South of Self-Congratulation
Image credits: Maclean's Magazine
As we watch our tempestuous southern neighbours with a certain Schadenfreude, it is frequently assumed among Canadians that we are profoundly not like ‘them.’ The Trump era, it would seem, is not a time for despair for the average Canadian. Far from it. It is a time for the utmost, unrestrained, bacchanal of pleasurable self-congratulation. We are not like ‘them,’ rather we are, in the characteristically vacuous words of our dear leader, ‘post-national.’
Now, I am unsure what exactly justifies this smug attitude, but I imagine the prevailing sentiment is that, unlike ‘them,’ we are multicultural, we do not have significant economic inequality, and more significantly, unlike them, we do not have an elitist oligarch running our country.
This is an unfortunate attitude. Not only is it false, but it has inhibited the possibility for introspection at a time when introspection is in dire need, especially when a country whose socio-economic circumstance mirrors our own has all but ontologically imploded, a possible view into our own post-industrial future if things continue the way they are.
We shall examine the validity of this claim, that we are ‘multicultural,’ and what exactly this means in the context of Canadian political society.
First and foremost among notions of multiculturalism is the idea that mainstream political society tolerates cultural difference. Now, Justin Trudeau does a perfect job of defining what tolerance entails: “tolerating someone,” he said, “means accepting their right to exist on the condition that they don’t disturb us too, too much.”
Multiculturalism, as construed typically in the liberal tradition, and put perfectly by Justin Trudeau here, is not the accommodation of difference. In fact, multiculturalism entails the exact opposite, a kind of radical conformity with our fetishized expectations about what an ‘ethnic’ minority is supposed to constitute in a ‘multicultural’ society. The liberal notion of tolerance is not based upon an unqualified acceptance of a person’s ethnicity, but rather how much that person can distort and tailor their ethnicity to make their identity fit the parameters of the accepted multicultural ideal. This is not the same as cultural acceptance: rather it is the denial of cultures and individuals who do not fit into this abstract ideal. Non-conformity entails ostracization and condemnation – hence the frequent outrage in so-called ‘open’ western countries that immigrants do not learn the language, are too parochial, send their children to certain schools, etc. The moment Trudeau has to confront actual ethnic difference, or ethnic difference that is more than something easily commodified and fetishized into a local Indian restaurant or foreign born sports star, it therefore becomes “too much.”
Liberal tolerance is therefore predicated on an immensely intolerant world-view: anyone ‘different’ has to accept that ‘every culture is the same,’ and therefore that he or she is the same, and submit to the specific sort of cultural sameness demanded by the multicultural self. Moreover, by denying that there is such thing as cultural difference, this multicultural self enables the flattening of cultural particularity into a culturally vacuous ‘sameness,’ thus erasing the racialized violence that does exist in our society.
The liberal notion of tolerance is not based upon an unqualified acceptance of a person’s ethnicity, but rather how much that person can distort and tailor their ethnicity to make their identity fit the parameters of the accepted multicultural ideal.
This is precisely the kind of attitude common to liberals in the United States: the idea that ethnic difference is only advantageous insofar as it does not disturb us, too much. The moment, however, that cultural difference does disturb us, which it presumably will, because cultures are different, and do conflict, we have no reason to believe that this attitude will not lead us down a similar road. The recent shooting in Quebec City, I hope, will allow for a readjustment in the levels of our moral superiority.
More importantly, the smug sentiments of recent months have put blinders on what is actually going on in Canada in terms of racial policy, and what is done to those cultures that do ‘disturb us too much.’
Contrary to the conventional self-congratulatory wisdom, Canada has significant racial and class inequality. For every dollar that a white Canadian makes, someone of a racial minority makes 80 cents, with first generation immigrants making 70 cents. All women of non-Canadian ethnic backgrounds make around half of every dollar that a white Canadian man makes. Moreover, Black males in Toronto are three times more likely to be carded by the police, regardless of their area of residence.
Moreover, by denying that there is such thing as cultural difference, this multicultural self enables the flattening of cultural particularity into a culturally vacuous ‘sameness,’ thus erasing the racialized violence that does exist in our society.
Despite Trudeau’s rather absurd comment in 2016 that Canada is the first post-national nation, the Canadian government is still implicated in a wide variety of racially discriminatory policies, which the media has all but chosen to ignore. Moreover, the Prime Minister has done shockingly little to ameliorate the institutional and cultural conditions giving rise to racism in Canada, other than provide a few sunny-faced interviews and empty promises. And, indeed, the most visceral reminder of the “don’t disturb us too much’ policy, hidden conveniently out of sight, are aboriginal reserves. Even at present, investment in reserves, many of which do not have running water or electricity, is minimal compared to other Canadian communities (despite the common trope that the government is sinking billions of dollars into them).
Trudeau has consistently hesitated on carrying out his commitment to reform Aboriginal-Government relations, especially vis-á-vis the Indian Act, designed to control, micro-manage and subsume Indigenous communities into ‘multicultural’ political society. After committing to implement the UN declaration on the Rights of Native Peoples, in a speech to the Assembly of First Nations a year later, Liberal apparatchik Wilson Raybauld backtracked on the party’s promise with characteristic duplicity, stating with typical cynical legalism that “simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities.”
Despite Trudeau’s rather absurd comment in 2016 that Canada is the first post-national nation, the Canadian government is still implicated in a wide variety of racially discriminatory policies, which the media has all but chosen to ignore.
In 2012, a United Nations Human Rights report issued a number of damning prescriptions for Canadian racial policy. It recommended, for example, that Canada “take appropriate legislative measures to prevent transnational corporations registered in Canada from carrying out activities that negatively impact on the enjoyment of rights of indigenous peoples in territories outside Canada, and hold them accountable." Of course, with Justin’s approval of the Kinder Morgan, he has emphatically ignored this recommendation in favour of financial interests.
Now there is something on which Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau can easily agree: the absolute necessity of a new pipeline to cut a jagged scar through the little of what’s left of North American wilderness. I suppose where Trump and Trudeau really differed on this issue, is that Trump signed the approval order with his characteristic scowl, Trump did so with a smile. So instead of balking at our neighbours, and admiring our leader, however pleasurable both may be, I suggest some self-criticism is in order.