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Multiculturalism Redefined? (#179)

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This is a translation of yesterday’s post in French, but in a somewhat abridged format. I often browse books of societal and political interest (of all political colours).

Out of curiosity, I was leafing through the new book written by Justin Trudeau, “Common Ground”.  I was very curious what such a thick biography could contain, considering he is only 43 years old.   I read it in French, so references below are translations.

There were a few things in the book which caused me to raise an eyebrow.  But one subject in particular grabbed my attention more than anything else – that of Justin Trudeau’s definition of multiculturalism (which, I should say, would probably become a definition adopted by a Federal government should the Liberals ever be elected – after all, J.T. is the party leader).

To start, in Québec a notion of interculturalism is “practiced” (or at least preached).  In Canada as a whole, on a Federal and legal level, multiculturalism as practiced.  But honestly speaking, on a global level from 1 to 100, the difference between our version of federal multiculturalism and our version of Québec’s interculturalism would likely not be any greater than a figurative 83.4 versus an 84.9.   I say this with my own experiences of having been an immigrant in another country outside Canada for several years.  When I immigrated to Asia, I was subjected to the concepts of conformity and “the majority’s cultural projections” towards immigrants who they welcomed.  After having lived that experience, I can sincerely tell you that the difference between the two concepts we have here in Canada are not nearly anywhere as large as many in certain political camps (or in certain aspects of Québec society) would have you believe.

With that said, the dynamics and partisan debates over the past 40 years have highly politicized the subject of multiculturalism versus interculturalism – to the extent that you could easily get the impression that the difference between the two is 60 to 90 on a scale of 1 to 100, rather than an 83.4 versus 84.9.  But the reality and intensity of the debate (which has already gone way past the realm of true facts) has given the 1.5 point difference the illusion of being a symbolic and abstract 30 point spread.  Regardless, the exaggeration and distortion of the differences between the two ideologies is now the reality with which we all have to contend (be it Canadians outside of Québec, Québécois themselves, or certain political or societal camps within their respective jurisdictions when they battle it out among themselves).

This brings me back to the definition of multiculturalism, and the one which Justin Trudeau has recently offered. Before going on, I want to make it clear that I am not in the process of taking a political stance or making a statement regarding multiculturalism or interculturalism.  I read J.Trudeau’s book just as I would read a book on Bernard Landry, Brian Mulroney or Jack Layton – and I simply found what he said to be very interesting, and surprising. His own definition is one which I have never seen before.  If I’m not wrong, I would even go as far as to say it looks like he is redefining, or modernizing the concept of multiculturalism.  It is different from the earlier definition which constitutes Canada’s current definition… one which dates from having been hashed out in the 1970s and 1980s.

But what I find highly intriguing is that his redefinition seems to narrow the ideological gap between the old definitions of Federal multiculturalism and Québec interculturalism (and by extension, it could bridge the ideological trench which caused arguments and tensions between those who vigourously carry the torch of either ideology).  In this sense, I’d almost venture to say that his definition could “reconcile” and “harmonize” these two concepts in one single definition which could work for both Canada and Québec, work for their respective needs, and work for the adherents of either ideology (a give-and-take if you will).   It is in this scope that I find the notion to hold fascinating possibilities for further discussion.

When speaking about multiculturalism or interculturalism, we often speak of its implementation with respect to first generation immigrants… therefore keep this concept in mind as you read the rest of this post.

Considering that J.T. is taking on a matter as core to the Canada as the definition of multiculturalism itself, he would be differentiating himself from his father in no small way… one which made me do more than one double-take when I first read his definition.

Here is what he said (I’m translating from the French version of his book, but I’ll try to keep it as exact as possible) :

Multiculturalism p. 220 (of the French version of his book) It is the presumption upon which society accepts forms of cultural expression which do not impede the fundamental values of our society.  This includes the rights of a Jewish person to wear a kippah, a Sikh to wear a turban, a Muslim to wear a veil or a Christian to wear a cross – even if they are public servants of the state. The best way to think of multiculturalism is to picture it as a sort of social contract. Under the contract, newcomers to Canada promise to:

  • abide by our laws,
  • teach their children
    • the skills and
    • language fluency

necessary to integrate into our society, and

  • respect, if not immediately adopt, the social norms that govern the relationship between
    • individuals, and
    • groups in Canada

In exchange, we respect aspects of their culture that may be precious to them, yet harmful to no one else. Gestures which do not respect our part of the social contract include forcing a nine year old soccer player to remove his turban, releasing a preschool educator because she wears a veil, or banning a cardiologist from the operating room because he wears a kippah – not to mention that these would be  acts which would go against our laws.

