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Intraculturalism: A multicultural third way

“Canada is a multicultural patchwork quilt, a country of immigrants.” These are common refrains about our country. Canada is home to over 200 ethnic groups, and has an official multicultural policy since 1971 (instituted by Trudeau the elder). Yet xenophobia and racism still remain, and multiculturalism is still a hot debate. The debate is not just between the natural-born and the immigrant, but also among the immigrants themselves. That is the topic I would like to explore below.

Day-to-day inside of an immigrant community, there is an argument of how to live here, of how to “integrate” into Canadian society. Members of an immigrant community can (very) generally be placed at two ends on a spectrum. On the one extreme, you can try and go “Full Canuck”: wear lots of plaid, go to Tim Horton’s every day, get a car loan and a mortgage on a big house, put your kids in hockey, don’t speak your native language to them, etc. But let’s face it, since we know that when people talking about idealized Canadians they are really talking about being white (cf. that recent racist Vancouver Sun piece), extreme integrationism is a kind of reaching for whiteness, which only ends in dissatisfaction (or disillussionment).

Realizing that no amount of maple syrup will ever get you accepted by white Canada, some people go the other way: strengthening cultural identity. They choose their traditional language, values, clothing, etc. They stick to their patch in the proverbial quilt, which leads to a different kind of isolation.

Navigating the social dynamics inside of a specific immigrant community is constantly assessing where others are along this spectrum, and tempering your own opinions at the risk of being outcast from an axiomatically small community of people.

A third way can be illustrated by a allegorical tale of being a new kid at school. If you have ever experienced being the new kid in a class, or at a club, you know how hard it is to make friends. So what is a common point of gravitation? Befriending the other new kids in the class. In immigrant terms, this means that the way to integrate into Canadian society is not to reach for whiteness, and not to isolate yourself in your own community, but to connect with other immigrants from other communities (and every group should be connecting with indigenous communities, but that is another post). Is there anything more Canadian that sewing the multicultural quilt yourself? It is an empowering perspective.

I am no scholar of multicultural theory, I am just relating my observations about the immigrant communities I have been involved with. For immigrant organizations there is a debate on how much of their activities should be focused inward and how much outward. Inward activities are the kind that provide support to the people of the community who are struggling in Canada. Outward-facing activities are those that are often conceived of as bridge-building, exemplified by events invite others to partake in immigrant food or culture. In thinking about my proposed “integration spectrum”, you can tell which kinds of people tend to argue for inward vs outward activities. I am not sure what the right mix is, but it is important to ensure that outward-facing activities do not enforce white supremacy. This is harder than it sounds. So, going the third way, reaching out to the other “Others” seems more constructive. Not inward, not outward, but across-ward…? At least, that is my conclusion after spending years all across this spectrum. The interesting thing is how over the past forty years, official government policy on multiculturalism has come to the same conclusion.

In the 1970s, multiculturalism policy was very much of the “song and dance” variety. Canada wanted immigrants to “perform” their immigrant-ness, throwing cultural events where they wore their funny hats, danced their funny dances, and shared their funny food. This was pretty much purely for the benefit of white Canada. In the eighties and nineties, that evolved into a new focus on anti-racism and equity. Moving away from the limited version of performative multiculturalism, Canada started to tackle needed institutional changes (one outcome was the founding of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation which I have mentioned in the past). Over the past decade or so, the Canadian government has redefined multiculturalism as more integrative and civic, and has been promoting more intercultural activities. This is evidenced by the funding made available to immigrant groups which now often requires applicants to have partnerships with other immigrant groups. The government supports the patches quilting themselves together. Knowing this should have big implications on how immigrant rights groups organize.

As a post-script, what does this mean for identity? An interesting question that requires more thought. I will just close with a final observation: here in Canada I have seen Japanese, Chinese and Korean community leaders working together for the betterment of all, something I would be very hard-pressed to see in Japan (and maybe Korea and China). “Asian-Canadian” actually begins to take on a meaning more than just ethnicity, and becomes a viable political choice for new immigrants, as those communities work to integrate themselves.