Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RESPECTING CANADA'S CULTURAL MOSAIC

The small community of Hérouxville, Que., about half the size of Pemberton, was at the centre of a storm of controversy recently over a set of community “standards” issued by its town council for immigrants who might be thinking of moving into the community.In so doing, they managed to offend just about everyone — Muslims with an expressed prohibition on stoning, live burning and disfiguring of women, not to mention advice about when it’s acceptable to cover one’s face in public (only at Halloween, they said), Sikhs with a rule prohibiting children from carrying weapons “real or fake, symbolic or not,” even born-again Christians with the reminder that biology is taught in local schools.
Ham-fisted though the Hérouxville effort may have been, it is symptomatic of an issue with which Canadians, and to an even greater degree Europeans, have been struggling for some time: How, in a supposedly multicultural society, does one ensure that civil order is maintained and the lifestyles of established communities respected without greatly offending the sensibilities of immigrants from distinctly different cultures? In post-9/11 Europe, fears that allowing large numbers of immigrants — especially Muslims — is creating an ever wider us-vs.-them divide have sparked laws and practices that threaten immigrants’ civil liberties — the banning of hijabs (Muslim head coverings) in French schools, even a requirement by the Netherlands that immigrants undergo tolerance training aiming to gauge their reaction to scenes of homosexuals kissing and nude beaches.
In Canada, where the current policy is to allow some 250,000 immigrants per year using only job skills and the ability to speak English or French as criteria, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides a set of rules for living in a multicultural society. The charter, however, was only adopted in the 1980s and its boundaries are still being tested — witness last year’s Supreme Court of Canada ruling regarding the wearing of ceremonial kirpans (daggers) by Sikhs in schools.In spite of some discomfort with such practices, a poll last fall found that some 68 per cent of Canadians reject the notion that immigrants should have their religious beliefs and values screened before being admitted into the country. But is it possible to be too tolerant?
At what point does it become necessary to curb religious or cultural practices in the interest of harmony and order?It has become de rigeur in some circles to bash the policy of multiculturalism as having failed because it tends to pull countries apart, not bring them together. However, we would argue that what some perceive as those societies’ weaknesses are really strengths — that immigrants are part of the lifeblood of Canada’s social fabric and that homogeneity is no longer possible or desirable. The question is how far society should go to ensure that immigrants understand the community to which they are moving. “Rules” such as some of those laid out in Hérouxville are far too patronizing because they’re already included in the laws of the land.
“Guidelines” or “advice” run the risk of being patronizing as well. But without a doubt, it’s important to provide information to help new immigrants fit in.The answer, it seems to us, is for everyone to give something — immigrants a lot in most cases, established communities a little. While it’s not always possible to accommodate the sensibilities of everyone, it is possible for Canadians to change accepted practices to fit the new cultural mosaic.Remember the debate a few years ago over the wearing of turbans by RCMP members? As former governor general Adrienne Clarkson told Maclean’s, “The last time I saw the Musical Ride, there were two turbans, and no one seemed to care.”

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