‘If not multiculturalism, then what?’


Regina lawyer and Ontario professor debate multiculturalism in Canada

Taouba Khelifa

As part of the Open Minds debate series hosted by the University of Regina’s faculty of arts, local Regina lawyer Khurrum Awan and Western Ontario professor Salim Mansur engaged the audience in a hot discussion on whether multiculturalism was a workable idea in Canadian society.

While Canadians proudly boast about Canada’s culturally rich mosaic, the debate questioned the legitimacy of Canada’s multicultural façade, and whether it was the best option in building democratic society. With a population of more than 34 million people and a steadily rising immigration rate, Canada has become home to individuals of various ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds.

But Mansur argues that the increase in immigration and a growing cultural mosaic has brought
on an increase in “multicultural philosophy” in Canadian society – a philosophy he argues to be meaningless and without any substance. Mansur sees multiculturalism as a lie – a “delectable lie” with little meaning.

“It is like cotton candy; it is sweet, it is nice, it is fluffy, but if you touch it there is nothing to it, your finger goes right through,” he said. “Multiculturalism has no substance … it is merely a statement that was floated that all cultures are equal and demand equal respect,” he said.    

Multiculturalism, for Mansur, perpetuates a cycle through which Canadian society is forced to accept and tolerate any and all cultures and cultural practices – whether they align with Canadian standards and norms or not. Instead of focusing on building a “civil Canadian society and culture” which encourages individual rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Mansur said that multiculturalism is focusing the Canadian society’s efforts on the collective right of treating all cultures as equally legitimate, and thus accepting the extra cultural baggage each individual and his or her culture bring along.

“When you respect an individual, you respect them irrespective of what that person’s ethnicity is, or gender is, or language is, or religion is,” he said. But then multiculturalism comes around … and [says] that our value system is no different than that of the Chinese Communists, or cultures that don’t treat men and women equally, where freedom does not exist and individual rights are not respected. What are we doing? We are basically washing away our own culture. We are abandoning our own value system.”

For Mansur, multiculturalism represents a threat to Canadian society. More than just a fear of losing the “Canadian cultural norms and morals,” multiculturalism represents a threat to freedom.

“If the multiculturalists keep pushing away at our western civilization as they are doing,” he says, “then it will be the slow subversion of freedom.”

This threat is legitimate, said Mansur. In his book, Delectable Lie, he states that over human history, the focus has been to right the wrongs of the world, and bring about an equal society. Humanity has been so focused on doing just that, that freedom has often been suppressed and forgotten.

“The set of ideas that all cultures are equal and deserving of equal treatment … is lined to the pressing demand for equality in western societies,” he said. “The idea of equality [is so] hugely potent, [that] it frequently trumps the idea of freedom in the march of history.”

While Mansur’s arguments and fears may be legitimate and can be backed with various facts and historical examples, Awan disagrees with this take on multiculturalism.

For harmonious co-existence, Awan believes that multiculturalism must thrive and be the example of how people from “various cultures, sub-cultures, ethnicities, religions, race, tribes, or clans” can all live together under one roof.

While there is no legal definition of multiculturalism, Awan points that it is extremely important to understand what multiculturalism does not mean. Critics of multiculturalism will often present multiculturalism as the legitimizing tool for violent and discriminatory cultural practices to be accepted and recognized in Canada. This is not the case, said Awan.

“From a practical perspective, multiculturalism means that Canadians are not hindered from integrating into the Canadian mainstream by virtue of their race, religion, or ethnicity,” he said. “It does not mean that … violent and discriminatory aspects of various cultures are equal and [that] violent and discriminatory aspects of cultures are accorded legal protection and social acceptance.”

The real threat is not multiculturalism, Awan argues, but the lack thereof.

Generally speaking, he said, societies which are controlled by majoritarian rule, and where a “majoritarian culture or belief system has been imposed,” lead to conflict and suffering, especially to the cultural and ethnic minorities in that society. There are many examples of this in human history: in Rwanda, where ethnic tension between the Tutsi and the Hutu led to the genocide of an estimated 800, 000 people; in the religious divide in India between the Hindu and Muslim faiths; and most notably here in Canada where European colonization and majoritarian rule led to the near extermination of Canada’s indigenous Aboriginal Peoples.

“Societies where multicultural norms prevail, particularly the notion that no individual will be restricted from social advancement and attainment by virtue of his or her race, religion, or ethnicity, are just, stable and prosperous,” he said. “Attempting to create a society in which a majoritarian belief or value system will be imposed on all minorities and peoples risks the creation of a society in which disharmony and social discord prevail, potentially endangering the great experiment which is Canada.”

With regards to Mansur’s argument that multiculturalism is an acceptance of violent cultural practices, and disrespect to individual rights and freedoms, Awan stated that the opposite is actually true.

“To my knowledge, there is not a single case where Canadian courts have accorded legal protection to violent, discriminatory, or otherwise unjustifiable practices, on the grounds that they are protected aspects of freedom of religion or equality rights,” he said.

Living in a multicultural society allows for a variety of rights and freedoms to be protected. Constitutional rights to freedom of expression, religion, and association, as well as equality rights “based inter alia on race… ethnicity, and gender” are all protected – both for an individual and also for the overall collective group. Awan gives the example that freedom of religion is not only individually respected in Canada, but that religious groups also have the right to practice religion publicly and have the ability to build churches and gather in congregational prayers.

“These legal rights and the broader social recognition of the principles they embody, means that we have, as much as possible a society which, although by no means perfect, strives to be fair and just.”

At the end of the day, however, Awan leaft Mansur with a question: “If not multiculturalism, then what?”

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