Originally appeared in March 2006 Walrus Magazine

Under the cover of normalcy, on July 7, 2005, the heart of London was bombed and dozens of people were killed by young Muslim men who had grown up in the same environment as their victims. The process of acculturation – at British schools, and, one presumed, local pubs or Soho restaurants – had failed, and Britons were left to wonder how a cluster of radicals dedicated to terrorism and to distant ideologies could grow out of the soil we all share.

In another sign that all is not well in our diverse cities, four months later the outskirts of Paris erupted in spontaneous violence. On the night of October 27th, French police chased a group of teenagers who had ventured out of their Arab neighbourhood into the leafy suburbs of Livey-Garzan. Two of them were electrocuted while attempting to hide in a power generation facility, and within twenty-four hours this tragic accident turned the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois (and adjacent communities) into a cauldron of violence. In a scene reminiscent of Detroit or Los Angeles during the 1960s race riots, over 9,000 cars and 200 buildings were torched and France has been on edge ever since. An orchestrated attack by a terrorist cabal had besieged London, but in France something equally ominous had occurred: entire neighbourhoods comprised of poor and alienated immigrants protested their sense of isolation through wanton destruction.

Then, six weeks after the French riots, half-way around the world roughly 5,000 white Australians took to the beaches of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, to attack people of Middle-Eastern origin locally referred to as “sand niggers.” Organized through text messaging and the Internet, this was a planned assault by aggrieved whites demanding, essentially, a return to Australia’s “whites only” immigration policy. The country had abandoned this openly racist approach to immigration in 1973 and today, together with Canada, Australia has the most aggressive per capita immigration targets in the world. Indeed, prior to last November’s outbreak of sectarian violence it also had a growing international reputation for peaceful integration. The thugs who descended on Cronulla, obviously, did not endorse this national self-image.

Canada has long considered itself safe from violence rooted in ethnic divisions. By enshrining multiculturalism in its Charter of Rights of Freedoms and by promoting policies of inclusion, the argument has consistently been that it has created a peaceable kingdom and a model of how to manage diversity. Will Kylmlicka, a Queen’s University professor and one of Canada’s foremost authorities on multiculturalism, argues that while the “actual practices of accommodation are not unique, Canada is unusual in the extent to which it has built these practices into its symbols and narratives of nation-hood.”

Before the election campaign got under way in earnest, Joe Volpe, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Culture, sang the praises of Canadian multiculturalism, established an immigration target of one percent of the total population – a level equal to Australia, but double the US quota – and announced a federal government goal of attracting 340,000 immigrants per year by 2010. With an aging workforce, declining birth rates, and concerns about retirement pensions, one would imagine generalized support for enhanced immigration. But research conducted by The Strategic Counsel in 2005 suggests otherwise, and that Canadians are far from sanguine about the country’s increasing diversity. A full 75 percent of those surveyed believe that Canada is currently accepting too many immigrants, and 40 percent think that immigrants from some countries “make a bigger and better contribution to Canada than others.” The breakdown is disturbing: almost 80 percent claim that European immigrants make a positive contribution, the number falling to 59 percent for Asians, 45 percent for East Indians, and plummeting to 33 percent for those hailing from the Caribbean.

In his landmark investigation “The Politics of Recognition” philosopher Charles Taylor points out that equal treatment often requires treating people with a “different blindness;” that is, “the other” must be respected in his or her historical and cultural fullness. But, when asked what the focus of multicultural policy should be, by a ratio of 3.5:1 Canadians say immigrants should “integrate and become part of the Canadian culture,” rather than “maintain their [own] identity.” To some extent, it seems that Canadians, like their brethren in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, have had their fill of multiculturalism, hyphenated citizenship, and the like.
While visitors often marvel at the multicultural mix evident on our city streets, there is also growing evidence that Canada’s fabled mosaic is actually fracturing into community self-segregation by ethnic group. In 1981, Statistics Canada identified three “ethnic enclaves” where more than 30 percent of a particular community consisted of a single visible minority group. According to “Visible Minority Neighbourhoods in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal,” a 2001 StatsCan report, that number had exploded to 254 ethnic enclaves. To be sure, not all of these communities are poor – Richmond, British Columbia and Markham, Ontario, whose Asian populations top 50 percent, are middle to upper-middle class areas – but an alarming number of them consist of people whose incomes fall far below the Canadian average. Despite good efforts and well-intentioned policies, poverty and disenfranchisement in Canada is increasingly taking on racial overtones.

