The Debate Over Multiculturalism: Nathalie Des Rosiers

Aug 12, 2012 | Uncategorized

Let’s not abandon Multiculturalism

Nathalie Des Rosiers,
General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association

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Multiculturalism is the celebration of different cultures as part of a national identity.  In my view, multiculturalism is fundamentally democratic in nature and is a morally sound aspiration, grounded in liberty, equality and the dignity of human beings.  It does not lead to coward “relativism” or moral ambiguity, but rather to a rich and innovative society that constantly evolves and engages in self-reflection. No less should be asked of a truly democratic society.

I disagree with Prof. Mansur’s claims that multiculturalism should be discarded because it is incompatible with a liberal political theory which, according to him, should only protect individuals and not groups. Prof. Mansur also suggests that multiculturalism falsely asserts that all cultures are equal and that because of the War on Terror, it is particularly urgent that Canadian multicultural should be dismantled because it unwittingly fosters support for cultural groups bent on undermining liberal democracy.

I argue first that multiculturalism is morally and constitutionally sound. It is deeply engaged with the principle of the equality of all before the law, and the pursuit of a society free from discrimination.   Group rights, and the consideration of the community context in which individuals live, are advances of modern constitutional theories that ought not to be disregarded.  In the second part, I deal with the issue of ghettoization, that is, the argument that multiculturalism prevents full integration in Canadian society, imprison individuals in oppressive cultural groups or prevent the articulation of the common good.  Finally, I also argue that Canadian multiculturalism is still a better vehicle for equality than the alternative of “monoculturalism” that risks a return to the racist and anti-Semitic cultural superiority policies of the past.


Multiculturalism and Equality before the Law

The aspiration for equality is one that is at the core of democratic beliefs: everyone has a vote, every vote is equal and every one should have the same chances at succeeding. There cannot be any exclusion based on race, ethnic origins, or gender. This commitment to equality is deep and includes a recognition that substantive equality is the goal and that discrimination includes distinctions that have the effect of imposing burdens on individuals or groups, but also distinctions that withhold or limit access to opportunities, benefits, and advantages generally available[1].

Multiculturalism recognizes that people live within cultures and that “community” does exist, contrary to the famous quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher.   A multicultural policy attempts to offer to newcomers or people of minority cultures the ability to feel pride and connections to their heritage, the same way that Protestants, Scottish , Irish, French Canadians[2] have had the benefit of feeling because of their long establishment in Canada, and their dominant role in framing Canadian policies. In a way, multiculturalism protects the right to be different from the mainstream culture and to be connected to something else.

The often quoted saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” evokes the shared responsibility of a community to bring up healthy confident children. Feelings of belonging to one’s family, one’s community, one’s heritage, are a source of wellbeing.  Multicultural policies recognize   that the ability to maintain pride in who one is, in one’s heritage, in one’s religious group, is a desired objective.  It should not be reserved to the members of the dominant cultural groups who have access to multiple cultural products to sustain their sense of identity.


Multicultural policies offer support for the expression of difference in a way that supports the search for equality for all.   Such policies are also rooted in strong beliefs about liberty because they protect people from the obligation to surrender one’s beliefs to a majoritarian culture.  It protects the liberty to be and the liberty to act, in accordance with one’s cultural beliefs, within the limits of the law.

Professor Mansur objects to the recognition of “group rights”, as incompatible with liberal political theory.  Much has been written about the necessity to recognize group or collective rights to ensure true equality.  In Canada, there was always a recognition of some form of collective rights, as there is now at international law.  In 1867, protection for rights of minority religions was conferred. In 1982, education rights were given to linguistic minorities across Canada and Aboriginal communities finally obtained a constitutional recognition of their Ancestral and treaty rights as collective rights.  At international law, one can point to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous.

There is a tension between individual rights and collective rights that I explore in the next section, but suffice it to say that the denial of the existence or validity of group or collective rights is antiquated and does not recognize much of the scholarship that has been developed on the necessity of recognizing some collective rights in order to foster equality.  Group rights recognize that it is not possible, for example, to live as a francophone outside Québec without access to schools where French is taught.  It is not possible to live as an Aboriginal without access to land where cultural practices may take place.

In Canada, the protection of the multicultural heritage of Canadians has not taken the form of a “group right”.  Section 27 of the Charter of rights and freedoms is an interpretative tool and does not confer any direct entitlement.  It does state that : “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” It has been used as it states as an interpretative tool mostly in the context of freedom of religion, but has not been interpreted as conferring directly any rights.

