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Multiculturalism: It Hurts Us All

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Issue: 23 Section: Features Geography: Canada Topics: migration, racism

November 6, 2004

Multiculturalism: It Hurts Us All

Why Canada isn't, never was, and probably never will be a multicultural nation

by Susana Ferreira

A Brazilian family is interviewed outside a public discussion about the status of undocumented immigrants. photo: Tanja-Tiziana Burdi
On a recent broadcast of CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning, the Toronto-based programme broached the topic of undocumented construction workers in the city’s undocumented economy. Katherine Jacobs, Manager of Research and Analysis for the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS) was on hand to divulge the details of the OCS’ most recent media campaign—“The Underground Economy: It Hurts Us All!” Jacobs outlined the concerns of the OCS management and the provincial labour ministry, explaining that billions in revenue is lost yearly by way of untraceable income and un-collectable income tax, and painted the under-the-table cash transactions as comparable to robbing the province of education and healthcare dollars. What Jacobs, host Andy Barrie, and the entirety of the OCS’ radio, television, and web campaign neglected to expand upon, however, was the delicate, complex nature of the underground economy. Specifically, who are these faceless, thieving workers, and why have they been forced to work “under the table”?

Immigrant, refugee, and illegal people of colour constitute the majority of the underground economy in the Greater Toronto Area's residential and industrial construction market. A large portion of this group is made up of members of the Portuguese-speaking diaspora—of Portuguese, Brazilian, and East/West African decent. (Their female counterparts make up the backbone of the industrial and domestic cleaning and textile labour markets.) The OCS' public attack on the underground economy and illegal or immigrant workers of colour immediately calls to mind the xenophobic threat tactics of the Canadian government during the first several waves of non-British immigration. White Canadians, legitimized by their skin, felt as though they had an inherent right to be protected against this foreign influx of People of Colour.

Aside from issues surrounding legality, immigration policy, the conduct of immigration officers, and the tactics of the OCS, a simple question begs to be addressed: just what does it mean to be Canadian? Is it a sheet of paper, stamped and signed by the Citizenship Office that makes one Canadian? Does Canadianness reside in skin, in speech, or in cultural customs? In common history or religion or political affiliation? Can one marry into Canadianness or be born Canadian? What gives one person the right to be treated as Canadian while that same right is denied to another? The OCS, for example, would like to measure Canadianness in terms of income tax revenue and union fee payment.

Jorge Da Costa, an activist in the Toronto Portugese-speaking community, speaks at a public discussion about the status of undocumented immigrants. photo: Tanja-Tiziana Burdi
At an emergency meeting held in the heart of Toronto's Portuguese-speaking community in early October, local politicians, social workers, and members of the underground construction market came together to express concern, to outline the many-tiered nature of the threats being leveled against them, to bemoan their own misinformed perceptions of citizenship and legality, and to lobby for a collective amnesty. They argued that while the cash-only, untraceable nature of their income earnings preempts them from paying income taxes, they do work hard, contribute to the economy, pay property taxes, pay their bills, put their children in school, and contribute to community cultural events. If they work so hard to be productive, positive members of Canadian society, and if they have consistently filled a giant gap in the labour market, then why must the only source of income available to them be wrested away? Choosing to comply with OCS's proposed strictures means choosing between unemployment and deportation—a no-win situation.

Another major issue, palpably absent from the CBC's report on the situation, but still very relevant to the illegals and immigrants that gathered in October, is the effect these threats and deportations have on the workers' children. Many undocumented families have been in Canada for a decade or more, having chosen the route of illegal residency following immigration policy changes in 1990 and political and economic unrest in their home countries. Their offspring—born, raised, and educated via Canadian schools and pop culture—are caught in one of the most unpleasant positions imaginable for any family. If their parents are deported back to Portugal, Brazil, Angola, or Mozambique, then they must choose to either stay behind in Canada alone or in foster care, or be deported with their parents. The latter option means life in a country and culture (and often a language) these children have little to no connection with, exiled from the only home they know.


The question of Canadian Identity is a familiar and prominent one. Canadians spend so much time agonizing over our lack of solid, touchable, definable identity that it has practically become a national pastime. Some would argue that it is this agonizing itself that best defines our national identity.

Having a static national identity, as much as we covet this particular luxury, can have treacherous effects. A static identity has defined borders and properties; it can be both threatened and defended. To Giller Prize-winning, Canadian author M. G. Vassanji, our problem is not that we lack a solid, tangible identity:

The problem is, what constitutes that core; and in the demographically changing society doesn't its definition end up being exclusionary and divisive, potentially destructive and ultimately redundant? I believe that if such an essence [as Canadian identity] exists… it is or will be more subtle than being comprised of a mere response to nature, making a fetish out of low temperatures, or turning away and looking north out of a mule-headed defiance of the south.

Furthermore, a firm identity of what is requires a firm identification of what isn't—commonly referred to in academic circles as "Other". Canada is a nation made up of racial hierarchies and Others, where the dominance or legitimacy of one group (the White, European core) relies on the existence and juxtaposition of lesser players. Educator, activist and author Himani Banneranji recounts her own experience, as a landed-immigrant-turned-citizen:

There has emerged an ideologically homogeneous identity dubbed Canadian whose nation and state Canada is supposed to be….the identity of the Canadian 'we' does not reside in language, religion or other aspects of culture….Colour of skin is elevated here beyond its contingent status and becomes an essential quality called whiteness, and this becomes the ideological signifier of a unified non-diversity. The others outside of this moral and cultural whiteness are targets for either assimilation or toleration…. Even after years of being an 'immigrant,' and upon swearing allegiance to the same queen of England from whom India had parted, I was not to be a 'Canadian.' Regardless of my official status as a Canadian citizen, I, like many others, remained an 'immigrant.' The category 'Canadian' clearly applied to people who had two things in common: their white skin and their European North American (not Mexican) background.

