I am very, very ethnic.

For those of you who weren’t following Canadian politics this week (I’m assuming that’s 98% of the Duck audience) the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC or “Tories”) took a lot of flack this week for calling up supporters and asking them to wear “ethnic” costumes. This is, of course, to make the Tories look more diverse and possibly have another colour of hair in their audience than white. The flack, in my opinion, is well deserved – minorities are not well staged photo-ops. They are, however, a group that all political parties have tried to reach out to.

Liberals have traditionally had much success in the Greater Toronto Area, and other major urban zones by promoting immigration (or at least seeming to) such as policies which reuniting families when one member has come over. But, at the same time this has caused a certain amount of concern and resentment among Canadians (I’m referring especially to Anglo-Canadians, Franco-Quebeckers in a moment) who see “ethnic” communities being established that do not integrate, want to change Canada or, at worst, support illiberal policies and groups.


In particular, there is a certain Tory electoral base who resent multiculturalism and feel that immigrants should become “Canadian” (whatever that might be.) In Quebec, this is even more so – and the government has put a lot of resources into not only trying to attract highly-skilled immigrants, but then also offer them French lessons, courses on liberal values, etc. The dark sides of this, at least in my opinion, were the farce that was the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (on the accommodation of minorities) in 2007-8 and the bill to ban the niqab. (One can tolerate a niqab without approving of it. It’s not that hard!)

I would not consider myself an expert on multiculturalism – although I have blogged about it before. The UK (where I live) is in the throes of a debate over the concept, with the Prime Minister coming out strongly against it – but not actually articulating an alternative policy, other than an undefined “muscular liberalism”. (Hey look – someone made a blog about it! Although it seems to be a pretty white crowd? ) The concept seems to be unpopular in the UK because many seem to see multiculturalism as the reason why the UK has Islamic extremism, ghettos, violence, etc. Multiculturalism is that which has, in British eyes, allowed communities to insulate themselves as opposed to integrate themselves.

As such, British governments under Blair, Brown and now Cameron seem to want to assert “British values” but they have never been able to agree as to what those are – at least since I’ve been in the country, and that’s going on ten years.

My concern is that I think many misunderstand the potential of the concept and I think the UK denigrates the concept at its own risk. For me, multiculturalism is not about “living and let living” without question. That’s a ridiculous kind of pluralism. Rather, I’ve always seen it as an exchange of tradition and culture – with emphasis on the exchange. Insulation is not multiculturalism.

So colour me very surprised when I read a column by Haroon Siddiqui in the Toronto Star who, reflecting on the recent leader’s debate in Canada, praises the Prime Minister’s take on multiculturalism in the debate and, dare I say it, his defence of the concept. (It’s worth quoting Siddiqi’s take on the debate at length).[Quick Canadian politics primer – Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister and Gilles Duceppe is the leader of the nationalist/separatist Bloq Quebecois who have taken a pro bi-lingual/bi-cultural and anti—multicultural stance in the party platforms]

Harper, speaking last in that exchange, eschewed personal sentimentality and got straight to the heart of the matter:

“We favour multiculturalism.

“What Canadians need to understand about multiculturalism is that people who make the hard decision to … come here, they first and foremost want to belong to this country … They also at the same time will change our country.

“And we show through multiculturalism our willingness to accommodate their differences, so they are more comfortable.

“That’s why we’re so successful integrating people as a country. I think we’re probably the most successful country in the world in that regard.”

He went to defend the record levels of immigration under his watch.

“We are the first government to maintain a vigorous and strong and open-door immigration policy during a recession, because we’re focused on the long-term interest of Canada and the Canadian economy.”

Other exchanges followed. In his third turn at the topic, Harper challenged Duceppe more directly:

“Let me just also question what you keep saying, that somehow multiculturalism is incompatible with being a Quebecer.

“You know, there’s lots of people in this country who speak English who don’t come from an English or a British background.

“One can retain their culture and their cultural identity and still integrate into the mainstream language of the community, which is French in Quebec, and English in most of the rest of the country. That’s what we do and that’s why we support these policies.”

Duceppe said: “But we don’t want to create ghettoes …”

Harper shot back that “Canada is not creating ghettoes. It is the most successful integration policy in the world. It has helped Canadians retain their culture while being part of the broader community. That’s what we are so proud of. I know the Bloc Québécois wants to break up the country, and you don’t think new Canadians are going to support that objective.”

Harper may not have been very poetic in all this but he got the gist of it just right, thusly:

High immigration is essential to our economy. The assumption that multiculturalism undermines integration is false. Keeping one’s culture and identity is not an impediment to integration. Immigrants want to integrate and do. Yet they also change Canada. This is the most successful model of integration in the world.

And now I find myself actually supporting something the Prime Minster said. Just when I thought the Canadian election debates could not have gotten any more annoying.

I don’t think the Tories have it right on immigration. I also think they have been pandering to the ethnic vote, and it’s clear that they somehow believe that people in “ethnic” dress are going to help them win elections. Additionally, as Siddiqui points out, Harper is a politician who is “forever courting his right-of-centre constituency, a base that routinely maligns multiculturalism and grumbles about high levels of immigration.”

But I do find this at least somewhat encouraging. And maybe I will be stupid enough to take him at his word on this issue. Let’s see if the Tories stick to it – a dubious proposition.