Canada is perhaps the only country in the world which is strong because of its diversity, not in spite of it.  Diversity is at the core of who we are, and of what gives us our prosperity.

This is why we have to promote the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Our openness to diversity is at the heart of what makes us Canadian.  It is what makes Canada one of the best and free places in the world, and one of the best places to live.

My comments : Everything which is not highlighted in blue largely has to do with multiculturalism as we know it now.  But if I’m not wrong (and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert in this realm) I was under the impression that everything that is in blue is more along the lines of interculturalism.

I did not mention it in my French post, but the section of Trudeau’s definition regarding “newcomers having to promise to abide by our laws and teach their children language fluency” is almost an exact translation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration in German on October 6th, 2013 when she spoke of the shortcomings of multiculturalism in the German context (which, I should add, is very different than Canada’s experience) and in which she suggested remedies to Germany’s policy shortcomings (the “coincidence” of the order of the wording is rather interesting).

Areas which Trudeau mentioned which could align (or reconcile themselves) with interculturalism are those pertaining to:

  • immigrants having to adhere to society’s values (here I’m speaking of values which, by their very nature, are transitory and variable with time – I’m not speaking of rights, which are invariable and inalienable)
  • immigrants having to teach the language of the land (i.e.: French) to their children.
  • immigrants having to integrate using skills, such as society’s language (which is French in Québec, English in other regions, sometimes French in yet other contexts, and sometimes a combination of the two in situation-specific scenarios). His choice of the word “society” would be a key word in this context, because “society’s” language varies from one region to another, and J.T. is funnelling the question of language in his definition right down to “society” (of which Acadia is a society, St-Jean-Baptiste in Manitoba is one, Québec is one, and so is Hearst in Ontario – all Francophone societies which could be subject to this revised definition).
  • engaging in a sort of social contract if one wishes to live in Canada – a contractual “exchange” (to take the word he uses in French). Contrary to this revised definition of multiculturalism, the version of multiculturalism offered by P.E. Trudeau (father) did not have such societal “conditions” defined in advance (at least not in the more definitive sense presented here) – apart from public policy of immigrant selection criteria.  The Trudeau Sr. version definitely did not seek to deal with individual behaviour relating to personal or group interactions once on Canadian soil (I’m speaking of those other than behaviour related to the criminal code or other laws).
  • those who come from different cultures have to make “promises” respecting societal matters, such as those towards “social norms” (those are the words he is using). You can imagine the significance of this statement if it were to include norms deemed acceptable to a particular region or province where one lives, especially considering that our social norms can vary from one region to another, just as they can be similar from region to another.
  • regarding this prior point, he states that immigrants must “immediately” adopt these norms (“immediately” is a weight-charged word).
  • the norms Immigrants have to adopt with respect to the social norms of “groups” in Canada (I’m left wondering if he means groups in the sense of Anglophones and Francophone… which, if it is the case, could also have significant implications).

When you consider the above points, you can see why I was a bit more than surprised to read this redefinition of multiculturalism.   These were not phrases pronounced in some oral speech.  Rather, these are words and a definition which are now written black and white, by Trudeau, on pages of his autobiography which has been distributed coast-to-coast.   I am not saying that I disagree with his definition, and likewise I am not saying I agree with it either (for the purpose of this post, I’m not taking a position one way or the other).  I’m simply saying that there seems to be a turn in directions, one which took me by surprise (and which makes me wonder if the definition of multiculturalism, as we knew it, is not the untouchable sacred cow which many of us grew up to believe it was – regardless of what we thought of it).

At first glance, Trudeau’s socio-cultural contractualism, or renewed multiculturalism, or inter-multiculturalism (whatever name you wish to attach to it) does keep the principal traits of multiculturalism as we have known it (which is Canada will let you live your life in peace, and with time you will integrate into society at your rhythm and in your own way, but you may also receive a gentle nudge from time-to-time to encourage you to continue in that process – this is an oversimplistic definition, but it’s tough to otherwise sum it up in one sentence).

However, J.Trudeau seems to be opening the way to “pre-established” integration conditions, aligned with the norms of the environment in which a person lives in Canada.  He is giving immigrants obligations towards these norms and towards groups of people around them which already form the core of society, and towards those with whom newcomers have to live.  It is these last two phrases which conform more to concepts and ideologies of Québec’s interculturalism (those at least which are more apt to be practiced in Québec).   Let me be clear that I am not at all saying that this redefinition is anywhere near elements contained in the deposed proposal for a Québec Charter of Values (which was debated during the winter of 2013/2014).  Even on this point, Québec was not ready or comfortable, as a society, to adopt such a charter in the name of interculturalism (we all saw how the proposal imploded on itself during public debates on the issue).   Justin Trudeau seems to be taking another path, but one which still could hold potential to bridge the publicly perceived distances between multiculturalism and interculturalism.