In Toronto, after a spate of black-on-black violence, and then the senseless Boxing Day murder of teenager Jane Creba, law and order became a central issue in the federal election campaign. Poverty advocates and ethnocultural groups insisted that unequal access to job opportunities, a lack of community-based programs, racism, etc. were plaguing the black community, especially its young black men, who, seeing no future, were lashing out. Politicians treaded gingerly around the notion of race-based violence, but on the streets and in homes anxious city-dwellers are saying enough is enough, are demanding tough justice for anyone caught with a gun, and are asking whether young black men would ever be capable of integrating into mainstream society.

Against this backdrop, immigration was dropped as a central campaign theme, and after their economic record, the Liberals focused instead on national unity and the threat of Quebec separation. Over the coming years, however, Canada’s ability to accommodate diversity is sure to become a central issue. As is the case in England, France, and other advanced liberal democracies, national unity in Canada is threatened by the growing atomization of our society.

Following the Second World War, and with the need for reconstruction labour acute, Britain granted “unlimited right of entry” to former colonial subjects. Its Nationality Act allowed over 300,000 West Indians to enter Britain between 1948-1962, with similarly large numbers coming from India and Pakistan. While generally assimilationist, visible inequity and violent outbreaks in “coloured communities,” combined with concerns that the complexion of British society was changing too rapidly, led, in 1962, to the passage of the Commonwealth Immigration Act, which severely restricted the flow of new arrivals from former British colonies. But numerous ethnic communities had already established critical mass, grew in size, and, as the years went by, attempted to establish themselves in British society. In 1981, riots in the Brixton area of Greater London (followed by more race-based riots in Birmingham, and in other English cities) contributed to more restrictive immigration.

Clearly, the integration of visible minority groups was posing special challenges, but Britain remained reliant on immigrant labour and could not simply close the doors. In the early 1990s, it addressed the issue through a decided shift toward Canadian-style multiculturalism and by promoting the virtues of ethnic identity and diversity to mainstream society. With greater acceleration, mosques, temples, and other totems of ethnicity began sprouting up in British cities as visible minorities were encouraged to retain their customs and traditions. Grumblings about ethnic neighbourhoods continued, but, as international markets soared and people spoke openly of the advantages of a new cosmopolitanism, criticism was generally muted. Until last summer. Since the London bombings, British politicians across party lines have suggested that the traditional explanations for unrest and violence – poverty, inequity, etc. – cannot explain the suicidal rage of the subway bombers. Within the context of a wholesale re-evaluation of citizenship and loyalty the answer must lie, many argue, in the very multicultural policies designed to celebrate diversity.

But the French situation complicates this interpretation. By comparison, France has remained staunchly assimilationist. While opening its doors to immigrants (and former colonials) from North Africa and the Near-East – again, largely in response to shortages of low-skilled labour – the emphasis on speaking French has been resolute, and little truck has been given to the placement of ethnic shrines or the wearing of foreign cultural iconography. Often criticized for being rigidly chauvinistic, France nonetheless established a relatively firm contract with new arrivals and refused to accept notions of hyphenated citizenship. One would therefore expect that if outbreaks did occur that they would not be so clearly rooted in ethnicity; and yet France – like Germany, Holland, and other European countries – is now riven by colour-line politics, and the sense of alienation among disenfranchised ethnic groups is profound.

In the case of England and France, it appears that the recent violence is rooted in visible minority second generation groups who feel little fealty to their adopted state (and, in the case of Australia, what immigration policy was doing to the nation), and there is growing concern that a similar sense of alienation is developing among the same class of people in Canada.