Canada has taken the non-stance of leaving the question of identity open—making it easy to slip into laziness, apathy, blame-shrugging indifference and irresponsibility, and effectively shutting down dialogue. The government made this approach official in 1996 when the national census featured "Canadian" as a possible response to the ethnic origin question for the first time ever. Much of our laissez-faire approach to identity has to do with our broad embrace of Multiculturalism. Introduced to us by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canadians have been touting this happy badge of tolerance and progressive-mindedness for decades, not really taking pains to understand its basis or implications, and taking for granted that our non-identity is a mask for an established, deep-rooted White European identity. The very concept of Multiculturalism is based on inequality—essentially, having a core "norm" surrounded by Others.


The process of nation-building is tied to space, language, education, and common or shared knowledge. The failure of the Multiculturalist model is evidenced in our failure to incorporate non-White cultures in how we organize our living and work spaces, in how different languages or dialects are disrespected (French is included in this, despite its token "official" status), in how our public education system continues to be framed according to Euro-centric models of learning and history, in how our popular culture and mass media is unrepresentative of even the largest cultural minority groups. While hardly an excuse, Canada's divisive history and proximity to the United States' cultural monster have much to do with our inability or unwillingness to take an active role in re-shaping this country's political, economic and social structures to reflect our changing demography and official policy. Sherene Razack, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, published Race, Space, and the Law in 2002, in which she identifies Canada's strong and seemingly unshakable connection with our White Settler Society roots. In a White Settler Society, she says, the White European continues to be seen as "the group most entitled to the fruits of citizenship," while "people of colour are scripted as late arrivals…. In this way, slavery, indentureship, and labour exploitation… are all handily forgotten…". She also cites the "racialized structure of citizenship" that operates in this country and roles played by Anti-Terrorist and Immigration laws in denoting who should have the right to be called Canadian and who should not.

Responsibility for race-based inequalities in Canada—which may include inequalities within different labour markets, the ghettoization of neighbourhoods, cultural groups with consistently low levels of education, a high concentration of poverty among particular groups, etc.—is attributed to something called "the linear theory". This theory is based on the principle that all newcomers face difficulties when they first arrive in a country, but as they learn to adapt and integrate, they eventually fare as well as native-born citizens. Framed around that old myth (we're all on a level playing field and success depends on an individual's ability to work) the linear theory, coupled with the concept of Multiculturalism, shirks responsibility for the racist structures and hierarchies that have held up Western society for centuries.

With this in mind, Canadianness becomes something obtainable via assimilation to White, Western mindsets and practices. However, the politics of visibility (i.e. "I can see that you are different, therefore foreign") makes assimilation to the Canadian ideal a physical impossibility for those without the prerequisite Whiteness. White Privilege, invisible and all too powerful, is inherent in the negotiation of Canadian Identity.


In a position paper delivered at The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in South Africa three years ago, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) took careful pains to unravel popular misperceptions of immigrants, Canadians of Colour, and the non-role of Multiculturalism:

The multiculturalism policy, while it embraces folkloric and cultural particularities, does not address issues of, nor guarantee access to the privileges of citizenship to ALL Canadians. The greatest weakness of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act is, thus, its limited effectiveness in the modification of the fundamental structure, and organizational cultures of Canadian institutions whose practices reflect systematic and institutionalized racism…[It] does not address nor challenge integration and citizenship issues as they are affected by the Whiteness ideology that is prevalent in Canadian past and current consciousness…. Colour blindness is a powerful method for people in the media to deny the existence of power relations of our everyday lives and how they are affected by race…. Based on the merit principle, this discourse denies the fact that everyone is not on a level playing field and historical factors do influence achievement and privilege.

The CRRF's criticism also extended to the situation of immigrant and refugee offspring—the Second Generation Canadians of Colour. This is of particular interest, given that the linear theory of immigrant acculturation no longer applies; their setbacks and hurdles cannot be brushed off as anything but race-based discrimination.

…Most children of colour are currently attending schools where their identity is not given due recognition within the curriculum…. Racialized children continue to be taught euro-centric history that does not accurately reflect the contributions of their own ancestors, resulting in them experiencing feelings of unimportance and also rendering them invisible and inconsequential to others…

The double bind of Canadian birth and alien origin—evidenced in the skin—makes Second Generation Canadians of Colour the most able critics of Multiculturalism, and the best-equipped to point out inequalities within our societal, economic and governmental structures. Perhaps the OCS sees it as decidedly wrong for bodies of colour, whether landed or without papers, to be earning as much as legitimate Canadian bodies within the construction industry. While it is still difficult to gage whether a cry of "racism!" is justifiable in this case, one certainly does wonder—would they have treated assimilated, Canadian-born workers this way?

Multiculturalism, for it to be a meaningful, sincere element of Canadianness, precludes a complete re-evaluation and overhaul of current political infrastructures and cultural models. As it stands, Multiculturalism is little more than a song-and-dance distraction from bona fide inequalities and injustices. Our laissez faire approach to Identity is matched by our shoulder-shrugging treatment of Canada's fast-changing urban and suburban demographic, and its quiet, invisible nature makes it far more harmful than most Canadians realize.

Until a change comes—perhaps led by the Second and Third Generation—it is not unreasonable to say that Multiculturalism has failed us. Or, to be blunt, that we have failed it.

Susana Ferreira is a writer living in Toronto. She can be reached at saudade@gmail.com.

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