GUEST COLUMN

Subsidizing the hyphenated Canadian

When the ministry started, NDP Leader David Lewis got it right when he called it ‘a sop to the ethnics’

STEWART MACLEOD January 9 1989
GUEST COLUMN

Subsidizing the hyphenated Canadian

When the ministry started, NDP Leader David Lewis got it right when he called it ‘a sop to the ethnics’

STEWART MACLEOD January 9 1989

Subsidizing the hyphenated Canadian

GUEST COLUMN

When the ministry started, NDP Leader David Lewis got it right when he called it ‘a sop to the ethnics’

STEWART MACLEOD

We have this fantasy, doctor, one of those outrageous dreams that’s almost too embarrassing to discuss, particularly in front of your nurse here.

Sex? Of course not. That would be no problem; nowadays that’s discussed in front of everyone, particularly in the United Church meeting halls. No, what we’re delicately dealing with here is not sex or its orientation, but hyphenated Canadians, so-called unequal-opportunity people, visible minorities or, if you prefer, ethnics.

Had trouble saying that last word. See, in Canada, we’ve become so used to heaping homage on “Canadians of neither English nor French extraction”—all to prove we don’t have prejudices—that it’s almost painful to mention them unless in paeans of praise.

And that gets us back, rather nicely don’t you think, to the fantasy. It’s pretty far out, doc, but what we imagined with astonishing clarity was working in a society where one could write anything about our “third force” without being misunderstood or stoned, or even receiving a postage-due, hate postcard.

Of course, not even in fantasy would we ever direct criticism at people. Since everyone in Canada is an ethnic—except for the native people who, ironically, now are considered the original ethnics—it follows that most of our best friends are of the ethnic persuasion. All we wanted was freedom to write about the federal government’s approach to the ethnics.

And before returning to a complete state of consciousness, the fingers were pecking away. Boy, it was fun! Imagine being able to say, without fear or favor, that Ottawa’s multiculturalism program is an absolute crock. That the ministry of multiculturalism is a joke. That the Mulroney government’s approach to the ethnic communities is a boondoggle, and so was the approach of the previous

Trudeau government. A crass vote-grab.

What was even more satisfying during the fantasy was to write that none of our politicians will stand up and say those things. Lordy, no. We’re talking about voters, remember? Go through Hansard for any verbal ventilations on multiculturalism, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest Canada could survive without the culturally rich ballot-casters.

“The great Canadian mosaic” is one of the most popular parliamentary catchphrases. And comparing our marvellous mosaic with the inhumane “American melting pot” is the most popular political pastime this side of acid rain. Naturally, anything the government does in the way of financing the mosaic is music to the ears of 295 MPs. Let’s get new costumes for another batch of ethnic dancers, let’s keep that Greek newspaper in business—so readers won’t have to learn English or French. Let’s, by all means, subsidize haggis for hungry Highlanders.

It was marvellous while the fantasy lasted. But then, it was back to reality. This means being absolutely fair to Multiculturalism Minister Gerry Weiner—perhaps simply pointing out that he spends less time and money than any other minister attending international conferences with his counterparts.

That, we could add but wouldn’t, is because there aren’t enough other ministers of multiculturalism in the world to form a quorum. Most nations, if they get into that type of thing, settle for a minister of culture, something that has miraculously escaped the Prime Minister’s cabinet-cobbling operations.

Come to think of it, we are, in all probability, the only country in the world that subsidizes the use of hyphens by its citizens. And by throwing away money at distinctive ethnic blocs—some $195 million over the past 18 years—we are perpetuating this into eternity. Why be a simple unhyphenated Canadian when you can get cash for being a Moroccan-Canadian, a Ukrainian-Canadian nine times removed, or a Corinthian-Canadian by conversion?

Centuries from now, the dictionary will offer this definition: “HYPHEN—a horizontal dash from ancient writings, now used only in Canada to identify tribes.”

After the Trudeau government brought in the Official Languages Act in 1969, there were great fears among the “nonfounding races” that they would become the forgotten ones. So, in 1971, the government introduced a multiculturalism program with a responsible minister, Toronto’s Stanley Haidasz. There’ve been a lot of forgettable ministers.

However, they don’t include David Crombie, the pint-sized former Toronto mayor who will long be remembered as the most underutilized talent in the history of federal cabinetmaking. Not enjoying his cheque-pushing assignment in multiculturalism, Crombie quit the cabinet to study Toronto’s waterfront.

Anyway, when the multiculturalism ministry was founded, former New Democratic leader David Lewis was the only one to get it right. “This,” he said, “is a sop to the ethnics.” The NDP, you may now have noticed, has forever run a consistent third.

Okay, making a longer story less elongated, after the Official Languages Act was tightened up early in 1988 by the Mulroney government, presto, there were subsequent changes to the multiculturalism program. We now don’t simply preserve multiculturalism, we “enhance” it. Quebec promotes, Ottawa enhances.

It goes without saying that major spin-off industries have developed around this enhancement program. Why, there are even lobbyists in Ottawa working like beavers on behalf of money-munching ethnic communities. One hell of a job; don’t even have to learn French.

By all means, let’s offer assistance, like helping newcomers fit into the Canada they choose. But maintaining a ministry to pay people not to assimilate? For 100 years, Canadians of various backgrounds managed to do a fine job maintaining any culture they wanted.

Mr. Mulroney should reduce his cabinet to less ludicrous proportions anyway. But since picking on minorities is a no-no, we can’t openly declare that Gerry Weiner should go. Let’s just say that, for those of us who believe passionately in cabinet-cutting, the ministry of multiculturalism stands as a blazing beacon of inspiration.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

Stewart MacLeod is the Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.