A version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, December 20, 1994

During the past few years, federal multiculturalism policy has come under increasing attack. Both the Reform party and the Bloc Quebecois call for its abolition. Neil Bissoondath has written a book criticizing it and calling for its overhaul. Ethnic groups are attacking at as not going far enough, going too far or not being relevant.

That should be a signal that something is fishy. We couldn’t possibly all be attacking the same thing. How has a policy that is intended to provide harmony and understanding provoked such hostile reactions from such diverse sources?

In its origins, the policy was straightforward enough. It was one of a series of Canadian policies meant to recognize and accommodate various groups in Canada. As a constitutional monarchy, it was perhaps easier for Canadian authorities to see peoples of various traditions and languages bound together simply by their common allegiance to the Crown but otherwise able to express public identities that were quite different from each other.

Starting with the recognition of civil law in Quebec, this has been a long Canadian tradition. Official languages, recognition of the right of Catholics to a separate education system, recognition of the rights of aboriginal peoples, allowing Newfoundland to maintain its confession-based education system on entry into Confederation, etc.

Paradoxically, as a society, we also have a long tradition of opposite tendencies, intolerance of differences and an emphasis on conformity and assimilation. This was shown in the reaction to Irish immigrants to Upper Canada, to French minorities, to Jews, to Blacks, to Asian immigration, etc. Indeed, without these very powerful forces to threaten them, various groups might never have sought protection in the law. Without the mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War, for example, there would have been no Japanese-Canadian redress.

Recall that multiculturalism was a government response to criticism of its Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. It came directly out of the desire of ethnic groups who did not fit into the traditional categories of the time (British, French, aboriginal) to receive recognition for their role and contribution in building the country. They wanted to be seen as full citizens of Canada, proud of their origins and proud to be Canadian. It was primarily a policy of integration and participation.

It’s also useful to remember the original points of the policy as outlined by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the House of Commons on Oct. 8, 1971. The government opted for an official policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. The government would provide support in four ways:

l Resources permitting, it would seek to assist all Canadian cultural groups that had demonstrated a desire and effort to continue to develop, a capacity to grow and contribute to Canada, and a clear need for assistance;

l It would help members of all cultural groups to overcome cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society;

l It would promote creative encounters and interchange among all Canadian cultural groups in the interest of national unity; and

l It would continue to assist immigrants in acquiring at least one of Canada’s official languages in order to become full participants in Canadian society.

While the policy was framed in a broad way, it most clearly responded to the concerns of the “other'’ ethnic groups. By them it was seen as a framework for promoting equality and participation without forcing assimilation.

While many other Canadians were indifferent, aboriginal peoples and French Canadians resented the policy. They feared a broad policy of multiculturalism would marginalize them further as “ethnic groups'’ without any particular historical claims or rights.

This attitude still colors the comments of the BQ, although their own policy on ethnicity in Quebec strongly resembles the federal policy in its details. For political convenience, this policy is called “intercultural'’ and not “multicultural.'’ Another instance of defining a federal policy as what you don’t like and then attacking it.

This is a game that many now play. We have moved into a world where policies that strike a balance between integration and change, between minorities and others are increasingly difficult. The “extreme middle'’ favored by Trudeau has been vacated. What we have now is positioning and posturing. Everyone hijacks multiculturalism as a perfect target. It is too much in the middle.

For instance, as William Johnson of The Montreal Gazette correctly notes in his review of Bissoondath’s book, the author defines what he doesn’t like, calls it multiculturalism and attacks it. At the same time, in his discussion of what he would like, it actually sounds like some version of — yes, it’s true Virginia — the original multiculturalism policy.

Similarly, the Reform party and others see multiculturalism as being primarily concerned with heritage retention, almost the opposite of what the current program and policy fund and support.

Finally, while federal multiculturalism has justifiably dealt more and more with racism against visible minorities, some anti-racism activists have appropriated multiculturalism rhetoric to themselves and excluded other issues from the agenda. They accuse multiculturalism of being too soft, dealing with “song and dance.'’ They have lost sight of the intimate connection between multiculturalism, ethnic groups and integration.

How can we move from the strange impasse where only the opponents and critics of multiculturalism are allowed to define it?

A return to a clear focus on participation and integration of all Canadians would be a positive first step. Fighting racism against visible minorities would be one element of this overall direction.

A shorter, more succinct and simpler statement of multiculturalism policy would also help. Anyone who has tried to communicate the complex policy introduced in 1988 knows the challenge in forming a clear and definite picture of it. It has been too easy for anyone to do what the Bloc, the Reform party and others have done, that is, see what one does not like in it.

We cannot lose sight of the original goals of multiculturalism. They are goals most Canadians can support. Questions of funding and priorities must of course be addressed in times of fiscal restraint, but why throw the baby out with the bath water?

We need to return to a streamlined policy with easy-to-communicate objectives, which a broad range of Canadians can support and which fosters dialogue rather than dispute. Do we have the strength and the desire to keep the middle from flying apart?

Rubin Friedman is director of government relations for B’nai Brith Canada.