Why the Canadian mosaic is in crisis Why the Canadian mosaic is in crisis - thestar.com The recent violence at a Sikh temple in Brampton has resulted, inevitably, in a grand spate of hand-wringing and soul-searching about the status of Canada’s multiculturalism. This week, the World Sikh Organization stepped in with a condemnation of the violence: “This kind of irresponsible and unacceptable behaviour by a few individuals continues to cast a shadow over the entire community.” The violence is deplorable, of course, but “a shadow over the entire community?” Really? Who in this country is still afraid of Sikhs? That’s so eighties. Your standard urban Canadian racist, when he conjures his stereotype of a Sikh, is more likely to think “chartered accountant” than “Khalistan.” At this point, for the vast majority of Canadians, a turban is about as threatening as a Tilley hat. The ferocity of the response to this minor incident in a temple is a deflection of our real fears, an intellectual and political decoy to the problems we do face as a nation. Canadian multiculturalism is in crisis, but it has nothing to do with Sikhs. Our crisis is more essential, the result of the division between French and English cultures at our foundation, between the distinct ways they conceive of political plurality. The niqab is forcing the issue. Since the Liberal government in Quebec has now passed Bill 94, women in that province will have to show their faces if they want public services, including medical care and education. Ontario is accommodationist about the niqab, allowing women to have their identification photos taken by female staff and extending hours at clinics to allow for medical care under acceptable conditions. These two distinct responses will split the country into two societies if both are allowed to continue. The crack is spreading invisibly. That’s what is most worrying. People in Ontario won’t notice what happens in Quebec and vice versa. Stephen Harper approves of the ban, and Michael Ignatieff has described Bill 94 as a “good Canadian balance.” But their support, if not merely a pander to Quebec voters, is half-hearted. If Bill 94 is a good Canadian balance then they should be worried that Ontario, the biggest province in the country, is going in exactly the opposite direction. If Harper believes in banning the niqab, he should immediately extend the provisions of Bill 94 to federal institutions. Ignatieff won’t object. But Harper won’t budge and neither would Ignatieff. The issue is simply too large, too fundamental, and too nasty. It goes right to the root of the basic question: What is a nation? To which Canada’s French and English sides have distinct answers. The difference in British and French perspectives began with their establishment as modern countries. French culture, at least since Louis XIV, has understood the state as a shared system of values. “L’Etat C’est Moi” encapsulated not only Louis’s autocracy but also his sense that the state was a unity. Queen Elizabeth I, unlike Louis, “would not make windows into men’s souls.” Religious toleration was the only way a country with Britain’s wide spectrum of Protestant believers could keep itself together. This original divergence continued throughout wars, allegiances and revolutions and over centuries. The English “Quiet Revolution” of 1688 was a switch of allegiance, while the 1789 Revolution in France was an overturning of whole modes of thinking. This basic distinction in the idea of what a country means and what it can and should be has spread to both French and British colonies. The deep roots continue to exert their presence in our bifurcated country, as the divergent responses to the niqab illustrate. French Canada believes that the state has a right to insist on a measure of shared values. It will make “reasonable accommodation” with minority rights, but assumes that the government has the right to determine what constitutes “reasonable.” English Canada believes that the individual has rights which the state can never alienate. The government will move around the individual’s decision. I might as well admit straight away that I lean to the English side of this debate. I do not like the idea of the government telling people what they can and can’t wear. I personally don’t like the niqab and what it represents; it does seem oppressive to me. But I find hockey hair oppressive too, and I wouldn’t want a mass cull of mullets. In defending Bill 94, Charest said, “Two words: Uncovered face. The principle is clear.” The principle is not at all clear to me. What about facial tattoos? What about 13-year-old girls in public schools? Are they going to be denied an education because of their religiously mandated clothing? What about a woman in facial covering who is stopped by the police in the street? Will she have to show her face to the officers in broad daylight? Charest claims that this law will encourage equality for women. To this, I say, come to Toronto, meet me at one of the law firms where all the top partners are men, we’ll go down to Jilly’s for a finger-food lunch — ribs sound good — and after go to a shelter for battered women. Then we can discuss the oppression of women and what to do about it. I doubt the niqab would be near the top of the list. Perhaps my personal experience has led me to this position. I taught a young woman in a niqab when I was an assistant at the University of Toronto doing my time in the mines of Introduction to English Literature. I remember vividly the very first class, on the subject of the Wife of Bath, that unforgettable horny MILF from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who describes wearing out five husbands in the bedroom. The young woman in the niqab put up her hand right away and said in thick Mississauga teenagese: “She, like, reminds me of Samantha from Sex in the City.” From that exchange, I learned pretty directly never to judge a woman by her covering. Personal assumptions are almost always wrong. Assumptions on the part of government are almost always dangerous. That young woman would be kicked out of a similar class in Montreal today. But the vaunted openness of the Anglo approach has its limits, too. All multiculturalism has to have a limit. There is no good intellectual or legal reason to ban polygamy in Canada, for example. Yet we do, and we do it basically because polygamy disgusts us. Whether we pick the British or the French way, we are going to become hypocrites. But we must make our choice of hypocrisies as a whole, as a single country. We tend to think of multiculturalism as a simple concept, less a political idea than a spirit of openness, but the great examples of multicultural societies in history have all been based on centralizing ideas — whether it was the Caliphate of Islam’s golden age or the civitas of ancient Rome. We are at a crossroad and we have to go one way or the other, because the choice before us is much too important to be deferred. If we want to stay the same country, we have to decide what kind of society we want to be first.