From the beginning, and for generations, immigration to Canada was based on its most fundamental need, settlement. Canada was not borne of a revolution, or forced to recreate itself after an empire’s passing. Rather, it was perceived as a blank slate and, against a harsh climate and endless environment, nation building itself was the founding mythology. Formed after the US Civil War or the “war between the states,” Canada was constitutionally organized around a strong federal government – a source of benevolence at the centre that would knit the regions together through massive projects like building a national railway – and weak provinces. Immigration was one of Ottawa’s chief responsibilities, and its policies were clearly integrationist, clearly designed for those deemed capable of realizing Canada’s monumental challenge. So, early in the twentieth century Wilfred Laurier’s Liberal government set out to settle vast territories with “men in sheepskin coats.” Ukrainians, Finns, Germans, and other almost exclusively European immigrants responded to the call and began descending on Canada’s ports, anticipating the long trek to the rural West. This flood reached its peak in 1913, when 400,810 immigrants – the equivalent of 1.5 million in today’s terms – arrived on our shores.

Growth through immigration continued until the Depression, racism, and World War Two caused Canada to effectively shut its doors to outsiders. But, like Britain, the War depleted its store of labour, and with millions across Europe and the Baltic states seeking safe haven from poverty and starvation, and with Canada needing to re-start its nation-building project, by the mid-1940s the immigration taps were turned on once again. Having established itself as a liberator, the influx came from Europe, this time attracting Italians, Portuguese, Greek, and others to Canada’s burgeoning urban centers. As is reflected in the 1952 Immigration Act, entry into Canada by foreign nationals was deemed a privilege, and individuals could be barred from entry based on ethnic group affiliation. Immigration was clearly controlled through country of origin quotas, which actively restricted non-white immigrants and implicitly forwarded the notion that nation-building required assimilation. While diverse, Canada grew as a white, European, and Christian nation of immigrants grateful for the opportunity to nation-build in a new land. Importantly, the federal government retained its role as central provider and, as such, immigrants tended to develop a strong sense of civic nationalism.

This openly assimilationist approach began to shift in 1967, when country of origin quotas – which had resulted in 90 percent of all immigrants coming from Europe – were replaced by a more meritocratic points system. The impetus for this change came from many quarters, including Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s early 1960s criticism of South Africa’s apartheid regime, Pearson’s peacekeeping initiatives, and, in general, Canada becoming more active in the Commonwealth and recognizing a much broader world. Within a few short years, the impact was dramatic. West Indian immigration to Canada, for instance, ballooned from 46,000 and 3 percent of the total (with many being white) in the 1960s, to nearly 160,000 and 11 percent of the total inflow in the 1970s, (with almost all of them being black). But, as the country was becoming more diverse, to a large extent Canadian-style multiculturalism grew less out of a sense of being a good global citizen, and more out of a need to deal with a pressing domestic issue.

Alarmed at the rise of nationalist sentiment during Quebec’s Quiet revolution, in 196_ the federal government launched the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, with the thinly-veiled objective of dissipating Quebeckers sense of alienation by replacing the notion of Canada as primarily English with a bold new vision involving a “pact” between two founding peoples. Canada would thus be defined by two languages and two cultures, co-existing within a federalist framework. This approach might have tempered the flames of separatism had the process not been high-jacked by swelling numbers of non-British and non-French immigrants who failed to see themselves reflected in the new vision. As Will Kylmlicka wrote in 2004: “[New Canadians] believed that the B&B Commission would essentially carve up public resources and offices between the English and French, leaving the [white] ethnics out in the cold.”

Confronted by an organized ethnic lobby, the government changed the terms of reference of the Commission and, in the end, declared that Canada would be a multicultural society within a bilingual framework. Vis-à-vis multiculturalism the Commission promoted the view that immigrant groups would overcome the obstacles posed by a new home and, over time, would integrate. And on the ground with white ethnic immigrants, this is precisely what was happening.

Expo 67 drew the world’s attention to Canada, and a state that offered universal health care, low university tuition fees, and certain rights around cultural retention, attracted large numbers of immigrants throughout the 1970s. The recession of the early 1980s stemmed the tide, but the notion of Canada as a cosmopolitan, caring, and multicultural society became even more concrete in 1988, when Brian Mulroney’s conservative government passed Bill C-93. Multiculturalism and aggressive immigration targets gained non-partisan support and became politically unassailable.