Multiculturalism has primarily meant access to some governmental funding for cultural events, schools and languages, all linked to the objective of ensuring respect and pride in one’s heritage. As of now, there is no constitutional guarantee to this funding, and it has been at the mercy of different governmental priorities.  In a way, multiculturalism in Canada was always a benign form of recognition of cultural pluralism. Some may say that its secondary status in legal terms may explain its inability to eradicate completely ethnic and racial prejudice within Canadian society.  Nevertheless, in my view, as I argue in the last part of this paper, its eradication from our political landscape at this stage would be a serious mistake.


Multiculturalism and Coercion

Criticisms of multiculturalism suggest that there is a danger in supporting all cultures. Professor Mansur’s objection is that not all cultures are equal, and that some are oppressive, dysfunctional, rooted in archaic beliefs or intolerance.  This is certainly possible.  The question is what are the tools to prevent intolerance and oppression of members.  Professor Mansur’s view is that the dismantling of multiculturalism may be a way to prevent the spread of “bad” cultures.  I disagree that this is the appropriate mechanism. Indeed my view is that a liberal society believes that the marketplace of ideas is where debates about values should take place and that fostering competition between cultures is the best recipe for the “best” culture values to prevail.  This is not a naïve belief. This is what liberal societies cherish because the alternative is worse: if the government is to decide and determine which culture is “bad”, oppressive, intolerant, dysfunctional or rooted in archaic beliefs, there is a great likelihood of exploitation, discrimination and the exercise of the “tyranny of the majority” of De Tocqueville.

Nevertheless, there are real risks that some vulnerable people within a group could be exploited, that unequal treatment of women or children grounded in cultural or religious beliefs may prevent members of the group to fully realize their potential.  The village that is raising the child may be undercutting his or her abilities to integrate into Canadian society.  What is the solution?  The dangers of oppression exist in all families and cultures. In general, the opportunities to leave are what is offered in a free and democratic society : to leave or move away, intellectually, culturally, physically from a cultural environment that one finds oppressive , or that no longer meets one’s desires or demands.  Diaspora cultures also change meshing both the new country and the old.

Exposed to both tradition and new thinking, people make up their own mind : many adults reject or nuanced many of the precepts that were inculcated to them by their parents. Others do not.  A liberal society prides itself in the ability to offer choices, the choice to stay or to go, the choice to comply with religious beliefs or to abandon them, to maintain cultural practices, to change them, to adapt them or to transform them.  It also fosters the possibility of discussion or debate.

The only responsibility that a liberal society must undertake is to protect children and people who can be victimised. Canadian society does that: violence against women and against children is a criminal offense. This is the limit. The criminal approach may not resolve all issues and is a blunt tool, and must be reassessed at times, but it serves as framework within which differences can be accepted or cherished.

In the name of prevention of radicalisation, many would want to intervene earlier to lead children and adolescents away from their families and cultures. We should remember that pour history is rife with attempts to assimilate the children from non dominant cultural groups to “help them”. The residential schools policies for Aboriginal children is the primary example.  These were mistakes and indeed our commitment to multiculturalism must be appreciated in light of this history, when governments did try to impose a culture.

A pluralistic society accepts that there will be strong debates within groups, about the best way to integrate or to preserve a cultural heritage, about many issues including gender inequalities, interfaith marriages, etc.  These discussions should be encouraged.

Multiculturalism is not the antithesis to a liberal society. Indeed, it both reinforces equality and liberty aspirations.  The dangers of coercion through the group can only be confronted by a continued commitment to reaching out to protecting against violence and ensuring that there is space within Canadian society for continued discussions

Let me conclude by a passionate cry not to abandon multiculturalism, a “Cri de Coeur” not to return to the project that animated Canada for several decades, one that was rooted in a desire to preserve a certain Canadian identity, mostly as white, anglo-saxon and protestant.  This vision, more or less articulated in public policies, led to the creation of the residential schools and a racist attitude toward anything native; it led to immigration policies that sought to exclude or discourage non-whites from coming to Canada, from the Chinese Head Tax to the refusal to open the doors to immigrants from South East Asia. We should not be complacent about this history. Multiculturalism came as a result of a recognition that governments can and often do engage into policies that may appear popular, but come from discriminatory attitudes.  To disengage from multiculturalism today would invite a return to a “monoculturalism” or “biculturalism”, or to a disengagement from pluralism in favour of the imposition of a predetermined cultural vision. It may lead to discrimination and this is what is incompatible with democratic principles.

[1] Law Society of British Columbia v. Andrews, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 143.

[2] I left on purpose the Aboriginal People from this list because they were particularly subject of assimilation policies.

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