Friday, 19 February 2016

The Relevance and Future of Multiculturalism in Canada and Australia

By Dr. Jatinder Mann
Twitter handle: @DrJatinderMann

Discussing the advantages and disadvantages of multiculturalism has become a national pastime in Canada, and Australia has also seen some vigorous debates over the past several decades. Multiculturalism has for better or worse become almost synonymous with Canadian national identity and is often without fail towards the top of the list of things that Canadians use to describe the features of their country in surveys (Image: Monument to Multiculturalism, Toronto)

Multiculturalism has come under increasing attack by both the left and right in recent years. However, where policies of multiculturalism actually came from in Canada and Australia, and what they replaced, is less well known.
My research, which compared the rise of multiculturalism in Canada and Australia between the 1890s and 1970s, focused on these very questions. Specifically it explored the profound social, cultural and political changes, which affected the way in which Canadians and Australians defined themselves as a ‘people’ from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. Taking as its central theme the way each country responded to the introduction of new migrants, it asked two interrelated questions: why and how did multiculturalism replace Britishness as the defining idea of community for English-speaking Canada and Australia? What does this change say about their respective experiences of nationalism in the twentieth century?

Canada and Australia are both white settler societies with similar political systems and they are major immigrant receiving nations. As well, and most importantly, English-speaking Canada and Australia both identified themselves as British nations for a large part of their history. Further, this identity came under considerable strain in both countries, a strain that was primarily due to the shock of external events. Secondly, Canada and Australia also adopted discriminatory immigration policies, which aimed to create white, British countries, despite the original Indigenous inhabitants. Moreover, they both also gradually dismantled these practices in the twentieth century. Thirdly, Canada and Australia experienced large waves of non-British migration to their shores and had to formulate official migrant policies to deal with them.
The path towards the adoption of multiculturalism as the orthodox way of defining national community in English-speaking Canada and Australia in the latter half of the twentieth century, was both uncertain and unsteady. It followed a period in which both nations had looked first and foremost to Britain to define their national self-image. In both countries, following the breakdown of their more formal and institutional ties to the ‘mother-country’ in the post-war period, there was a crisis of national meaning, and policy makers and politicians moved quickly to fill the void with a new idea of the nation, one which was the very antithesis to the white, monolithic idea of Britishness.

At the core of my comparative study was a broader argument about the problem of nationalism and Britishness in both nations, and in particular the problems that both have had in adjusting to the post-imperial era. Although there has been considerable disagreement among scholars on the question of nationalism and its meaning, in nearly all cases recent studies agree on two core ingredients, namely that nationalism emerged in the late nineteenth century and was primarily associated with Europe and the United States, and secondly that there is a fundamental connection between nationalism and history. This connection is most often found in the myth or story of the nation, which holds that from time immemorial the ‘people’ have been engaged in struggles against an alien ‘other’ in order to achieve their national destiny. In the United States, as in Canada and Australia, this founding mythology obscured the existence of Indigenous peoples.

I drew on new archival material to explore this historical problem. Previous studies of the origins of multiculturalism in Canada and Australia have concentrated too much on the examination of government reports. I found that parliamentary debates, newspapers, and ethnic and government journals provide considerable new insight into the questions that this work sought to explore. These sources were especially useful in illustrating the way in which ideas of national community changed over the course of time.

The French presence in Canada was an important point of difference between that country and Australia. It was an important factor in the Canadian experience of the three main developments above. This was something in which Australia had no comparable experience.

Immigration or more precisely ‘whiteness’ was a second area of comparison in my research. Specifically, both Canada and Australia had White Canada or White Australia policies for a majority of the period under study. Whiteness was closely linked with Britishness, as both countries wanted to preserve themselves as white, British nations. However, over time, non-discriminatory immigration policies were adopted in both Canada and Australia and eventually post-White immigration policies were introduced.

This leads to a third area of comparison in my research, which was official migrant policy. As both Canada and Australia received non-British migration, official policy had to be formulated to deal with it. Both countries adopted a policy of assimilation in the first instance. This was replaced by integration and then by a policy of multiculturalism as Canada and Australia's national identities were transformed.

So, the recent debates surrounding the future and continued relevance of official policies of multiculturalism in both Canada and Australia highlight that it is still very much a topical issue despite the policies being introduced several decades ago, and will continue to be so for the future.

Dr. Jatinder Mann is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. He is working on a project on ‘The end of the British World and the redefinition of citizenship in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, 1950s-1970s’. He has a forthcoming book based on his doctoral research entitled ‘The Search for a New National Identity: The Rise of Multiculturalism in Canada and Australia, 1890s-1970s’, and it will be published with Peter Lang Publishing, New York 2016.

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