Posted on May 27, 2011

Multiculturalism Takes Centre Stage in Montreal

Marian Scott, The Gazette (Montreal), May 26, 2011

Violent attacks against the Roma. The rise of far right parties. And declarations by the leaders of the UK, Germany and France that multiculturalism has failed.

What does Europe have to teach Quebec and English Canada about intercultural harmony?

Well, quite a bit, says Gérard Bouchard, organizer of this week’s symposium on interculturalism, which has brought together experts from two continents to share wisdom on managing diversity.

The European experience could be instructive for Quebec, where Canadian multiculturalism is considered incompatible with the preservation of French language and culture, according to the organizer of the three-day conference.

“How do you mediate between different cultures in a way that ensures the future of the host society, in the sense of its history, values and profound aspirations, and at the same time respects individual rights?” asked Bouchard, a history and sociology professor at the Université du Québec in Chicoutimi.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, Bouchard said. “Every nation must invent its own solution,” he said.

In the UK, some of the most successful initiatives to promote intercultural harmony have been local rather than nationwide, said Ted Cantle, executive chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion in Coventry, England. As an example, he showed a poster encouraging volunteerism and cultural exchanges in Blackburn with Darwen, Lancashire, one of Britain’s most multicultural areas. It pictures two volunteers–one of English origin and the other South Asian–with the caption: “Many lives . . . many faces . . . all belonging.”

Cantle, author of a report on race riots in northern England in 2001, denounced the loss of cohesion and social capital in communities where minorities often live parallel lives.

“This is a new era of mass migration, of visible communities and an era of super-diversity,” said Cantle, pointing out that 300 languages are spoken in London.

Thanks to globalization and social networks, communities reach around the world and intersect with each other, creating new, complex relationships that transcend traditional definitions.

“Identity is multi-dimensional,” he said, pointing to another poster of a character in the 2004 Ken Loach movie Ae Fond Kiss, where a character describes herself as “a Glaswegian Pakistani teenager of Muslim descent who supports Glasgow Rangers (a Protestant team) in a Catholic school.”

Cantle warned that the rise of right-wing extremism in Europe threatens efforts to promote inclusion.

The UK helps immigrants to improve their English skills but also encourages them to retain their own language and culture, he said. Cantle said that while France has banned the niqab face veil and bars religious symbols like the hijab head scarf from schools, such a move would be an unthinkable invasion of personal choice in the UK.

In the Netherlands, an anti-immigrant backlash has caused a rejection of multiculturalism policies promulgated in the 1980s, said Frank Lechner, a professor of sociology at Emory University in Atlanta. But he added that while many say newcomers should try harder to adopt Dutch values, the country remains quite multicultural, with 20 per cent of residents having non-Dutch ancestry.

“National policy has become tougher but at the local level there remains a good deal of goodwill towards cultural communities,” he said.

Will Kymlicka, Canada Research Chair in political philosophy at Queen’s University, said that multiculturalism continues to be a success story in English Canada. “Compared to other western democracies, immigrant integration seems to be going comparatively well in Canada,” he said. Immigrants to English Canada are more likely to vote, run for office, succeed in school and work and live in mixed neighbourhoods than elsewhere in the world, he said.

“It seems almost unthinkable to give up multiculturalism,” Kymlicka said.