Will Kymlicka on multiculturalism

By Dennis Gruending

Dr. Will KymlickaWill Kymlicka says multiculturalism works and some prominent Canadian commentators have it wrong when they warn that it is failing. Dr. Kymlicka is the Canada research chair in political philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston and a visiting professor at the Central European University in Budapest. Since he received his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University in 1987, he has written six books and co-authored or edited 11 others. His work has been translated into 30 languages. He spoke to about 100 people on May 27 at Carleton University during the Congress on the Humanities, a gathering of academics from across the country.

Kymlicka talked about what is working and what is not in Canadian multiculturalism — a mix of public policies aimed at promoting social cohesion among a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Canada possesses an extraordinary degree of racial, cultural and ethnic diversity and in 1971 became the first Western democracy to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. The protection of Canada’s multicultural heritage is even written into Section 27 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which became law in 1982. Kymlicka said that the debate surrounding multiculturalism has become “ritualized” and has not changed much since 1971. Those who favour multiculturalism believe that it leads to a more vibrant and tolerant society. Those opposed believe that such policies create a barrier that discourage people from assimilating and encourages ethnic ghettos. The debate, Kymlicka said, is most often based on anecdote. “We have not had evidence but are starting go get it.”

Cross-national studies

Research that is  “cross national” indicates that Canada is successful in the integration of immigrants and their children and those multiculturalism policies play a role in that success. Among Western democracies, Canada exhibits the highest level of popular support for immigration. Many people believe that it provides a net benefit and that it helps to define Canada as a country. A high proportion of people native to Canada believe this, and those beliefs are reciprocated by the number of immigrants who show a high level of pride in Canada.

There is a high degree of political integration among immigrants and an elevated percentage of immigrants to Canada who become citizens. They are more likely than immigrants in other countries to vote, to seek political office and to get elected. Canadians are just as likely to vote for a foreign born or visible minority candidate, as they are to vote for any other candidates.

Canada has the highest level of educational attainment among the children of immigrants (second generation) and they actually rank higher than native born Canadians in that category. Even after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, Canadians are more likely than people in other western democracies to say that Muslims make a positive contribution to the country. Muslims, in turn, believe it to be less likely that they will be singled out and picked on in Canada. “I believe that multiculturalism policies contribute to these outcomes, ” Kymlicka said. He pointed to other studies, including one showing that the political integration of Vietnamese immigrants in Toronto has been more successful than to that of Vietnamese in Boston.

Narrative of backlash

These academic studies, Kymlicka said, have not received much press. The public debate focuses more upon failure, backlash and retreat. Kymlicka believes the narrative is one borrowed from other democracies, such as the Netherlands, where immigration and multiculturalism are under attack. There is a growing sentiment in Europe that multiculturalism has gone too far. It is blamed for a variety of social ills, including the creation of parallel societies, political terrorism and honour killings and there is a call for a dramatic policy turnaround. “That has always been the narrative on the political right but now social democratic and labour parties are saying the same thing. There is a backlash and we in Canada have been getting the waves.”

Kymlicka said that among Western democracies the stronger the sense of national identity, the more hostility there is to immigration. “That is not true in Canada where multiculturalism is a distinctive part of our nationhood. Multiculturalism is a lynchpin contributing to our national sense of support for immigration, and it’s mutual — immigrants are also positive about Canada.” Yet, Kymlicka says, some influential Canadians commentators, including pollster Allan Gregg, historians Michael Bliss and Jack Granatstein and Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, are saying that multiculturalism has failed in Europe and that exposes inherent flaws in multiculturalism as an ideal.

Relying on anecdote

Rather than focusing upon social science research, many commentators rely on anecdote. They say it creates ethnic ghettos but Kymlicka says that is no truer now than it was previously for other groups such as Italians and Hungarians. Some commentators say that among visible minority immigrants the second generation express lower levels of “belonging” to Canadian society than do their parents. Kymlicka said that, in realty, studies show no dramatic differences and second generation immigrants still express a “high level of belonging to Canada. Too many Canadian commentators, Kymlicka says, are importing a European analysis that holds we are sleepwalking into segregation. “There is little evidence to support this, he says. “My view is that this ominous public debate is off target and unhelpful.”

Multicultural problems

Kymlicka then outlined what he sees as the major problems confronting Canada’s multicultural model. One is economics. The current cohort of immigrants is not keeping up with native-born Canadians. Policies of multiculturalism, Kymlicka said, cannot deal with broadly based economic problems. There are also problems that relate to multiculturalism and religion. Policies developed in the 1970s did not take account of religious sensibilities. “We still do not have a good framework to decide which religious demands are legitimate.” He gave as examples the debates that have swirled around public funding for religious schools and around the use of shariah law in solving certain disputes.

Finally he pointed to the growing differences among various visible minority groups. Some are doing much better than others. “Do immigrant Muslims, for example, face different kinds of burdens than Chinese people or blacks?” Multiculturalism policies that were crafted years ago tend to look at all visible minority groups as having the same problems and challenges, when their situations actually differ.

Kymlicka concluded that, on balance, that the Canadian model is working well –  “I am a big fan of multiculturalism,” he said.

3 thoughts on “Will Kymlicka on multiculturalism

  1. Thanks for this. Good for Will Kymlicka. We’ve been multicultural, if not officially, since the first European set foot on what is now Canadian soil. Every one of us whose ancestors were not here before that time, came from some other culture. Initially, newcomers clung together in “ghettoes” but, somehow, we’ve assimilated (even us American immigrants) and added our original culture to the Canadian soup. It just gets richer.

    Janet Lunn


  2. Thanks for alerting us to Will Kymlicka’s work. Of particular note in your article is the use of the word ‘integrate.’ When we hear this issue discussed, ‘integrate’ and ‘assimilate’ are sometimes interchanged within the discussion. These words have vastly different meanings in this debate and I believe that we need to focus on ‘integration'(adding or incorporating to the whole,thereby altering its makeup to include) rather than ‘assimilation’ (absorbing into the whole, thereby making indistinguishable). The government’s past ‘assimilation’ policies regarding indigenous peoples are a sad demonstration of what can happen when this is the focus.


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