Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal. Special Textbook Issue. Vol. 26, No. 3, 1994.

Benet Davetian
'Out of the Melting Pot and Into the Fire. An Essay on Neil Bisoondath's Book on Multi-culturalism: Selling Illusions.'

Neil Bisoondath's book "Selling Illusions" criticizes Canada's Multi-culturalism laws for contributing to a form of cultural apartheid. While Bisoondath's book is based on some intelligent observations, it does not consider the issue from other important points of views. By his own admission, he is not a sociologist but someone "trying to start a debate." As a sociologist and writer, I would like to participate in this debate by offering a post script to Mr. Bisoondath's book.

As an immigrant I sympathize with some of the points made by Bisoondath. It is irritating to be constantly referred back to one's roots when one's only interest is to become part of mainstream culture. Bisoondath cautions that exaggerated worship of diversity has brought about a culture so diverse that it is no longer coherent. Yet, he and thinkers who follow this premise fall into an associate fallacy. Since racial and ethnic integration has not fully occurred during the multi-culturalism era, they assume that it is multi-culturalism that is the culprit. It is a little like walking into a forest where everything isn't all right, and, upon seeing a jagged rock, declare that it is the rock's fault that the trees are ailing. If Canada is not a unified nation, it is not because of laws encouraging mutual self-respect, it is due to many diverse factors, including lack of universal leadership, geographical and provincial segmentation, and the existence of a post-modern value system which discourages homogeneity in favour of heterogeneity.

The Multi-culturalism laws and programmes are not social hazards nor the result of inept bureaucracy. They were established either in response to a situation that already existed and/or to prevent a situation from arising. The government knew what it was doing, just as a parent knows that its children may end up quarreling with a newly adopted child, if there are no reassurances or rules of civility.

Stephen Leacock writing in 1930 in "Economic Prosperity in the British Empire" said the following of immigration: "A little dose of them may even by variation, do good, like a minute dose of poison (sic) in a medicine..."

Government legislation on Multi-culturalism arrived to protect against and neutralize such dubious views. It had a two-fold purpose. On one hand, it sought to reassure prospective immigrants that Canada was committed to universal tolerance. On the other hand, it attempted to re-socialize the born-here population into accepting the presence of foreigners without falling into socially-disruptive mind-sets. Thanks to the Laws on Multi-culturalism, an ethnic group is now at least declared to have the basic right to maintain its culture within the framework of the mainstream culture, receive equal treatment before the law, and enjoy relatively equal economic opportunity. That this law has not always led to exemplary integration should not be used to damn the law; it should be taken as an indication of what could have occurred had the law not been there in the first place.

Bisoondath criticizes the politically-correct notion of treating foreigners as distinct ethnic groups. He goes far enough to criticize any notion of quota systems for job equity. In both instances, he fails to ask the question: What made quota systems necessary in the first place? How would the population behave were there to be no quotas? He explains his distaste for quota-hiring systems explaining that he would not want to be hired for any reason than his own talent, forgetting that the function of quota systems is not to hire people of visible minorities who have no talent, but to control the mainstream's tendency to exclude members of visible minorities regardless of their talent.

Ethnocentrism is the predictable response of every group on this earth possessing an indigenous culture. In-groups always feels defensive with out-groups, be those in-groups Canadian or Asian or African or from Mars. Those who have come to believe that ethnocentrism is a particularly European-Colonist attitude need only buy a round-the-world airline ticket; the same ethnocentrism will be found in nearly every country. A westerner seeking acceptance into an Asian family will come up against the same resistance experienced by an Asian seeking a Western mate.

These territorial instincts between in-groups and out-groups are most in evidence when resources are limited. Two tribes would not go to war over a water hole if there were thousands more than either of them needed...they would probably find some other point of contention, or that failing, establish home teams and turn to competitive games.

Economics, however, is just one factor. The concept of familiarity is just as important. If history is any indicator, it takes long sustained inter-mingling for separate cultures to become unified. The in-groups need time to abandon certain of their premises in favour of those held by the out-groups. And the out-groups need time to abandon some of their premises for those held by the in-group. Such compromises come from protracted familiarity between groups. Multi-culturalism allow such familiarity, by encouraging the customs of each group with the hope that the larger human common denominator will eventually become evident to all. One such example of cultural assimilation and transformation is the mix caused by hundreds of years of migration between regions of the Middle East. There has been so much trade and inter-marriage between large populations migrating from one area to another that anthropologists and theologians are no longer sure of which custom dates back to which group. Islamic scholars are still debating whether the veil was an Islamic creation or existed prior to Islam and was brought into Islamic territory by non-Islamic groups.

