Why Interculturalism Will Work: an introduction

The following is my entry in the Golden Gavel speech competition and the teaser for my upcoming book (not my magnum opus) Why Interculturalism Will Work. Enjoy!

Mr master of ceremonies, ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests. Multiculturalism is in ruins. In recent months, we have been hearing a lot of heated debate on the subject. The news makes us ask questions like, is it ok for a girl to wear a hijab while playing soccer? Is it right to ask a gym to tint its windows in order not to offend the people praying across the street? Is it fair to change established practices to accommodate difference, and if so, to what extent? I believe that these questions miss the point.

Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism states that it, and I quote, is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future. If that’s true, surely all of us Canadians would be able to describe multiculturalism. We’re told that diversity is good and it is a part of who we are, but we rarely learn why. Little wonder, therefore, that we are seeing a growing backlash against multicultural policies and too much accomodation of difference.

It may not surprise you that the Canadian government has a vague definition of multiculturalism with words like “harmony” and “acceptance” thrown in. For the purpose of this speech, I will define multiculturalism as official encouragement of culturally similar people to preserve their culture, and the acceptance of cultural differences among these groups.

And what is wrong with that? Who could argue with the right to pursue your collective goals and celebrate your identity? Many Canadians, it seems. Everyone has a controversial opinion. And that’s fine. In fact, for the multicultural vision that so many Canadians refuse to give up on, it is essential that everyone has an opinion on how society should be run. But let’s not fight. What’s the alternative? Interculturalism.

Here’s my definition. Interculturalism is the integration of all cultural groups and the education of everyone on the cultural practices of those around them. Integration and education. Multiculturalism breeds animosity when it is seen as a compromise between the values of the majority and the values of minorities. Instead of compromising, we could have interculturalism.

Please use your imaginations as I draw a picture of an intercultural Canada. From the start of school, children learn from teachers and other students that come from different backgrounds. They learn how others do things in other countries, why people think so differently from their parents and in this they gain new perspectives. New perspectives, be they culturally based or otherwise, help us think critically. The children grow up and enter businesses and government, always remembering how their friends and neighbours approach different issues. Dealing with people in other countries, or newcomers, we would already understand other cultures and languages; or if we didn’t, it would be easy to learn. The multiplicity of perspectives of people of different backgrounds working together will produce synergy, as anyone who has worked on a very diverse team will tell you, and this synergy improves the quality of the work and fuels innovation wherever it is introduced. Most importantly, it would promote, to use the govt’s word, harmony among the people. In an era of ethnic tensions and globalisation, nothing is more important to peace.

What is the current reality? Compromise. Endless trade offs among competing ethnic groups who don’t understand or care about each other. We are already seeing battles of words around the country, and if we let tensions escalate for another generation, we could trade a battle of words to a battle of bullets. Which of these possible futures do you want your children growing up in?

I have some suggestions for those of you who share my vision. While I am not advocating changing all laws and customs for minorities, don’t try to preserve too much either. Don’t be afraid of change: you want to change the world too. While you are making changes, understand the changes others want to make. The whole idea of preserving culture is backwards: cultures evolve, especially through contact with other cultures. So let them evolve. Another suggestion: don’t put too much emphasis on history. Community is not about uniting in a common and probably misunderstood past: it is about building a better future. And finally, treat people as individuals, not as members of a group. Belonging to a group does not necessarily mean anything about how you think.

Take these steps and in a generation’s time no one will remember why we were fighting over a girl playing soccer. Thank you very much.

For a copy of the book this speech is based on, please see http://www.scribd.com/doc/15987798/Why-Interculturalism-Will-Work.