Diversity is what holds us together
New arrivals often standardbearers of Canada’s success
Is “diversity our strength”? Possibly nothing in Justin Trudeau’s repertoire of happy-talk cliches grates on conservatives more than this one — even if Stephen Harper was known to say much the same (“Canada’s diversity, properly nurtured, is our greatest strength.” )
Increasingly, however, and particularly since Maxime Bernier’s tweetburst denouncing the Trudeau government for encouraging “too much” diversity, conservatives have moved from silently seething at the platitude to more openly questioning it.
“Canada faces a real test in maintaining national identity,” writes professor Jack Mintz of the University of Calgary, “when so many people come from disparate backgrounds.” While ethnically diverse societies can “in principle” yield economic benefits, from greater consumer choice to increased innovation, “when citizens identify more strongly with a social group rather than the nation as a whole” the result can be “fragmentation,” even conflict.
“The virtues of census diversity are more often asserted than demonstrated,” writes the anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman, in a 2017 piece for the Macdonald Laurier Institute, challenging diversity-is-strength advocates to show “exactly how such diversity contributes to economic performance and social and cultural strength.” Immigration policy, he warns, should “ensure the compatibility of the views and objectives of newcomers with Canadian law, institutions and values.”
For his part, the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, speaking to a party conference in the immediate wake of the Bernier controversy, was careful neither to question diversity nor to praise it. Canada’s real strength, he said, is “our freedom,” of which diversity is a byproduct. It’s because we are free, he said, that people come here from all over the world.
What are we to make of this? Certainly it’s valid to criticize a policy of enforced diversity, as advocated by many on the left and practised by the federal Liberals: the supplanting of bedrock liberal concerns with process — merit in hiring, fairness in trials, and so forth — in pursuit of what are considered appropriately representative outcomes; the insistence on unbridgeable gulfs of understanding between different identity groups, or more radically on the impossibility of any shared truths or values across society.
But the right seems increasingly willing to go beyond that. Few in Canada would go so far as the American commentator Tucker Carlson, who asks for examples, rhetorically, “of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are,” which on the surface would seem to imply both resegregating the military and restricting marriage to members of the same family.
Nevertheless, we are perilously close to debating, not just the policy of “diversity” or “multiculturalism,” but the underlying sociological reality: if not diversity of race or ethnicity, then diversity of cultures or values. I say perilously, because the subject is inherently explosive, with enormous potential for misunderstanding. All the same, it seems unlikely to go away; and as it happens I think the case for diversity is robust, there seems no point in avoiding it.
It is surely noteworthy that Canada, with one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any developed country, is also one of the most successful, as it is that, though we have among the highest numbers of foreign-born proportionate to our population, we seem least fussed by it — less fussed, indeed, than we were ourselves at a time when the proportion was much lower.
This is possibly not coincidental. Familiarity, it would seem, breeds respect: the more people come into contact with members of other ethnic groups, the less concern they feel. For their part, contrary to Mintz’s concerns, the tendency of immigrants to identify with their own ethnic group has declined over the last several decades, according to the pollster Frank Graves, in favour of identification with the nation as a whole.
Diversity doesn’t just bring benefits in terms of more interesting cities and varied restaurant offerings. It seems to alter the political DNA of a country in useful ways. Canada has been dealing with the question from its origins, and while our record is hardly unblemished, and the effort tiring at times, can there be any doubt it has made our political culture more adept at compromise, more attuned to difference, more subtle?
Certainly it’s valid to worry whether people from different backgrounds can form a coherent whole, able to work on common projects, aspire to common ideals, or at the least avoid conflict. But the evidence is that greater diversity helps, rather than hurts, in this regard. Where a society is riven between two large groups, the potential for polarization is greater. By contrast, where there are many different groups, as in Canada’s metropolitan centres, the potential for conflict is diffused.
I worry sometimes that Canada is losing sight of those traditional liberal values I mentioned: that we are becoming less a nation of equal individuals than a jigsaw puzzle of groups, with politicians pandering to each.
But the people who consistently restore my faith are the most recent arrivals on our shores. It is precisely to escape such racial and ethnic spoils systems that many immigrants leave their countries of birth. They long for nothing more than to be valued as individuals, in and of themselves.
Many conservatives, though they may be open to immigration, seem to hanker for a more overtly assimilationist policy; some even speak admiringly of Quebec’s approach in this regard. But this is a solution in search of a problem. In any case the alternative to multiculturalism is not monoculturalism: it’s to leave culture out of it, as an object of state policy.
The necessary and sufficient condition for unity is a commitment to the country’s laws and institutions, that “political nationality” of which our founders spoke.
I think those who have chosen willingly to become Canadians, sometimes having endured great hardship to get here, should rather enjoy the benefit of the doubt on this score.
Jasjot Mann, 5, takes a flag from a Mountie during a citizenship ceremony in Winnipeg in December 2017.