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Blame it on Churchill or Multiculturalism Mystified
by Sam Ajzenstat

Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada began as a series of meetings and reports commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage. In this short, tightly written book, Will Kymlicka, a political philosopher who has published widely on multiculturalism and travelled to many countries to share Canada's experience with minorities' policies, sets out a comprehensive picture of policy options for a variety of issues currently lumped under the rubric of "cultural". In addition, he applies basic guidelines for evaluating them.

As an overview of those options, it is an impressive achievement. The book runs through the options without ever losing its clarity or overall shape, and gives those wanting to do more research a precious and fascinating guide through an enormous body of literature. While it still has an air of government report about it and is likely to have its greatest success as a university textbook, the book is also something of a page-turner, increasingly revealing a real drama under the unruffled surface of its moderation and objectivity. It is on the evaluative side, however, that Finding Our Way ultimately disappoints its reader.

Winston Churchill famously judged liberal democracy to be the worst political system "except for all the others". Many Canadians sympathetic to minority needs nevertheless have the uneasy feeling that multicultural or cultural group self-government policies are leading down a slippery slope into experiments in "all the others", and that these experiments will end up dismantling political institutions that are about as good as we can get. Kymlicka sets out to allay fears that group rights are illiberal; his own position, however, slides too far down the slope to give him anything but a rather superficial and even dismissive feel for what the worries are. Within the basic agenda, he is great at laying out and comparing options, but the agenda itself does not get the fundamental scrutiny it needs. This is especially a shame in a book likely to be more widely read than his more theoretical ones.

Kymlicka begins with a reply to writers like Neil Bissoondath and Richard Gwyn who worry that multicultural policies divide us into ingrown, mutually hostile ghettoes. He marshals impressive data-e.g., intermarriage rates-to show that multiculturalism is not divisive but helps immigrant groups integrate into the broader Canadian community. He then moves on to a fairly optimistic account of the possibility of extending multiculturally-inspired policies to more socially endemic inequalities concerning blacks, the disabled (the deaf are his main example), homosexuals, and women.

But it is precisely because of its emphasis on integration into a larger society, Kymlicka argues, that the multicultural mindset is unable to meet or even understand the felt needs of native people and the Québéquois. Concentrating in this book on Quebec, he joins others in arguing that the only workable response that can hold Canada together is the radically asymmetrical scheme of a more or less self-governing Quebec alongside a strengthened federal government for the rest of Canada-a solution that will surely strike most readers as both politically naive and enough like sovereignty-association to make them wonder why we bother trying to keep Canada together at all. The last chapter is a not entirely successful attempt to give an answer.

There is a lot to like, to be intrigued by, and to be grateful for in this book. But readers who begin it with worries are likely to come out with more rather than fewer at the end.

The central concern is Kymlicka's uncritical slide in the direction of identity politics. The communitarian buzzword, "recognition", starts to appear conspicuously in the chapter on the extension of cultural status to gays and the disabled, but the idea is there from the start. What the buzzword means is that any society concerned with equality rights must acknowledge a right to be approved of by others, to be recognized in one's defining identity as just as good as everyone else. In a good society, some attempt will have to be made to enforce these rights.

Unlike some civil libertarians, I do not minimize the force of this argument. We should not, for example, deny the seriousness of Kymlicka's concern that young homosexuals commit suicide because of what the majority society thinks of them. But his discussion is skewed by his failure to express an equal concern for the anti-liberal implications of the policies he recommends to deal with such problems or to consider that a free society works best with the help of the sort of insensitivity training that multicultural sensitivity doesn't look on very favourably.

Not all of the policies Kymlicka considers involve identity politics. A few items on his useful list of thirteen typical multicultural policies have to do with providing minorities with the skills and opportunities needed for basic participation in politics and the economy. Debate about them seems well within the borders of liberalism. These include affirmative action, work and school schedules to accommodate non-Christian religious holidays, flexible dress codes (e.g., for Sikhs in the RCMP), diversity training for the police, public funding for ethnic festivals and study programs, and perhaps mother-tongue training if, as evidence he cites suggests, this facilitates eventual acquisition of English or French.

