Recent polls show a need to stand up for multiculturalism

By Amira Elghawaby
Montreal Gazette, December 28, 2014

My dad recently retired from the federal public service after spending over three decades serving this country. His job was to make sure that Canadian-made airplanes were as safe as possible. He was celebrated for his dedicated service by his colleagues and staff upon his retirement. Accolades came in from international safety agencies and aerospace corporations from around the world.

He immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. Eventually settling in the nation’s capital, my dad would build a family and a life as a proud Canadian of Muslim faith. While he may have been self-conscious about his accent, it didn’t prevent others from recognizing his skill and assiduousness. Among his immigrant circle of friends: a future female dean of engineering at several universities, a future director general at the National Research Council, as well as a future chief quality officer at Atomic Energy of Canada, and so on.

It was the heyday of multiculturalism. Following the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s lead, Canadians understood that diversity was an asset to our nation, not a setback. Immigrants were generally seen as a positive addition to our cities and towns; they brought with them critical skills, education and commitment to making their families and their communities prosper.

Yet several recent polls suggest this collective identity is at risk.

The first, a poll commissioned by the CBC, explores these very issues. While young people (ages 18-29) expressed the greatest level of comfort with interacting with people of other ethnicities, it was surprising to note lower levels of comfort among people who would have worked alongside people like my dad (ages 50+).

Also of concern were perceptions around the very concept of multiculturalism. While there continues to be overall strong support for it, Canadians in Quebec and on the Prairies were less confident. When it comes to how much immigrants strengthen Canada, just over half of those polled said that immigrants are “very important to building a stable Canadian economic future.” The numbers should be higher, considering the very real need Canada has in attracting and retaining immigrants to fill labour shortages.

These concerns are reinforced by other aspects of the poll that looked at people’s perceptions of discrimination against minority groups. Over 84 per cent of respondents believed Muslims are “often” the target of discrimination; Arabs and West Asians are not far behind.

The CBC poll was conducted the week of the deadly attacks on Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. It is hard to know whether the tragedies coloured people’s perceptions, and certainly reports of anti-Muslim incidents were on the rise in the weeks that followed.

A subsequent poll commissioned by the Angus Reid Institute, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Laurier Institution does gauge specific Canadian views about Muslims and minorities in light of the attacks. And despite the vagueness of some of the questions, there are some troubling results. Among these is the large percentage of Canadians who would support indefinite imprisonment of suspects, contrary to principles of fundamental justice.

Positively, a majority of Canadians do see Canadian Muslim communities as partners in the fight against radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism. This despite doomsayers who have been given public platforms at recent Senate hearings to tar the entire community with the brush of extremism, going as far as calling for a moratorium on immigration from certain countries. The federal government is reportedly even considering screening Syrian refugees on the basis of religion rather than solely on the basis of need.

Now, more than ever, our elected leaders need to stand up for the principles of multiculturalism and stand against those who try to dangerously divide Canadians with us-versus-them polemics. Perhaps a “Zero Tolerance for Xenophobia and Racism Act”?

Amira Elghawaby is the human rights coordinator at the Ottawa-based National Council of Canadian Muslims. This piece first appeared on the website New Canadian Media.