In 1984, Canada admitted only 84,000 immigrants, but by 2004, the intake number had increased to 235,000, and of these nearly half came from China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Korea, and Sri Lanka. Today some 5.4 million Canadians (or 18.6 percent of the population) are foreign born, the highest rate of diversity in seventy years, with Europe accounting for less than 20 percent of new arrivals. Twenty-three percent of Canadians are first-generation immigrants, and in Ontario and British Columbia the figures are nearly 35 percent. The most dramatic change is that the vast majority of recent and new arrivals are visible minorities. For the moment, non-white Canadians represent only 13 percent of the population, but, given the last twenty years of immigration, this figure will increase dramatically in the coming years.

Recognizing that visible minority groups were facing unique obstacles to integration, a formal revue of multicultural programs was conducted in 1996. The result was a more assertive mandate “to foster an inclusive society in which people of all backgrounds and whose identities are recognized as vital to an evolving [Canadian] identity, feel a sense of belonging and attachment to this country and participate more fully in Canadian society.” In short, the new thrust was directed at society’s mainstream, and getting it to respect and even encourage diversity. While the goal of past initiatives was clearly integrationist, Canada had evolved into a state that promoted the notion of hyphenated citizenship. As Kymlicka observed, anti-racism programs soon became the largest budget line item of Canada’s Multicultual Secretariat, the government began direct funding to ethnic organizations and insisted that public institutions such as the civil service, the CRTC, and Transportation Canada reflect the ethnic diversity of the country through quotas.

The changes were controversial. Over and above criticisms that quotas led to reverse discrimination, were questions about whether encouraging the retention of ethnic identity would drive visible minority groups away from mainstream society. Looking at the United States, American historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote of a “cult of ethnicity” which “exaggerates differences and intensifies resentments and antagonism, drives even deeper and awful wedges between races and nationalities. The end-game is self-pity and self-ghettoization.” Other critics have praised Canada’s mosaic versus the American melting pot, but recent settlement trends suggest that Canadian “ethnic box settlements” are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Schlesinger alludes to the importance of national mythologies acting as a glue uniting people, but Canada was becoming increasingly as Ottawa continued devolving powers to the provinces. This, combined with the absence of large-scale nation-defining projects (to follow the historic examples of the railway, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, medicare, etc.) caused the notion of Canada as a magnanimous centralist state to recede in importance, and with the issues that directly affect peoples’ daily lives – issues like healthcare, education, policing – now overwhelmingly controlled by the provinces, creating a national vision was rendered difficult in the extreme.

Twenty years ago roughly half of the (much smaller) immigrant population gravitated to Canada’s three major metropolitan centres. Today, 80 percent of new arrivals, and a much larger aggregate, settle in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. And within these large urban areas, immigrant groups are clustering in tightly knit, ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods – a fact partly explained in a 2002 federal government “Ethnic Diversity Study.” Nearly half of the visible minority individuals surveyed admitted to feelings of discomfort and, at times, being “out of place in Canada.” As such, in growing numbers new Canadians are choosing to live together, and loyalty is being extended to their particular ethnic group, not to mainstream Canada or to any sense of civic nationalism.

For multiculturalism to work the native born must accept immigrants as equals, new arrivals must demonstrate a willingness and desire to join mainstream society by adopting the fundamental mores and values of the prevailing culture, and there must be a high degree of cross-fertilization between ethnic groups. According to University of Toronto professor Jeffrey Reitz, recent evidence casts serious doubt that this is occurring in modern Canada. Reitz has spent his career studying the Canadian immigrant experience, and, considering both income and attitudinal data, he believes that multicultural policies are simply not working for visible minorities. Despite affirmative action, quotas, and targeted programs to ease adjustment, Reitz’s research shows that, unlike post-WW II immigrants, Canada’s newest arrivals are not only failing to catch up, but the gap between them and non-immigrant groups is actually widening. The economic disparities are most pronounced among visible minority groups, and Reitz’s data indicates that while “satisfaction with life” increases from the first to the second generation for white immigrants, it decreases among non-white immigrants.

Voting patterns is one many indices researched by Reitz to gauge societal participation rates. A scant 20 percent of first generation immigrants, regardless of colour, exercise their franchise. By the second generation, however, white immigrant participation rates almost quadruple, while the increase in voting by visible minority groups increases only by half. Surprisingly, it appears that first generation non-white immigrants actually enter Canada with a greater sense of belonging than white immigrants, but within a generation that feeling diminishes among visible minority groups, while white immigrants report a growing sense of belonging and involvement.