Of course there are nuances within the definition J.T. offers, and I am generalizing in my own analysis (it would actually take a book to explore this subject in the detail it deserves).  But there is nothing to say that a policy adjustment on the issue cannot be implemented by any one government without having to re-open the constitution (think of how many times we have been told, by all parties, that matters of vital importance to the country can be implemented without having to reopen the constitution).

We live in a society which is evolving – and the laws and definitions which guide our society also change with time to reflect the needs and changes of society’s people.  In legal terms, this is a concept called “the living tree”.  This is the concept which explains why the Supreme Court can determine a law forbidding the decision to take one’s own life with the assistance of a doctor, prostitution or gay marriage is legal in year X, but then several years later the same Supreme Court can strike down the same laws and proclaim them invalid.  The evolution of events which determines what is and what is not susceptible to change stems from society’s changing attitudes towards matters at hand.   We would be crazy to think that the definition of multiculturalism could never change as society changes (imagine if we still had laws on the book, dating from the 1920s or 1930s, which stipulated how citizens should behave and interact with respect to each other!).  I’m left wondering if Justin Trudeau is taking a stance and saying that the definition of multiculturalism, as it came to be in the 1970s and 1980s, should now also evolve in the context of a country which is very different than what it was during that era.

After all is said and done, I’m not so sure I’m totally out in left field with this one.   Re-read his definition a few times.  Do you think he’s approaching multiculturalism from a somewhat different view?

It remains to be seen if the media or academics will have their word to say on this subject (I’m sure they will if the Liberals come to power and they adopt this definition as their official policy).

Up until now, I’m not sure many have noticed this redefinition (the matters are complicated and very ideological – and journalists tend to shy away from matters which cannot be reported in two short paragraphs).

Regardless of my own views, any possible marriage (or “rapprochement”) between multi- versus inter-culturalism eventually is bound to generate a good deal of discussion.





  1. Andrew says:

    Part of the problem with definitions of multiculturalism or interculturalism is that these words are somewhat plastic. Yes, there is a nuance, as interculturalism, in the way Gérard Bouchard uses it, has a more explicit reference to the “host society” of Quebec than Canadian multiculturalism. But that is largely that it is assumed, correctly, that in english Canada one integrates into the English speaking environment, whereas historically it was not true about integrating into the French speaking environment in Quebec.

    But more substantively, Canadian multiculturalism was always about integration and participation, dating from the Bi&Bi report. Recognition of diversity was a means to facilitate integration. It was matched with a commitment to equality of opportunity and removal of barriers to full participation.

    And while the relative emphasis between integration and accommodation may change under different governments and times, or may be expressed differently, the fundamental objectives of recognition to facilitate integration and equality of opportunity to aide participation have not change.

    The Conservative reboot under Minister Kenney was precisely that nuanced shift towards greater emphasis on integration, including explicitly broadening that to include relations between and among ethnic communities, not just between visible minorities and the “mainstream”.

    Trudeau’s comments are thus within this context (and respect for Canadian laws was never an option under multiculturalism, nor was respect for others).

    Merci d’avoir écrit et publié dans les deux langues. Ça facilte le partage.


    • Hi Andrew… I appreciate your comments. I personally have never been one to say that the system is broken – and I’ve always found it disconcerting that there are a number of high-level public figures in the media who publicly – and vocally – advocate that the gulf between Canadian multiculturalism (as it operates in English Canada) and Québec interculturalism (as it has been defined through B-T & others) is so great that this gulf, in itself, warrants a pivotal argument for sovereignty. In my post, I tried to make a specific point of emphasizing that the gulf between the two ideologies are not as large as many would believe — and I certainly agree with you that there is “plasticity” in definitions at hand (good word, by the way). In this sense, ideologies can be bridged (at least to an extent that “issues” can become “non-issues”, relatively speaking). This is a fascinating topic, and it’s good to see that there is public discussion – because there is a general lack of understanding out there of principles, concepts, intent, practices, and mechanisms. I would say it’s the lack of public understanding of what “multiculturalism” and “interculturalism” truly mean, in real terms, which gives rise to problems (rather than with multiculturalism itself). Anyway, thank-you for commenting – you provide valuable insight.


      • Andrew says:

        Well, your post was interesting and reflective, and more should read it.

        I have had a chance to discuss with Bouchard the similarities and differences between the two and he agrees it is more a matter of nuance (an important one, but nevertheless nuance).

        Will post on my blog tomorrow which hopefully will encourage more engagement.


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