, Ottawa has in fact worked very hard to keep out the ‘wrong’ kind of immigrant. Canadian policy is largely about cherry picking middle class professionals and making it almost impossible for unskilled workers to cross the border. Little wonder that many European nations are now looking to Canada’s points system as a model for immigration control.
The second theme – about the distinctiveness of Canadian multiculturalism, and about its success in comparison to Europe – is, on the surface at least, more plausible. Community relations in Canada have certainly remained relatively peaceful, and there has been far less of the violence and tensions found in Europe. I remain unconvinced, however, by the argument that all is rosy in Canadian multicultural garden for a number of reasons. Many of the problems in Europe to which Canadians often allude – inner city riots, for instance – are the products, not of multiculturalism, but of racism, though multiculturalism has certainly helped entrench old racial divisions and create new communal antagonisms. Canada is no Utopia free of racial discrimination, nor of the tensions it generates. Moreover, the underlying problems with multicultural policies, problems that I have explored here and here and here and here and here and here, don’t vanish on crossing the Atlantic. Indeed, many of confrontations that have marked European multicultural tensions – such as over free speech issues or the wearing of the burqa – are present in Canadian society too.
One of my criticisms of multiculturalism, and of the debate around it, has been about the confusion of the lived experience of diversity and the policies enacted to manage that diversity, confusion, in other words, between a description of a society and a prescription for that society. A number of conference speakers suggested that Canadian multiculturalism amounts largely to a celebration of the lived experience of diversity, rather than the imposition of political policies. This seems to me unlikely for a number of reasons. First, because Canadian policy involves, as all multicultural policies must, a degree of prescription, and hence suffers, to some extent at least, from the problems that inevitably arise from all multicultural prescription – such as, for instance, the subcontracting out of political responsibility to so-called community leaders and the treating of individuals with a minority background as members of a group rather than simply as citizens.
Secondly, Canada, as I have already observed, does not have an open immigration policy but a highly restrictive one. The closed character of Canada’s immigration rules clearly impacts upon immigrants and potential immigrants. It also impacts upon Canada’s economic needs, which are often for the kinds of immigrants Canadian law deems socially unsuitable to be citizens. To get round this, businesses and both provincial and federal authorities are now drawing upon the services of hundreds of thousands of ‘temporary workers’. Temporary migration has, indeed, become the biggest source of new labour in Canada -182,322 temporary workers entered the country in 2010, coming to be fruit pickers, labourers, factory workers, janitors, waiters and chambermaids. They have few rights, no access to the services available to other immigrants, and are excluded from permanent residency or citizenship. Sound familiar?
The irony is that just as European nations are looking to Canada’s points system as a way of restricting immigration, Canada is adopting the European policy of temporary immigration without rights or status to fill its economic needs. This suggests that the same kinds of problems that Europe has faced may well be in store for Canada, too. It also suggests that when it comes to celebrating diversity, Canada has a highly restricted definition of the term. It is the diversity of those who are ‘like us’, not in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of class and outlook.
All of which explains why I remain sceptical about the claims for the success of the Canadian model. I will write a proper post about this in due course. I will also, in the next couple of days, post my talk at the conference. In the meantime, my thanks to the Trudeau Foundation for inviting me to speak, for accepting my scepticism with good grace, for a thoroughly enjoyable event and for opening up this much needed debate.