Multiculturalism: There Is No Alternative

02. October, 2007

Foto: Daniel Marc Weinstock

One has to be careful about laws that are not dictated by a sober assessment of the facts on the ground, but by fear.

An interview with Daniel Marc Weinstock, director of the Ethics Research Center in the University of Montreal, by Rita Rudusa

In the modern globalized world, is there an alternative to multiculturalism; could anything else work?

Firstly, I think most of the countries that have tried the alternatives have done so by denying the multiculturalism, which is present in their societies. An example is France, which is the paradigm of a non-multicultural society. I think that there is a lot of denial of the internal diversity in France, both the diversity that comes from immigration and the internal diversity that was already there. In the regions, there are still some very strong quasi-national identities amongst the Corsicans, the Bretons. Secondly, if you look at the period of the European nation building in the 19th century, Germany, France, Italy, they used the methods, which would be completely unacceptable from the point of view of the liberal-democratic norms. France built its national identity by banning the use of any other language in schools except for metropolitan French; it used very illiberal means. And I think, in the modern world, for the societies that aspire to be liberal-democratic such methods would not be acceptable. And it would not work anyway, because even a country like France is starting to feel the pressure coming from the minorities that have been held down for so long. I think at some point multiculturalism becomes an absolute necessity for just about any society I can think of, some form of multicultural accommodation is essential. But it can take different forms and the interesting question of the day is not whether to have multiculturalism or not but what kind of multiculturalism is appropriate in your society.

Does the denial of multiculturalism backfire?

I think it does. It has in France, for example. The events in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 showed that the model of the republican integration is not working for large, mostly North-African minorities that live there. The republican model means that everybody is a citizen, a bare citizen with no cultural identity. This model is attractive at a very theoretical level. If it can be achieved, if you can have a conception of citizenship that is culturally neutral and acceptable for all people then, in principle, there is no reason why it could not work. But if you look at a country like France, and I can do it as I am a French citizen and know the country, you realize that the conception of citizenship is so heavily culturally determined that there is a real rift between the self-understanding of, say, French intellectuals and the reality. But for the people who are being integrated under this model it is the reality that counts, not the theoretical model.

What factors should be taken into account when choosing the model of multiculturalism suitable for a particular society?

Different models should be responsive to the different contexts in which they are applied. There is no universal model. Sometimes people ask me, what can we import from the Canadian society? I think we have to be very careful in this respect, because it does not really work that way. One of the factors to be taken into account is multi-nationalism, in other words, if the multiculturalism in a society is based upon different groups having a conception of themselves as not culturally different but as separate nations within the same state. When you have this sort of situation I think that federalist arrangements are more appropriate.

Could you give any examples of a federalist solution?

Well, Canada is a good example, and an interesting one. As you know, Canada has two founding peoples, or actually more because aboriginal populations are finally being considered as partners in the federation. I think it would be crazy for Canada to try and erase the constitutive multinationalism of the country. So, Canada is one example, Belgium is another. The UK is now discovering its multinationality and is moving quite rapidly, in the way that surprised many people, towards recognition of autonomy for Scotland and Whales. These are good examples. The distinctive feature of these kinds of federalisms is that the national populations are territorially concentrated. For example, in Belgium, one part of the country is Flemish, another is French. The really tricky situations are in places where the populations are roughly equal in number and equally spread out more or less across the country. These are tricky models, because you cannot just transfer the powers to regions, you have to think about more complicated forms of federalism. If you have two or more large national groups that both aspire to a some degree of self-determination, be it linguistic determination or autonomy, it is very hard to push it down. It will end up coming up again in a more exacerbated way, so you have to find some way of federalizing and giving the groups some degree of autonomy within a national state. It is a big challenge and there is no one model that works for every society, because every society has its own particularities and history.

Multiculturalism as a policy was first defined in Canada in the nineteen seventies. What did this term mean then and what does it mean today?

Up until the nineteen fifties, there was a very asymmetric domination of the English-speaking group with respect of all the other groups, the French Canadians in particular. In the fifties nationalist stirrings started in Quebec and across the French Canada and this led to the first real recognition of the bicultural and binational nature of Canada, the importance of both languages and the importance of accommodating the both languages in the federal civil service. Immigrant groups started fearing that they will get “squeezed out”, as it were, by this new recognition of the French. Historically, it is interesting to see where it came from. The western provinces of Canada, which are very scarcely populated, have a lot of immigrants that come from Ukraine. They felt, they had a cultural distinctiveness as well and it had to be recognized. Initially, multiculturalism was a kind of concession to these groups that feared that concentration on the English-French division would take over everything; will end up monopolizing all discourse and public policy. Of course, once you start something you do not always control the direction it takes. Over the years, multiculturalism has become much more central to the Canadian identity than the people who initiated it in the nineteen seventies thought it would be. This is because of the immigration; the composition of Canadian society is less and less coming from the two original groups. By 2017, they say, Toronto will have more people who are born outside Canada than those born in Canada. Multiculturalism becomes more central as more and more people identify with this new multicultural reality.

I think that multiculturalism has worked well in Canada for one very reason, which is that until very recently the political claims of immigrants have been very self-limiting, in other words, what they want is to have some resources, to have community centers, to be able to have a focus for a community life. I think, the last ten or fifteen years have seen the emergence of mostly religiously-motivated political claims, for example, in the area of family law. The groups claim the laws have to be inflected to allow groups to live according to their precepts in areas, which traditionally have not been addressed by multiculturalist claims. I think the model is in a bit of crisis right now, because we do not know what to do when the claims of religious and other minorities do not quite maintain themselves within the bound of private life. This is a challenge the Canadian multiculturalism is facing now.