While I am one of those immigrants who has become completely westernized, I am keenly aware that Bisoondath's self-confidence and his desire to be completely integrated into the Canadian culture may not be equally shared by the entire immigrant community. Many immigrants arrive in Canada faced with a language which is not their own. My own immediate integration into mainstream Canadian culture upon my arrival in 1968 had much to do with the fact that I attended American and British schools ever since the age of four and adopted English as my mother tongue. That I was accepted and given equal opportunity is a testament to the generosity of Canadians towards immigrants who go to the trouble of learning and using the symbols of the culture. Yet, many immigrants do not arrive possessing the linguistic or cultural backgrounds needed to plunge into mainstream Canadian culture without a certain measure of self-protection. If the moral support given them by Multi-culturalism programmes is taken away from them, their uncertainty may increase and contribute to further alienation.

Beyond the question of language there is also the question of differing valuing systems. Members of industrialized nations are living through a stage called "post-conventional morality", a form of personal valuation system that is not directly determined by official institutions. While this may create some destructive impulsive behaviour, it also permits moral decisions that sometimes surpass those of more collectivized cultures in depth as well as humanity. Our liberal immigration policies are a reflection of this new ethic. Some immigrants from countries which possess conventional moral systems find it difficult to adapt to Canada's liberal morality (which should not in any way be confused with absence of morality, but taken as indicative of the absence of a cut-and-dry ethic). Multi-culturalism programmes can be a great consolation to people in cultural transition, for these programmes reassure them that they can hold onto their own value systems while finding their way in this complex paradoxical culture.

And even when an immigrant does become acclimatized, a further question arises: Does he or she wish at all cost to become identical to his hosts in terms of speech, value-system and behaviour? For the past hundred years, we have lived with the notion that any country wishing to become industrialized must adopt the values and cultural processes of those countries which have preceded it into industrialization. Many countries believed that modernization meant Europeanization. In recent years, however, many developing countries demonstrated that they can adopt Western technology without exchanging their fundamental cultural values for European standards. Even born-here Canadian families have taken to questioning some of the traditional notions of their own culture and wondered whether it cannot prosper with revised mores. We are beginning to see that cultural success can be achieved regardless of whether one faces east or west to pray. Bisoondath claims that many immigrants have brought the hostilities and prejudices of their homeland to Canada. He accuses them of remaining divided against themselves as well as mainstream Canadian values. If any of this is true, then so much the more reason for notions of multi-culturalism, for the immigrant groups may need to learn to accept one another as much as they need to be accepted by mainstream Canada. The concept of Multi-Culturalism is a positive one because it allows us to experiment with the notion that we can maintain a standard secular culture through the practice of varying customs. The claim that national unity cannot be established without cultural homogeneity is an erroneous one. What unites a country is common purpose directed at some future goal. It is this goal that is absent, not goodwill on the part of the Canadians.

Thus, what is more important than homogeneity is the discovery of common ground. I say common ground because I feel it is completely unrealistic to expect individuals who have been brought up in one culture to completely become children of another culture. The moment someone emigrates to another country, he/she experiences what it means to be caught between two cultures. This process is the essence of internationalism and the humanism it fosters. By standing outside culture, an individual begins seeing the common human denominators shared by all cultures. Such individuals who have seen life on both sides of the cultural divide cannot be expected to exhibit the concentrated vision of individuals who have grown up in a single close-ended culture. So we waste our time when we talk of "assimilation" instead of "integration"&emdash;-assimilation implies a disappearance of previous selves, an impossible concept to say the least.

In summary, three important factors need to be taken into consideration in the successful integration of an immigrant.

First of all, immigrants come from old cultures in which certain traditions have been kept alive for thousands of years. Many of our social theories, such as our theories of relativity and our notion of individual morality over institutional customs, would not only be meaningless in these older cultures, they would be seen as an outright threat to survival; at best, their adoption would require a complete overhaul of entire religious systems. So we cannot expect a member of a traditionalist culture to handle full integration in a short period of time. We must be careful to differentiate between lack of good intention and difficulty of adaptation.

Second of all, integration cannot occur without mastery of language. The immigrant who has good command of the language is immediately more integrated into the culture. Critics such as Bisoondath who do have absolute mastery of the English language tend to forget the predicament of their less-fortunate compatriots. So, more than anything, it is important that arriving immigrants realize that language is as important as technical skills and do everything possible to increase their proficiency in it. Language is the basis for communication. In the final analysis, groups are brought together more by common language than noble sentiment.

Third of all, this same lack of assimilation and anomie, of which Bisoondath accuses the beneficiaries of multi-culturalism, is being experienced by true-blood Canadians themselves. So we must differentiate between voluntary alienation between cultures and alienation of an existential type that descends on all residents of a nation experiencing rapid change and uncertainty. Community cannot exist without a sufficient measure of conformity. Our mainstream culture is not a communal one, but a diverse one. That some immigrants fail to integrate completely may be as much a reflection of this existing cultural fragmentation than lack of good intention.

