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One Yet Many: Living and Upholding Multiculturalism in Canada

One Yet Many: Living and Upholding Multiculturalism in Canada

By Logan Borges

 

Ukrainians throughout the world will likely remember the early spring 2014 for the Euromaidan Revolution, centring the international community’s attention towards Kyiv as people came together and protested against the repression and cronyism of President Yanukovich and his aides. That year’s spring also saw something unusual happen, far away on the other side of the Atlantic, just on the outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area’s Peel community; a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was burnt down. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and the fire was caused by accident, unrelated to the events of far-off Ukraine, but Father Roman Galadza could not help but look upon the ruins of his church without feeling devastated.

This event has a happy ending, however, as the community came together in support of the parish, offering temporary space for Sunday mass as well as offer financial aid for the rebuilding of the church, which was finally completed in the fall of 2016. By community, I do not mean just the Ukrainians inhabiting the town, but a community crossing denominations and cultural backgrounds, who sought to give aid to one whom they saw as a fellow Canadian. Such was the sense of solidarity inspired by this support that Father Galadza felt convinced that everyone is bound for heaven. Such is the kind of community-building that one sees in Canada thanks to multiculturalism.

What exactly distinguishes Canadian multiculturalism? Or to put it in a manner for which you, dear reader, may find more interesting and closer to heart, what is it like to live within Canadian multiculturalism? To those who live outside of Canada, it may seem curious to live among others of various diverse, far-and-wide backgrounds, especially if you come from a place where meeting people of different backgrounds only comes through the seasonal tourist. How, you may think, is it possible to manage so many different peoples inhabiting the same space, and more importantly what is it like to live in such a space?

The easiest way to feel what it is like living within Canadian multiculturalism would be to walk the streets of any town in Southern Ontario and look for places to purchase food, such as restaurants or grocery stores. One will see the widest possible variety of cultural dishes available at one’s fingertips. Depending on where in the city you are, some kinds of food predominate the space over others, such as the usual Chinatown district, or the Indian/Pakistani grocery market. Nevertheless, the cuisine of every continent is available, from Chinese dumplings to Afghani soya chaap,  from Ukrainian varenyky to Portuguese bifes, and from Jamaican jerk chicken to Hawaiian pineapple pizza.

Perhaps more importantly, however, those of a more devotional, spiritual turn can seek company with those of other faiths or backgrounds. A simple way to illustrate this diversity is to look at the Catholic parishes in my hometown alone, as each caters to a particular cultural background, such as those for Filipinos, Portuguese, Poles, and even Ukrainians. Outside of Catholicism, Sikhs and Hindus constitute a major demographic as well as a growing Muslim community, therefore making it easy to reach out to nearby Mosques, Gurdwaras, and Mandirs.

As a result of everyone’s proximity to each other, Canadians are given the opportunity to engage with multiculturalism from the moment they enter school. Children are encouraged to share their cultural background through presentations and banquets. Canadians are further exposed to multiculturalism as they grow older, particularly when entering the workplace where people of various backgrounds work together. In my own experience, I have worked with people from Afghanistan, Poland, Vietnam, Iraq, Ukraine, and Quebec, many of whom were themselves immigrants from different points in time, and each were happy to share stories about life back home and the particularities of their own culture. Thanks to all this close interaction, it is easy for fellow Canadians who have grown up sharing this space to share resources and even help other communities when most needed, inspiring community cooperation that goes beyond one’s cultural background, hence the support of the wider community towards the rebuilding of the Greek Catholic church in 2014.

Canada is of course not immune to instances of hate crime, as seen recently in the murder of a Muslim family in London, Ontario this past weekend. However, these acts only force Canadians to come together and restate their commitment to the values of multiculturalism, against the lures of national or religious animosity. Furthermore such events draw attention to the political scene in Canada, as political leaders from the local mayor to the Prime Minister also promise to uphold Canada’s multicultural atmosphere and combat hatred in all its toxic forms.

