Canadian communities could be on the leading edge of interculturalism, but they need to warm up a climate of cold “accommodation.”
As an Indian-Canadian who loves Montreal, I visit that intercultural city every year. Last fall, I read that Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, had called on Canada to go “beyond songs, saris, and samosas …” This pithy phrase of his brought to mind a growing concern of mine.
Canada has to move way beyond the obvious – way beyond perfunctory celebrations of ethnic diversity. When I first arrived in Montreal from India in the mid-1960s, I found much talk of the “twin solitudes.” Well, 40 years later, we have certainly got past some of the memories that wounded the relationship between Canada’s two great founding communities. Though I have now settled back in India, I sense real Canadian warmth every time I visit Montreal, every time I step out onto its trendy streets. But this is not because of any carefully thought-out programme. I am happy and home there, because that’s the way Canadians are.
But is this true for everyone else, other immigrants, from South Asia, Eastern Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Far East, who have made Canada their home? Thirty years ago Canada led the world by first espousing the concept of multiculturalism. But has it worked equally well, for young and old – not only for elderly male community leaders, but also for young women who saw a chance of personal growth and development on our shores? Is Kenney right when he fears we may have been allowing self-proclaimed leaders to dump their people into “cultural silos?” This issue may be more important for the Canadian future than the financial meltdown. If young new Canadians are not happy with what others, especially their elders may consider “reasonable accommodation,” we may be talking soon of a hundred solitudes.
Most people have immigrated to Canada from other countries for economic reasons, for higher standards of life, but that is not the only reason. Young people especially are looking for a new way of life, for larger freedoms than afforded by the traditional societies they are coming from. Along with hopes of living well, they also dream of a chance to develop themselves personally in ways that would not be possible in homes they have left behind. It has taken them a lot of courage and spirit to emigrate to a far-off new country, and they deserve not to be short-changed in their freedoms.
Women are especially vulnerable in the process of transition. They lose the support they once had from other women in their home community. Many South-Asian women admit to being starkly lonely and confined in their new Canadian homes, cut off from Canadians, and even from others of their own community. Many times, male leaders also feel isolated in a new social environment, and naturally wonder whether for economic well-being they have not sacrificed cherished social and religious values. Their instinct to protect their own can be felt as constricting by young women with high hopes.
I was never comfortable with the phraseology of multiculturalism, for I feared it might lead to the making of ghettos. I am glad the discourse has now shifted to interculturalism, to community relationships that could be mutually enriching rather than just affording “reasonable accommodation” for the newcomers. In Cote Des Neiges Plaza in Montreal, on any an evening, we can observe all the different nationalities that make up that splendid city, but they all sit around their own different tables. How do they know which table is reserved, by unspoken consent, for whom? But can we have a party for everyone? Can the Russians, the Sri Lankans, the Arabs and the Jews share each other’s tables as the new Canadians they really are?
Solitudes are framed in the mind, but so is reaching out. Canadians have not done all that badly. The recent debates that continue to lash Europe about what multiculturalism means, its reality and its hopes, show that Canada indeed is a haven compared to some other countries. I found the proof of this in a new book, *Locating Home: India’s Hyderabadis Abroad*, written by a well-known American anthropologist, Karen Isaken Leonard. She interviewed several of the Muslim families who had left Hyderabad, where I work nowadays to bring about harmony among Hindu and Muslim communities. She traced them to their new homes in Europe, North America, and even Australia. It was no wonder to me that she found Hyderabadi Canadians the best integrated.
Money is important, but it is less than half the story. What we need are diverse community activities, which host Canadian communities themselves can be involved in, as a demonstration of the Canadian open-heartedness that I found so enchanting 40 years ago. This would be a way of giving space to young newcomers without isolating their elders, who themselves must have rich stories to tell of their lives, their way of living, and what they learned from traditions old in history. The key to a new Canadian social reality is not a sense of cold tolerance, but the bright prospect of mutually enriching community life.