This is part two of a look at the supposed differences between the United States and Canada when it comes to the integration of immigrants into our respective societies. Canada has long clung to the designation of a “Cultural Mosaic” while making disparaging comments about the United States being a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment on the part of Canadians, or do they need to watch out for their glasshouses if they’re going to throw stones at the Americans. Part Two continues from where Part One left off.
In the year of her centennial, 1967, Canada hosted it’s first major international event, The World’s Fair. “Man And His World,” was both its title and lofty theme. The event was held in Montreal – at the time Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. With pavilions from countries all over the world, it was the epitome of a multicultural celebration, and Canada appeared to be the leading light in a brave new multicultural world.
However, Canada is first and foremost a bi-cultural nation — French and English — and in 1967, Quebec nationalism was beginning to crest. “The Quiet Revolution” of French-speaking intellectuals and nationalists of the early sixties had divided into two camps. There were those who followed the thinking of Pierre Trudeau, that Quebec was part of Canada and her problems could be solved at the federal level of politics; and there were those who believed as Rene Leveque did, that only a Quebec separate from the rest of Canada could guarantee the rights of French Canadians.
Bombs set off by the Front de Liberation Quebec (FLQ) had blown up the occasional mailbox in the streets of Quebec since the early 1960s, but had never really been considered a threat to the community. That all changed in the fall of 1970 when they kidnapped Quebec’s Minister of Justice, Pierre Laporte, and the British High Commissioner to Quebed, James Cross. When Laporte’s corpse was found in the trunk of a car, conciliatory talk went out the window and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.
A little known clause in the old Canadian Constitution allowed the Prime Minister to suspend the civil liberties of all Canadians in times of dire emergencies and bring the army out into the streets to enforce order. While the authority wasn’t abused on the federal level, thousands of people were rounded up in Montreal by the police and held without charges. That some of them were the incumbent mayor’s, Jean Drapeau, political opponents in upcoming municipal elections only increased people’s anger.
It becomes difficult to lay claim to being a multicultural society when the two largest cultural groups are unable to reconcile their differences. It becomes even more difficult when sudden influxes of visible minorities exposes latent racism lurking just below our civilized, multicultural surface.
In the early to mid 1970s, events in the wider world caused an influxe of visible minorities to enter Canada refugee claimants. In 1973, Idi Amin Dada, supreme ruler of Uganda, took it into his head to expel the entire South East Asian community in his country. Thousands of people were left suddenly bereft of homes and cast adrift into the world.
While the Canadian government opened the country’s borders to them, her citizens were another story altogether. It got to the point that it wouldn’t matter if you had been one of those misfortunate enough to be a refugee or not; as long you were a certain colour you were considered open season by the red necks and other scum.
People were accosted and beaten in Toronto, Ontario’s subway cars in full view of fellow passengers – who either were too stunned to help or didn’t care enough. The “Paki” joke entered the lexicon of the racist and to this day some (half) wit will crack up the room with one of those disgusting examples of ignorance – excusing themselves with the disclaimer “that it’s only a bit of fun.”
Bigots are bigots, and there is nothing to be done about them but fighting back by making certain it is obvious that their behaviour is unacceptable. In the city of Toronto and its suburbs, where the majority of the attacks took place, credit has to be given to local politicians for taking practical steps to curtail the attacks. They followed that up by implementing zero tolerance policies to racist activities in the school boards under their control, ensuring that it wasn’t going to be on the unofficial curriculum of any school.
Even more heartening were the reactions from other minority communities and faith groups throughout the city who spoke out against the attacks and the attitude behind them. As it became clear that people were serious about zero tolerance — including not being afraid to press alarm strips installed in subway cars to alert the police an attack was happening, and doing what they could to stop attacks while they were occurring — the physical violence stopped.
Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about what people think and feel, and the ingrained fears of the different and unknown that are the root cause of racism are still as prevalent today as they were thirty years ago. On the face of it, Canada appears to be a shining example of multicultural tolerance, but there are too many worrying trends that give lie to that appearance.
If we were truly so multicultural, why are conservative politicians able to score political points by playing on people’s fears of the immigrant? Not only are all the old lies still being trotted out (“They steal our jobs,” “They leech off our social systems”), but new ones have been invented. Let there be one incident of strife within a minority community and you can count on a politician to start bleating about “bringing their wars to our streets” and innocent bystanders (read: blonde, blue-eyed children) being caught in the crossfire. They don’t bother to mention that 99% of people who come to Canada have done so because those wars have made them refugees, and they want their children to grow up in a place where they aren’t potential innocent bystanders.
If it weren’t so appalling, it would be amazing to hear how so called pundits are able to equate multiculturalism with nationalism. They play on people’s fears by asking them if they want their neighbourhood to turn into another Rwanda or Bosnia, as if hundreds of years of history and the political and social climate of those two countries had nothing to do with the events that happened there. They take one grain of truth — ethnic violence happened in those places — and distort it to mean that anytime two or more ethnic groups are gathered in one place you are guaranteed a firestorm.
Therefore, immigration equals multiculturalism; multiculturalism equals nationalism; and the result is fire in the streets and dark-skinned barbarians raping lily-white girls. The sad part is that though their words are lies. They succeed in fermenting an atmosphere of intolerance that leads to the death of a pluralistic society. Even sadder is the ease with which they are able to achieve this result.
It means that despite claims to the contrary, Canada is no more tolerant of immigrants and cultural differences than anybody else, including our neighbour to the south. Canada has hidden its intolerance behind a facade of happy ethnic groups performing happy ethnic dances one afternoon a year in the community hall. We’ve lied to ourselves, or let ourselves be lied to, and called that multiculturalism.
When Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Quebec separatist political party, the Parti Quebecois, blurted out that immigrants voting “No” in the last referendum on separation lost French Canada the chance to separate from Canada, he was pillared in the press. Nevertheless, his attitude was an accurate reflection of what appears to be two, very common, sentiments in Canada – immigrants are to blame and have no business in the business of “our” country.
In the United States, the current administration relied on generating fear of the unknown and the different in order to get the backing of the population for implementing their various policies – domestic and foreign. Anti-American Canadians have taken great joy in ridiculing these attitudes and the intolerance they have fostered. That’s what happens, they say, when you try to assimilate everyone – intolerance and fear of the unknown dictate your behaviour.
It’s time for Canadians to get off their high horses and wipe that smirk off their faces. For all our claims of tolerance and preaching multiculturalism, we are no different. The same fears and intolerance exist in Canada as they do in the United States. We can blame it on the recent administration in Canada if we want, but that’s as much a lie as any of the other we tell ourselves. If it didn’t already exist, the current crop of politicians wouldn’t have been able to exploit it so successfully.
We were able to pretend otherwise for a while, but when it has come to the test, our multiculturalism has proven no more effective in creating a pluralistic society than the melting pot of the United States. We are both countries that were built on the backs of immigrants, but the race of the original colonial masters still rule and seems intent on never letting go.
In spite of the differences in name that each country adapted toward its immigration policies, there has been no real difference in result. The prevailing attitude towards immigrants or anybody different from “us” is that of fear and intolerance. Welcome to Fortress North America.