Cities face new multicultural challenges

As the world’s cities become increasingly multicultural, one wonders how smoothly – or not – they will deal with diversity.

At the recent Pathways 2 Sustainability 2011 conference, there was much consensus on the need for cities to source food closer to home, to cut carbon footprints, to offer alternatives to private car travel, and to consider balance sheets that look at more than monetary measures.

This was, essentially, a gathering of the already converted – those who are committed to change in the name of sustainability and ‘community resilience.’ As a measure of the group’s common ground, about 2/3 raised their hand when a speaker asked who listened to Alberta’s eclectic listener-supported radio station, CKUA.

So I was intrigued when, in a couple small group discussions, one divisive issue arose: cultural diversity. In trying to map out their vision of a sustainable, resilient Alberta, participants had differing views about the degree to which Canada should be defined by the values of those who immigrate here, versus the values of those whose ancestors immigrated here a generation or two earlier. This is, after all, a nation of immigrants, with the exception of our first nations people – who are often an afterthought in these discussions.

Canada prides itself on being open to all the world’s cultures. A recent opinion piece in the Toronto Star proclaimed that “Multiculturalism lives – in Canada.

Multiculturalism is an accepted way of life. With qualifications.

Vancouver Sun Article - Feb. 28, 1938As I was writing this piece, a Twitter contact (@footbutterguy) forwarded a 1938 Vancouver Sun editorial calling, bluntly, for the expulsion of Japanese immigrants.

It’s a reminder that racial and ethnic biases are a strong undercurrent in our social makeup.

More recently, issues like the right of Sikh Canadian members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to wear turbans, or the right of Islamic women to wear burkas, have generated intense emotions and debate.

One woman at the conference I attended stated flatly that any new immigrants to Canada must agree to follow “our values” before being allowed to immigrate. The trick, of course, is to define those values.

I suspect that the woman who was speaking so passionately was talking about her values – likely Christian, caucasian, and European in origin – rather than some negotiated set of global values.

In my mind, this raises the question of why such multicultural concerns are arising now, after decades of proud multi-cult back-patting in Canada. I don’t think it’s just about a different kind of immigrant from a non-Christian religion. I think that the nature of immigrant experience has also changed in the past 30 years.

In earlier times, immigrants to North and South America arrived with a sense that they must abandon much of what they had left behind. Trips back to the homeland were rare or non-existent. Communications with the community of origin were very limited.

In today’s world, those ties with the original home can be easily maintained. That, in turn, lessens the felt sense that one must buy into a new cultural reality.

Inexpensive flights back to the homeland. Daily Skype video calls. Text messages across the continents. Satellite TV live from ‘the old country.’ Technology must play a role in allowing immigrants to maintain stronger ties to their homeland – and may therefore lessen the incentive to ‘integrate.’

This is the new reality. For urbanized countries like Canada (the second largest country, by land mass, in the world, but one of the most highly concentrated urban populations) an emerging challenge is to find new ways to define multiculturalism and to define a (smaller?) set of shared values.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post Lorne! It really does raise the question, “what is a truly Canadian value?” Is it standards set by “real Canadians” who were once immigrants generations ago? Does it make their values more important than immigrants today? And does the beliefs and thoughts of a few necessarily translate to the majority? It is quite easy to jump on the side of the majority, but perhaps we should be looking at the big picture and trying to understand our history before we take sides…

    Mike Wiseman

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