An immigrant author says multicultural policy creates ethnic ghettos
Montreal-based novelist Neil Bissoondath likes to tell the story of how four representatives of the federal multiculturalism department tracked him a couple of years ago to a citizenship conference in Ottawa, where he was giving a speech. Following his talk—in which the Trinidadian-born author repeated his oft-stated view that Canada’s policy of official multiculturalism has served only to create ethnic ghettos—one of the federal officials took to the microphone to challenge Bissoondath.
She told him, he says, that he should just “shut up” because all he was doing was “encouraging racists, like the Reform party.” A hush fell on the room, Bissoondath recalls, “because it occurred to everyone that what we had here was a federal bureaucrat telling a Canadian writer to shut up.”
The Ottawa officials clearly chose the wrong man to try to silence. At the urging of his publisher, the acclaimed 39-year-old novelist (A Casual Brutality, The Innocence of Age) agreed to venture into the realm of polemical nonfiction. The result is the provocatively titled Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Released last month, the book is selling briskly. Moreover, as Bissoondath jets around the country giving readings and appearing on open-line programs (he is to tour Western Canada this week), the author has become the focal point of a passionate—and polarizing—debate over how immigrants and so-called “ethnic Canadians” should integrate into the larger society. “It’s been remarkable,” Bissoondath told Maclean’s following a reading at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. “This book seems to be giving people permission to say in public what they’ve been thinking in private for a long time.”
In Selling Illusions, Bissoondath dismisses the federal multicultural-
ism policy, introduced by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government in 1971, as a cynical “instrument to attract ethnic votes.” According to Bissoondath, the policy—and the millions of dollars that flowed from it to fund ethnic organizations and activities—have encouraged a generation of immigrants to believe that where they came from is more important than where they have settled. And instead of adapting to the shared values of Canadians, he contends, many immigrants have insisted on bringing the hostilities and prejudices of their homelands to Canada. “The psychology and politics of multiculturalism,” he writes, “have made divisiveness in the name of racial and ethnic rights socially acceptable. They have given legitimacy here to what was once deplored in racially segregated South Africa. Led by a policy apparently benign, betrayed by our own sensitivities, we have come a full and curious circle.”
As that statement indicates, Bissoondath is not above resorting to hyperbole to make his case. But he has also put his finger on one of the hot-button issues of our times. The backlash against multiculturalism extends well beyond the smoky Legion halls where a handful of aging veterans have blocked entry to Sikhs wearing turbans. A Decima Research poll released last year showed that 72 per cent of Canadians surveyed said that ethnic or racial groups should adapt to the Canadian value system rather than maintain their differences. A significant minority (41 per cent) agreed with the statement: “I am tired of ethnic minorities being given special treatment.”
Bissoondath contends that Canada’s liberal elites are determined to ignore such popular expressions of discontent. He saves some of his most scathing criticism for the well-intentioned white liberals who have been among the staunchest defenders of all things multicultural. In Selling Illusions, he recounts the fractious debate within the
FOCUS ON IMMIGRATION
Writers’ Union of Canada over holding a conference exclusively for “writers of color” this past summer. “Throughout the mud-slinging and name-calling and self-pity,” he writes,
“one could hear the background swish of self-flagellation peeling the skin from white backs.” In an interview, he elaborated on that theme: “Multiculturalism is one of those policies through which guilt-ridden white liberals feel that they are expiating the political sins of their forefathers.”
As someone who considers himself “of the left, politically,” Bissoondath is in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing profoundly with those who are his natural allies. And as a good liberal, he takes exceptional pains to disassociate himself from the Reform party. Before his reading at Wilfrid Laurier, he drew a round of smug laughter from students and faculty when he described Reformers as “at best, knowledge-challenged.” Yet Bissoondath’s position on multiculturalism and that of Reform are almost identical. Both say that Canadians should not be defined, or divided, along racial or ethnic lines. And both maintain that while it is fine for individuals and families to celebrate their cultural heritage, they should not expect the government to pick up the tab for doing so.
Bissoondath traces his own skepticism about multiculturalism to his upbringing in Trinidad.
About 80 per cent of the island nation’s 1.2-million people are divided almost evenly between those of African and those of East Indian de scent. Bissoondath, who was bom into a wellto-do Indian family, recalls that the blacks and the Indians moved in separate social circles and even had their own political parties. “It was,” he writes, “our island version of apartheid, as virile, as divisive, as insidious.”
At the age of 18, a disillusioned Bissoondath immigrated to Canada. But after enrolling at Toronto’s York University, he says he confronted many of the same racial tensions. In the student cafeteria, he moved uneasily among the tables that seemed to be separated according to race, with Chinese students in one comer, West Indians in another. He says such unofficial segregation was encouraged by the university, which provided many ethnic organizations with their own student lounges. Bissoondath avoided them all. “I had not come here,” he says, “in order to join a ghetto.”
Bissoondath now lives in Montreal with his companion, lawyer Anne Marcoux; the couple have a three-year-old daughter, Elyssa. The author says he hopes that when his dark-skinned daughter is
asked her nationality in years to come, people will accept the one-word reply: Canadian. The alternative, he jokes, is quite a mouthful: a Franco-Québécoise-Indian-TrinidadianWest Indian-Canadian.
Bissoondath’s critics say that he is being unduly alarmist. Sheila Finestone, the federal minister responsible for multiculturalism, told Maclean’s that she was “quite exercised” by parts of the book. She said that, contrary to Bissoondath’s assertions, the purpose of multiculturalism is to foster links and promote common values. Myma Kostash, an Edmontonbased author who has written extensively about her own Ukrainian heritage (All of Baba’s Children, Bloodlines), said she cannot understand why Bissoondath seems to think that ethnic identity presents a threat to national cohesion. “If I identify myself as a third-generation Ukrainian-Canadian, with certain things to say about that, how is that not being a Canadian?” she asks. ‘Who does he think is saying this, feeling this, if not a real Canadian?”
Others are even blunter, charging that Bissoondath favors a policy of forced assimilation. “If [Bissoondath] would like to revert to the colonial days, I’m sure there are a few countries that he could move to,” says City of Toronto equal opportunity director Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, who, like Bissoondath, was bom in Trinidad, and moved to Canada 30 years ago. Her voice then dissolves into laughter. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m not taking this too seriously. I’ve decided I have to stop being angry about this stupid book.”
For all his objections to multiculturalism, Bissoondath’s prescriptions for change are remarkably timid. In the final pages of Selling Illusions, he shies away from calling for the abolition of the federal multiculturalism department. Instead, he suggests that the department—which this year dispensed about $25 million in grants—should be placed at arm’s length from the government, much like the Canada Council. Beyond that, he speaks vaguely about the need for Canadians to rediscover and define their common values—such as the national flair for conciliation—and insist that newcomers understand and abide by these. “It may sound nebulous,” he admitted to Maclean’s. “But I’m not a sociologist or a politician. I’m just trying to start the debate.”
BRIAN BERGMAN in Waterloo
mite liberals feel they are expiating the sins of their forefathers’
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