Multiculturalism does not threaten sovereignty

– By Shakunthala Perera

Canada is an interesting example of how best to use elements of a diverse society to a country’s progress. It has many lessons for Sri Lanka. It has over 200 ethno cultural communities with an impressive diversity of skills, language, cultures, and religions. By 2017, projections are that visible minorities in their largest cities will in fact form the majority.

Canada was the first country to institute an official policy of multiculturalism and is the only one to have a law recognizing the cultural diversity of its population. Canadian multiculturalism is rooted in the long-standing policy of biculturalism which paved the way for the recognition of the significance of other groups which have contributed substantially to Canada’s development and pluralistic character. The 1867 BNA Act recognized three racial, religious and linguistic collectivities: the aboriginal peoples, the French and the English.

The Canadian Prime Minister Harper recently noted that, throughout its history, the accommodation of minorities – regional, ethnic, linguistic or religious – has been critical to Canada’s overall health as a country. In fact, many of the values that Canadians hold dear – freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality and the rule of law – have evolved out of their diverse heritage. ‘The Government of Canada is committed to supporting human rights, social inclusion, fostering diversity, and strengthening our pluralism. Our Government considers diversity to be one of Canada’s greatest strengths, and we are pleased to support initiatives to preserve and promote pluralism’.

Canada is in effect a source of knowledge and experience in fostering pluralism through laws, institutions and federal policies that promote the equal participation of all people in society while encouraging them to retain their cultural, linguistic and religious heritage.

Accordingly pluralism is one of Canada’s foundational values. It is based on the recognition that its diversity is a source of strength and that every individual and community has an equal voice and can and should use that voice to participate as a full member of society. This pluralism is reflected in its civil society and in their institutions.

The Canadian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Angela Bogdan told a recently concluded regional conference here that ‘pluralism is very much at the core of who the Canadians were.

“Pluralism defines Canada and we derive our strength through a celebration of our cultural mosaic.

“But Canada’s multicultural fabric is constantly in flux. And there are times where cultures and religions do rub up against each other, this is natural in a diverse society. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, accommodation and tolerance, give and take, criticism and self-criticism.

Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real difference. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table – with one’s commitments,” she added.

This in its self is a clear and invaluable message for Sri Lanka. It is imperative that we appreciate that the message comes at a time when our commitment to being within the process of peace is being questioned by the international community.

Voicing the general opinion of the international community she agreed that terrorism needed to be ‘confronted and defeated. She however noted that it was crucial that the government seek to address the core of the problem, rather than treating the symptoms. “Sri Lanka, too, has suffered from a long-running ethnic conflict that has spawned a ruthless terrorist movement, has killed thousands of civilians and displaced thousands more. This conflict continues to plague the island with civilians suffering the most. Terrorism needs to be confronted and defeated.

She emphasized the need for the country to look at ways to seek long-lasting solutions to the core of the problem rather than the symptom. ‘Pluralism offers a way in which minority and majority communities can positively interact to build a better society that respects and accommodates difference. As a long-time friend of Sri Lanka, Canada dearly wishes for the day when all communities can co-exist within a peaceful, lasting political solution,’ she added.

Diversity and failure to integrate is often cited as the root of these acts of terrorism and violence. As we see all over the world, and in our outreach, religion, ethnicity and culture aren’t the reason why violence occurs, but often lines can be drawn based on these markers of identity. Unfortunately recent discussions focus on identity rather than politics and on belief rather than behaviour.

And the critics of course question the threat that pervades such a society. The assertion is that multi-culturalism carries with it challenges, and on a larger scale, the most serious of these challenges is that it threatens security.

But the fact remains that Muslim acts of terrorism in the West – 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid – were all countries which are not officially multicultural.

Certainly one can argue that Tamil Canadian financing of the LTTE followed the implementation of the Act. Canada, till very recently remained one of the strongest financial hubs of the LTTE. Even today financing activities have not discontinued entirely. But with greater restrictions in place today, it is greatly minimised.

Then again multiculturalism did not stop Canada from implementing tough post-9/1 1 measures: tightening the Immigration Act, gutting the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act, and enacting the draconian Anti-Terrorism Act and the Public Safety Act.

‘Similarly, multicultural imperatives did not prevent the Maher Ajar tragedy, the reported torture of three other Canadian Arabs in Syria with alleged Canadian complicity, the detention of six Canadian residents under ‘security certificates on secret evidence, the botched arrest in 2003 of 23 young Pakistani and Indian men as suspected terrorists, and last year’s arrest of more than a dozen Toronto Muslims, whose trials are awaited.’

It needs to be understood that embracing the elements of a multicultural society, does not necessarily entail a threat to its identity, or sovereignty. A greater threat awaits a society that refuse to allow each citizen of the same freedoms, despite the ethnic or religious diversity.

It is such uncalled for fears that lead those in the calibre of Foreign Secretary Kohona to assert that the world was merely ‘pointing fingers, passing judgments of convenience and preaching’ at Sri Lanka.

Addressing the same seminar he claimed that “Sri Lanka was making a concerted effort to deal with a brutal terrorist threat, re-establish a comfort level for all its people and return to normalcy. ‘It needs to re-establish a confidence level throughout the country so that the entire country can be the homeland for every one of us. Our efforts to embrace each other and create hope in our future deserve your support.

“The healing process can begin after we end the terrorism,” he added.
But the fact remains that there is nothing tangible on ground, to justify the claim that efforts were underway to embrace all communities. If there are any such attempts they are certainly not visible in the areas that are more sensitive and are in dire need of the elements of multiculturalism. The East as the government’s testing ground for co-existence and democracy, is furthest from these elements. No healing process can await the tragedies of humanity to end.

Source: Daily Mirror

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