Other items, though, bring identity politics in without any acknowledgment that an important divide in social and political philosophy is being crossed. Such are policies for workplace and school speech codes, CRTC regulations on ethnic stereotypes, black-focused public schools, and revised public school history and literature curricula. The public debate over political correctness reveals how much further such policies can go than anything Kymlicka's silent endorsement suggests. To name only one such issue: the surfacing of claims that private religious schools should not be allowed to teach that homosexuality is unnatural (even if they simultaneously forbid homophobic violations of the law) shows that identity politics does not sit very well with that staple of liberalism, the private-public distinction. Of course, anyone is entitled to argue that we can get closer to perfect justice by dropping liberalism and trying one of Churchill's "others". That would at least clear the air. What Kymlicka does instead is closer to a prevalent current practice of "defending" liberal democracy by continuing to use the name while a lot of the substance is allowed to lapse unnoticed. In the process, he gives his Department of Canadian Heritage bureaucrats the complacent assurance that they are not in danger of trading away anything important.

The very term, "culture", has become hostage to identity politics. Thus, Kymlicka spends quite a bit of space on the well-known but still fascinating and completely convincing point that the deaf regard themselves with good reason as a culture rather than as a disability group. What he does not explain is why this should have any policy signficance whatsoever. The services that the deaf require they can fight for as an interest group whether they happen to be a "culture" or not. If "culture" means anything here, it is either a way of mystifying interest group politics which have suffered a bad press in a period with insufficient appreciation for adversarial politics, or else of shoring up the identity politics' claim that no one be allowed to harbour the thought that deafness (or similarly, homosexuality, etc.) might be a disability.

Here, then, Kymlicka is ignoring both civil libertarians concerned for individual self-expression, and social conservatives, who have a large stake in the private-public distinction as a way of preserving a private school system where non-liberal principles have a chance of surviving. A rather large constituency to shove under the rug.

This last point suggests a worry about identity politics other than political correctness. If a lot of people are currently willing to shrug their shoulders over the possible loss of things like the private-public distinction or are becoming increasingly hostile to parliamentary politics or see only injustice in the old idea that an essential piece of equipment for liberal democrats is a thick skin, it may be because they have not been taken through the long history of experiments that brought these makeshifts into existence in the struggle with "all the others". Unfortunately, this in turn seems to suggest that any understanding of and confidence in or even informed debate about Canadian political institutions requires giving priority in school curricula to British history. So, though I completely accept that an educated person should know something about black history and Eastern religion, etc., I cannot be too easily persuaded that multicultural revision of the history curriculum will not produce a kind of amnesia that will make painstakingly developed political institutions seem merely arbitrary, irrational, and nothing but expressions of a ruling class. This is the real worry about multiculturalism's corrosive effect on integration. It is the failure of integration into a political culture that is worrisome. And Kymlicka's burying of Bissoondath under piles of statistics about high rates of intermarriage will not make it go away.

A similar worry might be raised about literature. In arguing both for the acquisition by immigrants of an official language and also for changes of an unspecified kind in the literature curriculum, Kymlicka ignores some very big questions about what a language is. It seems fine to me that writers of colour should want to meet by themselves and even get some government funding for it. But we also need to think about the riches black writers acquired for generations, even if under permanently wounding conditions, from the language of the King James Bible. Unless, of course, we want to do nothing in our official languages except write resumés. To what extent are we going to be able to separate an official language from an official culture?

Some of the amnesia occasioned by the loss of our political history seems to affect Kymlicka himself. The idea that reserving a certain number of seats in legislatures, say for women, either to bring up their numbers or to be sure their interests are conscientiously represented, pays no attention to the way in which normal adversarial politics are currently working to make all parties seek out candidates among women and visible minorities and how the need to compete has worked to make them add previously unrepresented people to their power base. And it seems a bit odd that, having blandly endorsed changes in the history curriculum, he should then in the last and most far-seeing chapter of the book talk about how the thing that will hold us together as Canadians is a shared even if conflictual history.

A final point. In arguing that multiculturalism aids integration, Kymlicka points out that intermarriage figures have increased since the beginning of the program. His response to the natural conclusion that this shows multiculturalism to be assimilative rather than merely integrative is the rather weak one that if so, this is an unintended consequence. As if policy-makers were not supposed to be concerned with the unintended as well as the intended consequences of their policies. He also suggests that assimilation is a private choice. Maybe so. But it seems to me to be worth thinking about whether multiculturalism is not, for better or worse, part of a thrust towards what has been called a universal and homogeneous state rather than the diversity-preserving thing it's cracked up to be. And also whether, if there are already such strong assimilative tendencies at work among the main beneficiaries of multicultural policies we really need these policies, so badly. To confront the issue of homogenization frankly might also help Kymlicka to make the worries of Quebec and the aboriginal peoples more graphic.

I hope I've given you the impression that this book, even if partly in spite of the author, is a source of endless good argument. Next time I look to Kymlicka for a more demystified version of multiculturalism. 

Sam Ajzenstat teaches Philosophy at McMaster University.


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