By Natalia Simanovsky
Last month, United Kingdom Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles described multiculturalism as the “politics of division”. He criticised previous administrations in the UK for allowing communities to lead separate lives and not promoting integration with mainstream British society. As the UK and European countries grapple with how to integrate minority populations, including Muslim communities, it would be worthwhile to look to Canada as a successful model.
In Canada, multiculturalism is deemed by the majority of society to be a successful government policy precisely because it promotes, among other things, national unity. For the most part, multiculturalism in Canada fosters social cohesion by placing all cultures on an equal footing. It creates common values, such as tolerance, that can be shared by the many different members of society, despite the fact that many citizens originate from a variety places with disparate religious backgrounds. In other words, multiculturalism can be defined as an approach that aims to assist with the integration of immigrants and minorities, remove barriers to their participation in Canadian life and make them feel more welcome in Canadian society, leading to a stronger sense of belonging and national pride.
Rather than straddling the periphery, the Muslim community generally has a high socio-economic standing. Its contribution to society is far-reaching, visible in their robust presence in numerous sectors including politics, the hospitality industry, health care and media.
Multiculturalism was adopted as official policy in 1971. It is premised on mutual respect between Canadians of all backgrounds, and a range of legislation supports the policy. Multiculturalism is reflected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees civil rights, including freedom of religion. Moreover, the Multiculturalism Act aims to recognise and promote the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society – while at the same time upholding the idea that multiculturalism in and of itself is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian heritage and identity.
How this translates to actual policy can be seen in the multiple ways that Canadians accommodate their Muslim compatriots. For instance, Muslim prayer is allowed in public schools under the supervision of the local school boards, wearing the burqa in public places is allowed (although not during citizenship ceremonies when the woman must recite the oath in order to receive her Canadian citizenship), and halal food is carried in Canadian supermarkets.
The institutionalisation of multiculturalism has meant that there is, for the most part, genuine acceptance of all cultures in society on equal terms, without fear that accommodation of different cultures will weaken Canadian laws, institutions or the character of the state. Attesting to this are several polls taken between 2006 and 2007 which show that compared to other countries, Canada has been less affected by the global surge in anti-Muslim sentiments and by the resulting polarisation of ethnic relations. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Focus Canada, 83 per cent of Canadians agree that Muslims make a positive contribution to Canada. International polls reveal that Muslims in Canada are less likely than Muslims in other countries to believe that their fellow citizens are hostile to them.
The policy has not been without criticism, most notably in the province of Quebec. Quebec politicians have lambasted the “Canadian ideology of multiculturalism”, demanding that immigrants “integrate” into Quebec’s francophone culture. But this stands in conflict with the federal policy on integration, which defines integration in terms of national – not local – culture.
One of the best examples of the Muslim community’s integration into Canadian society is the successful election of Canada’s first Muslim mayor in one of the most politically conservative cities in Canada, Calgary.
Canada deserves its reputation of being an inclusive society that celebrates diversity. Although not a perfect system, multiculturalism as promoted in Canada means embracing other cultures while at the same time adhering to the particular country’s laws and policies. As the UK and European countries struggle with integrating their minority populations, they would be wise to look to this model and consider adopting policies that strike this balance in favour of inclusiveness.
Natalia Simanovsky has worked as a research officer at various think tanks and intergovernmental organisations in North America and Israel.