By Ryan Pike
The government of Canada declared last week Citizenship Week. The week was commemorated by a series of events, including citizenship ceremonies across the country, designed to celebrate Canadian citizenship. While that notion seems great, the details given by Calgary Southeast MP and Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney in the official press release seem a bit wonky.
In the release, Kenney states regarding the goal of the week: “We want all Canadians to recognize that, no matter where you came from, when you become a Canadian citizen, Canadian history becomes your history and Canadian values become your values.” The notion of the melting pot isn’t completely foreign, often cited as driving Canada’s immigration policies until their reform in the 1970s. The objective was to form policies so that immigrants primarily came from western European countries and easily blended into the rest of Canada. The notion of multiculturalism was laughable.
Then came the turbulent 1970s, seeing the aftermath of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and the onset of Canada’s large-scale immigration overhaul in the form of a Royal Commission. In part to temper Quebec’s fury at the rest of Canada and to acquire eager labourers from the rest of the world, our country’s quasi-racist policies were replaced by a more open-door approach. This stance was further articulated in 1985 with the Official Multiculturalism Act’s adoption, writing into law many of the notions expressed decades earlier. In particular, the notion that all Canadians are free to celebrate their own unique cultural heritage and religion. In that light, Kenney’s comments are somewhat backwards. In a multicultural society, each constituent group contributes to the whole of Canadian history and culture. When you come to Canada, your values become part of our values — not the other way around.
The real issue emerging from citizenship week is whether Kenney’s comments were a clerical error on a press release or expression of a real sentiment within the Conservative government. While many get a kick out of Canada’s growing cultural buffet — hearing a dozen languages spoken on the train on the way to school is pretty neat — there’s a sizeable segment of Canadians longing for some kind of middle-ground between “everyone’s welcome” multiculturalism and the American model of assimilation. The big question is what the basic standard should be and whose values it should reflect and respect. Is it necessarily wrong to necessitate some English language proficiency for incoming immigrants? If we can’t expect them to have the proficiency on their own, is it acceptable to use tax dollars to create educational programs for that purpose? There are no easy answers.
Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with Citizenship Week. The notion of celebrating Canadian citizenship is laudable, although the government’s approach needs a bit of work. In the future, it would be nice to see Ottawa spend a bit of time reminding existing Canadians of their rights and responsibilities while deciding what approach works best to help new citizens excel, rather than sending mixed messages and lumbering onward regardless.