Multiculturalism alive and kicking

Some words are so boring that they lull you to sleep. “Multiculturalism” is one. It sounds like a long yawn.

Some words are so boring that they lull you to sleep. “Multiculturalism” is one. It sounds like a long yawn.

Political voices — Germany’s Angela Merkel; Britain’s David Cameron; Angelo Persichilli, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of communications — chant in chorus that “multiculturalism has failed.”

Is that sleep-making talk as empty as it seems? Could there be a reasonable message hidden in it?

What is multiculturalism? How has it failed? “Culture” in its widest sense means a way of life, language, food, family structure, government, economy, law, education, religions and political expression.

Culture means all “learned, shared and patterned behaviour.” You can’t put the whole bundle on display. So multicultural festivals offer a token show of ethnic food and folk-dancing.

Artists and their fans and media allies cloud the foggy political arena even further, by using “culture” to mean “arts and scholarship.” Couldn’t we steal a word from another language to sort out the two meanings, and improve the visibility?

Partisan politicians — despite their slogans that smell more like anti-immigrant vote-canvassing than serious attempts to build policy — must know they are wrong when they say varied lifestyles can not co-exist. Alternative lifestyles do prosper, in Canada and other countries.

Hutterites are an example. Their communal, team-enterprise farm settlements, driven by shared religious faith, proved so economically successful that they frightened non-Hutterites into enacting laws to block what the outsiders saw as the threat of increasing Hutterite numbers and land takeovers.

The restrictive rules were later cancelled. But now the fear of Islam has replaced last century’s anxiety about such organized social dropouts as the Hutterites. But a commonsense answer to “multiculturalism is dead” advocates seems possible.

Old-timers from Duncan may remember the school at the foot of Hospital Hill where Japanese-Canadian kids gathered after hours to learn and conserve Japanese language and traditions.

That organized cherishing by expatriates of their former homeland may throw light on our “multicultural” puzzle.

Japanese society back then was the reverse of multicultural. It still is politely and firmly Japanese. Before the war, according to my sketchy knowledge, there were three minorities: an outlying group who spoke a variant of the Japanese language, a socially depressed underclass whose ancestors had engaged in “polluting” occupations, and the indigenous Ainu people, who were being pushed into more and more remote locations.

Add a few foreign workers, and you have the uniform Japanese model of an industrial society — night-and-day different from the many-stranded Euro-American version.

I doubt that many people cared about those facts when they heard about Duncan’s Japanese school.

They might have worried if they had given thought to Japan’s rigidly unequal society and its old military tradition, which licensed a samurai to strike a social inferior with his sword if the lower-status person insulted his honour.

But the group of Japanese expatriates in B.C. did not follow the cultural pattern of the homeland, except in one respect. They were scrupulously law-abiding, hard working, thrifty,  ingenious and loyal to extended family.

They built a big stake in farming and fishing — which was sold at giveaway prices when Japanese-Canadians were pushed into wartime concentration camps.

The principle that jumps out of the Japanese-Canadian experience is that cultural systems are living, changing things. They adapt to circumstances.

And Islamic culture can also change as Muslim newcomers feel out their place in Canada. The threats that “multiculturalism-is-dead” people see in Muslim immigration may be imaginary.

But maybe we can’t take that adaptive change on faith. Maybe we should launch a deep inquiry into immigration policy, starting now.

—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It runs every second week in the Gazette.



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