When I came to Canada almost ten years ago, multiculturalism was sold to me as the one and only policy that could guarantee the peaceful and productive mingling of cultures within a country. When I was enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) program, “integration” was one of the things we were taught. Thus, we were told that eye contact is a must regardless of how uncomfortable you may be with it. Or that shaking hands is “part of Canadian culture” but that kissing and such only happens in Quebec. While I had the hardest time with eye contact, particularly with authority figures, my male Saudi classmates, for instance, were discouraged from greeting other men by kissing, my Chinese friends were “taught” about personal hygiene, and Latin American women were policed on their “overly friendliness” with the opposite sex. We were always told, “This is how it works in Canada and if you want to live here you have to…”
Our professors were responsible for somehow helping us navigate “Canadian values” and discern what practices were (or were not) acceptable in “Canadian Culture.” Integration, and to some degree assimilation, are part of how many Canadians conceive multiculturalism, which is enshrined in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and is implemented through the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
This all sounds good and dandy because we are told that multiculturalism respects our cultures, guarantees our freedom of religion and promotes integration within a democratic context. Yet, when one starts deconstructing what multiculturalism really means, one realizes that multiculturalism is a feature of the colonial settler state, which is in nature gendered and pretty racist.
A video that circulated a couple months ago shows Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, answering questions at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. In the video, Trudeau explains multiculturalism and education as tools for successful integration of both immigrants and second generation children. The video was widely shared not only by many Canadians, and immigrants, but also by many Americans. In many ways, Trudeau makes many American politicians pale in comparison. He is young, he smart and according to Vogue he is also hot. He is also a teacher by training and the son of the very Prime Minister that introduced multiculturalism as a policy in Canada, Pierre Trudeau. He also followed Stephen Harper, which has been described as Canada’s very own dictator, and came into power with an agenda that promised gender equality, a focus on the environment and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
When I watched the video, I was personally uneasy with it for a variety of reasons. But one sentence caught my attention. In giving examples of how multiculturalism, as mainstreaming policy in schools, helps integration, Trudeau talks about Muslim girls. He says, “there are behaviours and attitudes that are different, that if you are growing up as a second generation Muslim girl in Canada means you may have to have a difficult conversation with your parents about lipstick or about that Indian boy you are dating,” and he concludes with “but these are things that do not weaken the fabric of who you are and the society you belong to.”
I have had many heated conversations with people over different pieces of this video, but particularly this sentence. Let that sink in for a minute.
For me, the sentence was a reflection of many of the things that are wrong with these multiculturalist policies. First, the assumption that a Muslim girl’s main problem, when it comes to integration and identity, is lipstick and boys rather than Islamophobia and racism. Then, the assumption that Muslim girls do not “normally” date and that it is because of their immigrant parents and communities rather than out of personal choice. Next, that makeup and relationships to the opposite sex are as central in every culture as they are made to be in Western societies. Finally, that one’s practices when it comes to personal matters, like dating and makeup, are a matter of state regulation through education.
While there are those who support Trudeau no matter what or those who think he deserves a chance without being criticized, the question of multiculturalism goes beyond party politics and even transcends Canada. In fact it is relevant to every settler state. But the example provided by Trudeau speaks to a widespread idea of multiculturalism within the Canada, which entails the immigrant’s responsibility to “integrate” to mainstream society, and the “benevolence” of the “host society” in respecting certain aspects of the immigrants’ culture and religion.
I say “certain” because multiculturalism never stipulates acceptance of “the other” as a whole. Thus, Canadian policy makers have felt entitled to question women who wear niqab and Sikh men who wear the kirpan. Prayer spaces, particularly those that are segregated, have been heavily discussed in policy circles and the media. Polygamy/polyamory – Muslim, Mormon and otherwise – are prohibited. And let’s not forget about Quebec’s Charter of Values and Canada’s “Barbaric Cultural Practices” policy.
What it comes down to is that multiculturalism policies are policies of management that tell us how to deal with “the other”; how to regulate “their” practices, attitudes and behaviours; how to keep “Canadian culture and values” safe; and how to “properly” let certain cultures influence Canadian identity.
Perhaps the best imagery is that of the festivals. In Alberta, where my family has settled, we have Heritage Days, a festival celebrating diversity and multiculturalism. This festival features numerous tents manned by different communities. Thus, many communities come together to “showcase” their cultures. In the majority-Muslim countries’ tents it is not strange to find women selling scarves (not as hijabs only, but also as a non-religious accessory), belly-dancer belts, coin-covered head pieces, shalwar kameez, etc. Similarly, it is not rare to see these communities highlighting the “golden eras” of their countries while completely erasing histories of colonialism and imperialism. In general, as immigrant communities, we put a lot of effort into making mainstream white Canadian populations “comfortable” with our presence.
We wash away the racism, sexism and marginalization that we experience and put up a show for everyone’s delight. But what these celebrations ignore is that immigrants, and more so refugees, experience a great deal of discrimination and neglect in Canada. Multiculturalism policies and the idea that “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” prevent us in some degree from having deep and meaningful discussions about marginalization, anti-blackness, ableism and mental health, among others.
These “minority behaviours” of trying to blend in, triggered by state policies, are colonial in nature. Not only is Canada, the settler state, making the rules of the game according to Christian, white-supremacist, heteronormative and gendered principles, but Indigenous nations in Canada have been relegated to the status of “cultures,” rather than nations, as if they were immigrants in the lands that were stolen from them.
What is more, multiculturalism policies can work to conceal deeply rooted issues like racism and Islamophobia. When we speak of Canada as a “nation of immigrants” we are talking about the fact that Canada is a settler state. The colonizers were not immigrants, they were settlers. And they took over lands and created policies that stipulate the “right” type of immigrant and the “wrong” type of immigrant. For a while, the right type was white, straight and from certain countries in Europe only. This vision has evolved somewhat over time, but it is still present. When it comes to Muslim immigration, concerns over “compatibility” are raised. What about female genital mutilation? What about polygamy? What about sexism and homophobia? What about authoritarianism? And what triumphs is the idea that Muslims are inherently violent, but that they can be “reformed” through education.
Education in itself is not bad. It has been recognized as a human right and it sells well in policy circles (i.e. international development). The question becomes what kind of education? Beyond the nasty system of residential schools that Canada held for centuries, let’s not forget that education in Canada is settler education. It has gone from being heavily Christian to being heavily secular and positivist (with Catholic schools still being funded publicly). But schools in Canada are known for their erasure of Indigenous history and their overlook of immigrant communities. Yes, we talk about slavery, but we do not necessarily talk about other forms of marginalization faced by black Canadians. Yes, we talk about 9/11, but we glance over Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan and the effects of that Islamophobia has had among Muslims in Canada.
So when I hear Trudeau talk about new policies and new ways of doing things, I just recall lipsticks, boys and multiculturalism (among other pretty colonial things thrown here and there), and I wonder to what degree there is room for change without a complete change in paradigm?… unfortunately, the defensive attitudes one faces, upon critiquing Trudeau, from mainstream and immigrant populations point to the fact that decolonial or not, many people in Canada cannot imagine a paradigm without colonial relations.