Naturally this leads us to the grand, structural politics which make multiculturalism possible in Canada; such is the degree to which multiculturalism is entrenched in Canadian society that maintaining it is almost a given in Canadian politics.

As a little history lesson, multiculturalism became a cornerstone of Canadian domestic policy in 1971 under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, though somewhat unintentionally; a Royal Commission during the 1960s had been set up to evaluate the status of bilingualism and multiculturalism within Canada, the focus being on English and French influence due to growing concerns of separatism in French-dominated Quebec. The status of other cultural groups came second in priority. Thanks to the expressed concerns of these groups, however, the commission recommended that Canada should recognize the importance its other cultural groups, thereby denying the cultural  privilege of any one group over another. Though Canada’s administrative languages remained English and French, services remain available in other languages depending on its prevalence in certain areas, and people are freely able to develop and maintain their cultural communities.

Though multiculturalism has remained a cornerstone of Canadian government policy, the notion of it has varied to some degrees, depending not so much on which party is in power but rather more dynamic factors to which the government must respond, such as changes in immigration demographics. For instance, preceding the 21st century, Canada’s ministry for multiculturalism focused on overcoming issues of prejudice and exclusion by celebrating diversity and encouraging participation. Since the turn of our century, however, the shift from European to non-European immigration led to a corresponding change in priorities under conservative PM Stephen Harper’s government, particularly towards forging social cohesion, which meant highlighting shared values between groups despite cultural differences. The goal of this shift in policy was to allay fears of cultural conflict, particularly in regards to matters of faith and values. Though Ottawa has seen a change of the guard since then, with Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau succeeding Harper in 2015, worries of cultural gaps between groups have still remained. In response, Trudeau’s government has reached back to the celebratory policies that characterized multiculturalism in the 1970s, hence the mantra of diversity being Canada’s strength.

Beyond government policy, multiculturalism can also be itself a matter of political debate, as some have concerns for its impact on Canadian civic values. Questions of «extreme multiculturalism» were raised during Canada’s 2019 federal election, as the newly-created populist People’s Party of Canada (PPC) sought to reverse what it saw as needless help at the expense of “government programs and taxpayers’ money.” The PPC represented an outlier, however, as each major Canadian party upholds multiculturalism as an integral part of Canada’s identity. Trudeau and the Liberals maintain the mantra that “diversity is our strength.” Canada’s other political parties, including the Conservatives, New Democratic Party (NDP), and Green Party, similarly uphold multiculturalism as part of Canada’s identity on a consistent basis, although they tend to stress different aspects of what that entails. These differences can impact other areas of concern, such as immigration, as they attempt to balance multiculturalism with meeting Canada’s labour demand.

Furthermore, multiculturalism allows for various cultural groups to have certain influence on Canadian policy, not just domestic but also foreign. For instance, Canada’s Ukrainian community is politically represented by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), but they also seek the interests their fellow Ukrainian compatriots back in Ukraine. Doing so requires close relations with Ottawa, and in the years following the outbreak of the Donbas Conflict interaction between the two has been greater, as seen when the UCC lobbied for Canada as well as the international community to pressure Russia into securing the release of Ukrainian sailors who had been captured during an attack in the Black Sea in late November 2018. Known as the Kerch Strait incident, sanctions were eventually launched against Russia in response, furthermore in coordination with the US and EU, and the sailors were eventually returned to Ukraine before the year’s end.

Canadian multiculturalism is more than a phrase used by the Canadian government to exemplify a self-imposed humanitarian mission. Rather, it is a real policy that has important impacts on both everyday life and grander political events. Canadian citizens are raised in a multicultural setting, thereby ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to share each other’s backgrounds as they grow up. Workplaces are also hotspots for cultural exchange, even in those where you are likely to find first generation Canadians. Beyond daily immersion, multiculturalism has important consequences for Canada’s government, as well as potentially the international political order. These realities confirm just how much multiculturalism really is a cornerstone of Canada.

Logan J. Borges is a Master of Arts Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies.

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