At what point and in what form did the indigenous peoples of Canada come into the equation?

Canada has not found a way of dealing with the indigenous populations well. In 1967, the liberal government, which initiated many progressive changes in the Canadian society, in the spirit of progressive accommodation said to the aboriginal population, you could be Canadian citizens just like everybody else. There was a policy paper that defined the terms of integration. The idea was we have to integrate the aboriginal populations into the core of the Canadian society and institutions. This was completely rejected. The aboriginal populations said, what we want is not integration into your institutions, we want self-determination and we want the treaties written in the 18th and 19th century to be respected, and we want autonomy over our traditional lands etc. Nothing really happened, I would say, till 1982 when the new Canadian Constitution was being negotiated. The previous Constitution was British and in the late seventies the government decided the time has come to have our own. This was the time when the aboriginal peoples managed, through some very skillful political maneuvering, to get the seat at the table in the negotiations. There has been a slow but steady process through which the land claims in particular have been settled across the country.

But there is a great desire among the aboriginal populations to achieve higher level of political self-determination. The problem is that the aboriginal population is very small, only about 1.5 million in a society of 30 million, and they have great internal tensions. There are people who want to go back to the traditional ways of life and there are parts of the population, usually the younger generations, who want to find a way of negotiating and aboriginal identity, which is modern. So, you have small groups, internally divided, without resources and institutional base to achieve self-determination, you have the government, which is weary of stepping in too much… But the good thing is that everybody is much more aware in the way they were not 50 years ago that the aboriginal populations have been dealt with unjustly since the beginning of the colonies. But nobody knows what the solution might be, mostly because of the internal divisions I mentioned.

Is this related to self-perception of the aboriginal peoples, to the way they see themselves in the modern world?

Absolutely. Contacts with the settler societies have been a disaster for them. The settlers did horrible things to them; for example, children were taken away from aboriginal families forcibly in order to be made “white”, turned into mainstream Canadians. There is a history of terrible violence, not necessarily physical, but cultural and psychological. So, a lot of people are saying, we tried that, it did not work; we have to go back to our traditional ways. But because a lot of these communities live very close to urban centers, it is very hard to convince the young that they should not attempt to find some way of negotiating their identity. The other factor is the language. Depending on how you count, there are certainly 40 aboriginal ethnic groups with a relatively stable population base and the same number of languages. So, what do you do if you have a language spoken by two or three thousand people? Do you teach it to the young? Or do you acknowledge that the language is dead and you have to find a way of maintaining your cultural identity without it? There are truly tragic and difficult choices that have to be made, but they have not been made yet. There is nothing like one aboriginal voice, which has decided on what form their self-determination will take. I think, it will take a long time. And I think it is extremely important that the aboriginal populations work it out themselves; there should not be a situation where the paternalistic settler state says, OK, this is what is good for you.

You said there cannot be a universal multicultural model that fits all, but perhaps there are some aspects of the Canadian experience that can be useful for Latvia or other European countries?

I think, probably not that many. There are some very specific aspects to it. Our immigration is very limited, 250 000 people come each year, and they are chosen according to a very complicated points system. Each immigrant application is scored according to a system, which gives a lot weight to, as you can imagine, the economic resources of the applicant, to their expertise, whether they have a professional expertise that is currently needed in Canada. So, we have a very advantageous immigration policy, it may not be a just policy, because we have closed the refugee door, but it is certainly advantageous for the society form the point of view of integration. Once you out aside the aboriginal question, the relationship between Canada and its immigrants is completely divorced of any residue of colonial relationship. Whereas in countries like the UK, France, the Netherlands, colonialism is still a living memory.

With respect to Latvia, two things strike me. First of all, in terms of the proportion of the population Riga sounds and looks to me a lot like Montreal, in the sense that there are two languages that you her constantly, but the communities seem quite intermingled, there is no Latvian neighborhood and Russian neighborhood. They are quite equal in terms of number. An interesting thing is that you have one group, which feels much more threatened, linguistically and culturally, than the other. In Quebec, the francophone population is six million people, which in the context of the North America is tiny, so there is a perception that the other, the English are a threat. So there has been a tendency to adopt policies, which are a reflection of the fear of disappearance, cultural extinction. I think it is a very tricky situation to negotiate well. The francophone community has taken over control of the main political and economic institutions, but despite this they still have a minority mentality.

I think there are similar challenges facing Latvia as have been facing Quebec. Quebec went through this process 30 years before Latvia and I think maybe Latvia can look at our experience, our mistakes and try to avoid them. For example, and I do not know if there is an analogy in Latvia, one of the very ironic things that happened in Quebec is the following: in the seventies very Franco-centric education laws were introduced, so the immigrants and French-speakers had to go to French schools, the only people allowed to go to English schools were Canadians who were educated in English. For the first 10 or 15 years of the law there were many court challenges that came from immigrants and from English coming from other countries, who thought it was unjust. Then, all of a sudden, the challenges stopped. People started wandering, what happened. The answer was simple, if you were an immigrant coming to Quebec, you were going to learn English anyway, because it is North America, then you had your native language and you learned French in school. These people usually came out of the school system trilingual. The French, on the other hand, the people for whom the law was made, came out of the school system monolingual, because English is not very well thought. Now the court challenges are coming from the French, because parents think, what have we done to our children, we have put them at a competitive disadvantage relative to other people. In 1976, when the laws were introduced, could see it coming.

So, there are two things I would say. First, one has to be careful about laws that are not dictated by a sober assessment of the facts on the ground, but by fear. Fear is never a good motivation for legislation. Also, you should look forward and think how the laws might change the facts on the ground over time. raksts

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