June 01 2017

Canadian multiculturalism and happiness

Natalie Wall, Research Impact Officer at Middlesex University, is on the organising committee for the upcoming Gender and Education Association conference. She is completing a PhD at the University of Calgary that explores Canadian multiculturalism using feminist and performance theories.

When I was a little girl, my father told me that I could be anything; I could be Prime Minister of Canada, if I wanted to.

He was and still is… wrong.

Canada has never elected a female Prime Minister and the only woman (Progressive Conservative Kim Campbell) to have held the position attained it through hatred of the previous PM and was replaced by the Liberal Jean Chrétien within six months, and this is after having called the election because she showed a demonstrable lead in the polls. Canada has never had a non-white Prime Minister. Even as a child, I knew that my chances were not good and I can’t say that my father approved of my defeatist attitude when I explained my unlikelihood of becoming Canada’s first black, female Prime Minister. This was my first moment of being a black feminist killjoy.

Wait… can I be a black feminist killjoy?

Image: Canadian Flag by Christopher Policarpio (CC 2.0)

Killing joy and taking names

Sara Ahmed tells us that the feminist killjoy “is an affect alien for sure: she might even kill joy  precisely because she refuses to share an orientation towards certain things as being good” and that “[w]e can place the figure of the feminist killjoy alongside the figure of the angry black woman.” Let us suppose that the angry black woman and the feminist killjoy can exist in one body, so that I can become a black feminist kill joy. In fact, let me assume the mantle of black, Canadian feminist killjoy.

Crossing borders and becoming foreign

Over the course of my PhD, I have become foreign. However, I have never felt so Canadian as I have once I became foreign. My foreignness makes me nostalgic for a home that never was, a place to which I never really belonged. I am a black Canadian woman whose father was an immigrant who moved from Trinidad to Canada in the seventies and whose mother grew up in a country house in rural Cape Breton. I belonged to a group of friends who all shared the common experience of being first generation Caribbean Canadian black women. We were antiracist activists living in West Toronto where my high school was lauded as a stellar institution despite my memories of white supremacists handing out hate literature on site and girls being told that they should not speak out against the sexual harassment from faculty members. My antiracism and feminist sensibilities grew in this environment and were intrinsically linked to my self-identification as a black Caribbean Canadian woman.

But, I have become foreign.

As I have become foreign, so has the world around me.

Brexit campaigners told us that the British population needed to “take back control” and control was taken back. And where did Brexit campaigners find inspiration for taking back that control? Michael Gove cites Canadian and Australian immigration policies when pressed about migration on Question Time.

What can we learn from Canada?

After the introduction of Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban on January 28th, 2017, the Prime Minister of Canada’s Twitter account (smugly, one might argue) posted the following:

Amid a flurry of criticism and, yes, some popular approval, the Muslim Ban opened up an opportunity for Canada to remind the international community that it holds the line in North America for diversity and hospitality.

I started my PhD examining multiculturalism in Canada under the Harper government, at a time when the Conservative government was taking liberties with its population’s human rights and making Canada a less tolerant environment than it has traditionally painted itself. See Human Rights Watch’s “World Report 2016” where among other concerns are the refusal to conduct an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and the Anti-Terror Act of 2015, “law that imperils constitutionally enshrined human rights, including the freedoms of expression and association.”

I am finishing it up under a Justin Trudeau government, a Liberal Canada expressing itself through its proclaimed feminist and hospitable Prime Minister. Trudeau’s likeability and international popularity are reflective of a system of government that always works best when portrayed as idealistic and inclusive. It is a Canada that benefits in real, marketable, ways from its reputation as a multicultural utopia that operates to oppress and manage non-white bodies by using them as objects to parade before other, international and white, audiences.

What’s multiculturalism got to do with it?

Multiculturalism, both official and idealised, works to help define the culture of Canada, by offering a gesture to diversity that has become synonymous with Canadian identity, but also offering a mirror against which Canadian identity can articulate itself. The trope of multiculturalism in Canada works to define culture in two ways: policy that has become a part of the fabric of Canadian self-construction and the persistent differentiation of citizens so that there are real Canadians and the others that help to demarcate the relationship between real and marginalised.

Canada was the first country in the world to integrate idealised constructions of multiculturalism into official policy.  Multiculturalism is intrinsic to Canada’s understanding of citizenship: the Government of Canada says on its website that “Canadian multiculturalism is fundamental to our belief that all citizens are equal. Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging.” However, we also have to understand that immigration serves the state’s purpose, “national immigration policies are seen as mechanisms to supply workers for various industries” (Satzewich and Liodakis 62). As state policy, that is to say, multiculturalism can never be purely without benefit to the host state. In fact, immigration is part of the nation-building project, where multiculturalism is both reliant upon that immigration and one of the methods with which the nation ensures the obedience of its subjects, allowing them their cultural identity so long as it is subsumed under their identities as productive Canadian citizens. The success of Canada’s multiculturalism policy is rooted in its marriage of ideology and policy into the very fabric of how Canadians understand what it means to be and act Canadian.

So, while “Canada has its own historical graveyards of shame which are routinely relegated to the footnotes of history” (Mullings et al.), including genocide, Chinese Head Tax, missing and murdered Indigenous women, just to name a few, Canadians are not willing to go on record as xenophobic bullies. In the end, Canadians identify so strongly with multiculturalism that Trudeau won against Harper’s xenophobic campaign in 2015. Canadians supported freedom of cultural identity instead of anti-muslim rhetoric, going so far as to wear traditional mummer’s costumes to the polls in protest over the niqab debate. The focus on the niqab in tandem with the enacting of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which focused unduly on Muslims, was the Conservative government’s undoing.

Alternatively, in the UK, multiculturalism is dead at the hands of home grown terrorism. Immigration fears largely influenced the Brexit vote and continue to make headlines as we head towards 8 June, 2017. As Ahmed tells us, “multiculturalism becomes a problem by being attributed as the cause of unhappiness. When we are ‘in’ multiculturalism, we are ‘out’ of our comfort zone.” As we head into another General Election, I am wondering to what degree the British public is voting for a happiness that stems from having neighbours that look, sound and think like you. Is multiculturalism the root of all unhappiness?

Or is there a lesson to be learned from across the pond?

A harsh and pragmatic lesson to be sure, but a lesson to be learned nonetheless. Because that’s what being a feminist killjoy is all about…

Generative Feminism(s): working across/within/through borders

At the upcoming Gender and Education Association Conference, titled “Generative Feminism(s): working across/within/through borders,” researchers and practitioners will be coming together to think about demarcation and delineation as feminists who are building new, innovative spaces that impact the world around them.

The 2017 conference is being organised and hosted by Middlesex University, London and runs from Wednesday 21st until Friday 23rd June, 2017. As a member of the organising committee, I am excited by the breadth of topics and the disparate backgrounds of the presenters.

You can see the conference programme here.

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