Canadians Tire of Multiculturalism

Two countries are struggling to shape a national identity out of many nationalities

CANADIANS once embraced the motto ''Let's celebrate our differences!''

Today, that 1970s mantra of ethnic tolerance has all but disappeared. Instead, Canada's official policy of multiculturalism is under heavy assault.

Critics say the policy has undermined Canadian identity and systematically divided the society into little more than a bunch of squabbling factions and ethnic groups.

''People don't accept anymore that you can justify Canada as [simply] the sum of its multicultural parts,'' says Philip Resnick, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Public support for Canada's multicultural policy has fallen from two-thirds to about half since 1989, according to an Environics Research Group poll released last week. Last year, 72 percent of Canadians thought ethnic groups should adopt a Canadian value system, a Decima Research poll showed.

In that same survey, 41 percent agreed: ''I am tired of ethnic minorities being given special treatment.''

For 24 years, the Canadian government has supported immigrant cultural traditions and languages, in accordance with the vision of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The goal: to create a ''cultural mosaic'' of interracial tolerance in contrast to the United States ''melting pot.''

Others say there was a darker side to Mr. Trudeau's desire for a multicultural society, including muting Quebec's French-speaking minority by making it one in a sea of ethnic voices. Others say simply it was a way of luring immigrant votes with federal dollars.

Spearheading the national multiculturalism debate is novelist Neil Bissoondath, a Canadian citizen for more than 20 years, who was born in Trinidad of Indian descent. Mr. Bissoondath decries the current policy for ''racializing'' Canadian society. ''Multiculturalism was supposed to coalesce into a new sense of Canadian identity,'' he said in an interview at his home here, as he took a shot at what some say is the holiest of Canada's holy cows.

''Instead, it has helped tear [Canada's identity] apart. It has told those of us who have come here from elsewhere that what matters more is the past ... what defines us is our ethnic or racial identity,'' he adds. ''It has caused many of us to disregard the larger possibilities around us, of belonging to a larger country like Canada.''

Bissoondath inflamed debate last fall with his book ''Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada,'' a national bestseller. The book has brought him acclaim and disdain: He has been called a racist and a ''coconut'' -- brown on the outside, white on the inside, he says.

''I don't enjoy Neil Bissoondath,'' said Sheila Finestone, secretary of state for multiculturalism in a speech last November to the Canadian Ethnocultural Council in Toronto that castigated him for lacking empathy for immigrant Canadians.

Recent headlines, however, have turned a spotlight on the issue. Ethnic groups have demanded the right to wear religious headgear at all times and are fighting to have schools recognize their holy days alongside Christian holidays.

Last year, Sikh veterans were not permitted to join in Remembrance Day ceremonies with a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion in Surrey, British Colombia, because the Legion's bylaws prohibited the wearing of headgear. The Sikhs were unwilling to remove their turbans.

More recently, a national debate swirled when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police permitted its Sikh officers to wear their turbans instead of regular RCMP hats.

''We are sick of newcomers demanding that Canada adopt their customs and their languages,'' wrote Sonja Sinclair, herself an immigrant to Canada, in the Globe and Mail newspaper last fall.

''Some would make multiculturalism the central tenet of what it means to be Canadian,'' Professor Resnick says. ''I think that goes too far. A lot of people are wary because they don't want ... to simply import all the blood hatreds and disputes that have flourished around world.''

At a 1992 festival celebrating Macedonian heritage, an estimated 3,000 Macedonian and Greek youths fought in the streets of North York, north of Toronto.

Canada is a magnet for immigrants. According to the 1991 census, Canada's population of 27.3 million includes 4.3 million immigrants. One-third live in metropolitan Toronto. Of the city's 3.9 million residents, 1.4 million are immigrants.

Last week, the Reform Party -- which elected 52 members to Parliament in 1993 in part by riding a wave of public sentiment in favor of limiting immigration -- entered a motion to debate multicultural policy. The Liberal Party majority debated the issue for an hour, but killed the motion.

Jan Brown, a Reform member of Parliament from Calgary, says she has been labeled ''mean-spirited and racist'' for even wanting to discuss the value of the government spending about $27 million last year on multicultural programs.

''Do I have to wear the label of a bigot simply because I'm bringing forward a different point of view?'' she asks.

''Multiculturalism as a policy is paradoxical,'' says Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist with the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. ''A national identity in its classic form is a claim to sameness of some kind. It's just strange to think of a claim to sameness built out of many forms of claims to difference.''

But there are signs that government policy is subtly, if not officially, changing.

At a citizenship ceremony on Friday in Toronto, a Canadian judge admonished 53 smiling faces from 20 countries to ''retain your traditions -- but blend them with the fabric of this country.''

''It feels nice to be a Canadian,'' says Maria Botelho, a newly minted Canadian who grew up in Lisbon, Portugal. ''But I admit, there's a part of me that is still Portuguese and probably always will be.''

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