Because immigration is most often push driven – that is, conditions in the homeland motivate emigration – in the main, immigrants are satisfied with their adopted homeland. Early on a sense of belonging derives principally from involvement within their own ethnic communities, which Reitz reports is much higher among non-white minorities. But by the second generation, that involvement can diminish as cultural ties loosen and expectations of their adopted home increase. According to Reitz, it is with the second generation, the same demographic responsible for the London bombings and the riots outside Paris, that ethnic tensions and alienation most clearly reveal themselves.

Unlike Britain and France, which began accepting visible minority immigrants after World War Two, Canada did not do so in any real numbers until the 1970s. Consequently, second generation immigrants represent only 14% of our total current visible minority population. But, given the significant growth of visible minority immigration over the past twenty years, this proportion is destined to grow exponentially. Today, two-thirds of all native born visible minorities in Canada are under sixteen years old. Given settlement trends and income disparities, the upshot is that to date Canada may have avoided the kind of ethnic conflicts that have beset England and France not because of more progressive and effective multicultural policies, or greater societal tolerance, but simply because it got into the visible minority immigration game a generation later.

Charles Taylor analyzed the issue of achieving common objectives in a multicultural society which places a primacy of respecting difference and where histories are not shared. He concluded that that Canadians can “be brought together by common purpose [but] our unity must be a projective one, based on a significant common future rather than a shared past.” Some have suggested that promoting diversity itself as a rallying call for all Canadians, but, again, drawing attention to difference can undermine attempts to forge an overarching national identity.

The situation is further complicated by the emergence of aggressive internationalism, and the necessarily diminished role of nation states and, hence, national mythologies in an era of intense globablization. While American political theorist Francis Fukyama’s “end of history” announced too much too soon, international market capitalism, expanding free trade zones, borderless communication technologies, and world travel have all contributed to subsuming unique national characteristics under a global umbrella. For young people especially, globalization is the current frame of reference, and just as the under forty generation expects to toil away at numerous jobs, and therefore do not cleave too ardently to any particular work experience, it is also evident that this worldly generation does not cleave particularly strongly to any single country’s national mythologies. In Europe, this generation is coming of age with the European Union; in the United States, every national election represents, among other things, a struggle to resuscitate foundation myths and to capture the youth vote, now pegged at 17 percent; and in Canada, where voting by 18-24 year olds hovers around 20 percent, a history of immigrant nation-building might be rendered through television docu-dramas, but has little resonance in its major cities.

Unbridled growth through the 1990s required advanced Western societies to embrace international markets and to open immigration doors to feed economies whose scale seemed restricted only by their capacities for development. Global trade would lift all boats, or at least all those boats with their acts together, and advanced liberal societies could act as sponges for all those willing to partake in the post-national bounty. And in the West the presumption was that the stability of First World nations would blunt the edge of ancestral identity; that the developed world, with all of its promise, could successfully absorb teeming masses from afar. Believing that diversity could be accommodated through secular humanist values – economic opportunity, respect for individual rights and private property, the separation of church and state, the right to worship but to do so in private – we looked at examples of ethnic violence in the developing world, and said, “It could not happen here.”

It is true, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought grievances from distant lands to our doorstep, but they were perpetrated by foreigners; that is, by those not acculturated by Western norms and values. It is equally true, however, that the secular humanism of modern liberal societies amounts to something less than a world view. It is more akin to an administrative compromise, a kind of pragmatism deemed necessary to organize complex societies. But when the organization breaks down, or when a country like Canada appears indistinguishable from any other state – like a no-name supermarket brand unlikely to engender loyalty – or when expectations are not met, some will be drawn to other, often radical prescriptions.

The events of the last year have presented the West with a conundrum: can secular humanist liberal democracies satisfy the needs of a growing diversity? In Canada, one of the principal architects of multiculturalism, Bernard Ostry, has voiced anxiety that the experiment that has gone wrong, must be reviewed, and is demanding a nation-wide Royal Commission. London, Paris and Sydney suggest just how imperative it is to heed his call.