The possibilities for misinterpretation and misunderstanding in times of anomie are legion. I remember a newly-arrived immigrant asking me once, visibly disturbed, "Why are strangers so cold with me here? Are they against Indians?" I didn't answer him, but took him into a shopping mall and sat him down on a bench and asked him to closely observe the interactions between people. It didn't take him long to realize that Canadians treat each other with as much distanced courtesy as they do foreigners. Many immigrants, arriving from countries in which there are warm exchanges between strangers on street-level, misinterpret this social fact and end up feeling needlessly hurt. Writers such as Bisoondath imply that immigrants integrate into the United States better than they do in Canada because of the "melting pot" policy of the United States. I wonder, however, if the real reason may not be the fact that Americans are more open and socially gregarious than Canadians; perhaps immigrants find the American social climate closer to that of their own countries than they do our neo-British personality.

All considered, the single most destructive aspect of apartheid, seen from both sides of the dividing line, is that each side begins hallucinating that its ways are the best, not realizing that a magnificent river can flow from the marriage of separate streams. If a simple friendly down-to-earth courtesy is learned and practiced by all, our integration will be a reciprocal one and based on common humanity rather than forced notions of mono-culturalism.

The point I am making here is that a dominant local culture that has not yet accepted to forego its dominance and open its arms, in all domains, without legislative pressure, will not do so in the absence of legislation. Equally, an immigrant population that continues looking askance at the customs of its host country, will remain separated, regardless of what laws are in place.

Only when both in-group and out-group are allowed to openly criticize the cultural delusions of the other, will we see real equality established. When we stop telling immigrants to go back home if they are not satisfied with our culture (even when they complain about social ills which irritate even the born-here citizens, such as orgiastic violence on TV and a disconcerting lack of concern for notions of population-propagation and familial continuity)...only then we will have eliminated the need for notions of multi-culturalism. What Bisoondath fails to realize (or accepts to risk with much courage) is that his thesis plays into the hands of precisely those who would prefer to reduce immigrants to a silent group, without culture, and with a resulting absence of dissenting opinion. A case of this is illustrated in MacLean's article reviewing Bisoondath's work. In the article, City of Toronto equal opportunity director Ceta Ramkhalawansingh is quoted as replying to Bisoondath, "If [Bisoondath] would like to revert to the colonial days, I'm sure there are a few countries that he could move to." This strange comment coming from one who is supposed to favour equal opportunity illustrates how someone disagreeing with a cultural notion can be invited to exile himself when he is not a born-here citizen. This comment would have never been applicable or addressed to a born-here Canadian. The fact that it is uttered by a member of an ethnic group further intensifies the comedy of the situation.

The multi-culturalism laws have not thrown Canadians into confusion. They have prevented us from outwardly treating each other as second class citizens (out of thoughtlessness and economic pressure, if nothing else). Here is one case where political correctness has a useful and ultimately humane function. For immigrants the Multi-culturalist legislation is a consolation if not altogether a deliverance. I believe it will be remembered as one of the most progressive and universal legislative measures introduced by the leaders of this country.

Mankind's oldest and greatest challenge has always been to learn love for the stranger, for in achieving this love it achieves acceptance of its own multi-dimensional self. Eliminating a law that champions such inter-cultural compassion is not the answer. If I had to choose between the "illusion" of tolerated differences and the illusion of strained mono-culturalism, I would prefer the checks and balances of the multi-culturalism concept...for it allows both born-here Canadians and immigrants to preserve their respective cultural strengths in a rapidly-changing culture that is still in the making and in need of all the help it can get.

Bisoondath has written a thought-provoking work. It would be extremely unfair to the integrity of this writer to accuse him of prejudice. Some of his points are extremely valid and written with the lucidity of honest appraisal. He has triggered a much-needed debate. We would err in discounting his position nor the position of those who disagree with him. In meditating on these varying possible positions, I am reminded of an old story my grandmother used to tell me whenever I began thinking that I had all the answers:

"There was once a judge in a distant hamlet, far from the city where men of learning met. One day, however, he was called to the big city to preside over a tricky case.

The prosecution presented its case. The humble judge listened attentively and thought for a moment and said, 'You're right.'

The defense then presented its case. The judge deliberated and answered, 'You're right, too.'

The bailiff of the court went up to the judge and whispered, 'But, your honor, they can't be both right! This is a courthouse. You must render a judgment.'

The judge thought for a moment and replied, 'You know...come to think of it, you're also right.'"

That, by the way, is a story which the Armenians, the Turks, the Iranians, the Russians, and Afghanis claim to have originated in their own country. Goes to show you....