Amid heightened awareness of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism this year, more Canadians have expressed pride in their country’s multicultural values.
“Multiculturalism,” it seems, is a comforting ideal when persistent racial inequities disturb our collective consciousness. From far-right politicians who rally against “extreme multiculturalism,” to anti-racist activists pleading for a “defense of multiculturalism,” there appears to be consensus that multiculturalism is the binary opposite of racism.
As Ghassan Hage has written, however, “multiculturalism [is] … merely a different way of reinforcing White power.”
This four-part series unpacks the myths — implicit and explicit — upholding the false equivalence between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Indeed, multicultural discourse is more effective at obscuring racism than it is at addressing it.
The first article in the series demystified Canada’s multicultural immigration and refugee policy; while the second addressed the misconception that multiculturalism advances racial equality. The third installment attended to the seemingly contradictory flourishing of both multiculturalist and far-right white supremacy sentiment within Canada.
This final article addresses the contradictions of a “multicultural” Canada on stolen land.
Myth: Multiculturalism is decolonization
“Racism has no place [in Canada].” — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, August 2018.
The multicultural claim that “racism has no place in Canada” is a colonial one. The racialization of the land’s original inhabits — the process of studying and categorizing them, constructing as “savage” or “backwards” their ways of being — supported their colonial domination. The very premise of Canada is racist.
To argue that racism is incompatible with Canada is to extend into the present the colonial myth of “terra nullius” — the denial of Indigenous presence that legitimized settler occupation. Racism only has “no place in Canada” if colonial genocide has been complete — if Indigenous peoples have been effectively “consigned to the dustbin of history” and are therefore not featured in the present story of Canada.
While extreme cultural and physical violence was necessary for the foundation of Canada, the settler-colonial project is functionally no more peaceful today. Ironically, the more entrenched the cultural/political/economic violence of settler-colonialism, the less physical violence is required to uphold it.
Indeed, despite a rhetoric of “reconciliation,” the Canadian colonial apparatus continues to defy Indigenous sovereignty in favour of capitalist settler expansion — with pipelines and resorts proceeding without the consent of nations on whose unceded territory they are built.
The criminalization of the land and water protectors who resist such encroachment reflects the circular logic of colonial rule — Canada justifies its colonial activity according to its own colonial law, a law that will necessarily reaffirm Canada’s right to, well, colonize.
Indeed, that Indigenous nations have to engage in lengthy and costly court cases for land recognition reflects the colonial assumption that everything belongs to the Crown unless proven otherwise — and “proven” to the colonizer, no less.
The colonial domination of Indigenous resources is complemented by that of Indigenous peoples. While the destructive M.O. of residential schools is now universally condemned, Indigenous peoples are subject to their modern-day counterparts: disproportionate exposure to police brutality, incarceration and child apprehension; denial of appropriate healthcare; racial, sexual and gendered violence; and a governmental failure to provide clean water, air and adequate funding for social services, education and infrastructure. As a result, Indigenous peoples have worse material, physical and mental realities than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
As Professor Taiaiake Alfred puts it:
“Canada’s basic policies of assimilation and destruction remain unchanged. The government continues to divest responsibility for the effects of colonialism on Aboriginal peoples, while holding onto their land base and resources, redefining without reforming, and further entrenching in law and practice the real basis of its power.”
“Multiculturalism” doesn’t disrupt colonialism. On the contrary, it benefits the project by producing more “Canadians” — diversifying the shade of settlement, and adding to its numbers.
Indeed, Canadians of all colours were eligible to participate in a 1992 national referendum on the Indigenous right to self-government (i.e. the Charlottetown Accord). Even as non-whites experience racism, they are still empowered as settlers in relation to Indigenous peoples. By virtue of their Canadian status, they are “authorized” to arbitrate on Indigenous sovereignty — a “colour blind” but nonetheless colonial task.
“Multiculturalist” discourse enlists non-white, non-Indigenous Canadians in the disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples — ironically, through “anti-racism” itself. In their seminal piece Decolonizing Anti-Racism, professors Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua describe how anti-racist scholarship and activism have often erased Indigenous presence and oppression, failed to interrogate non-whites’ complicity in settler-hood, and taken for granted the settler state as the legitimate site of restitution.
The common anti-racist argument that “we are Canadian too!” reflects the tendency to rebut racism by appealing to a shared settler-hood with white Canadians.
“Multiculturalism” obscures the reality of settler-colonialism by posturing the state as “post-racial.” President Lincoln rubber-stamped the end of slavery in the U.S. — and the same week, approved the largest mass hanging in its history of 38 Dakota protestors. In Canada, multiculturalist discourse has offered a useful distraction from the suppression of Indigenous dissent, arriving as it did amid a growing armed struggle for land reclamation.
Specifically, “multiculturalism” abets colonialism by re-framing Indigenous existence within liberal pluralist terms. By “culturalizing” Indigenous peoples — reducing them into one of many “ethnic” groups, whose interests are to be considered alongside those of others — their unique claims against the Canadian state are sidelined.
In 2019, the federal government announced $334 million to “revitalize” Indigenous languages across Canada — “insufficient,” given the work of overcoming linguistic genocide.
While French and English are structurally embedded into Canadian political, legal and social life under “official” status, Indigenous languages are nurtured or neglected according to the budgetary whims of the sitting government. Saving Indigenous languages are a fiscal “luxury” — akin to those of other “cultural” initiatives.
The multicultural claim to tolerance for diversity conceals the limits of this tolerance — limits that disproportionately impose upon Indigenous rights. Indeed, the multicultural promise of “religious freedom” has not been fulfilled towards Indigenous peoples.
In 2017, for example, the Supreme Court ruled against the Ktunaxa Nation in its effort to block construction of a ski resort on the sacred territory of the Grizzly Bear Spirit.
As Zainab Amadahy and Azeezah Kanji have written, this “judgment disadvantages Indigenous spiritual traditions, whose objects of reverence are connected to pieces of land vulnerable to physical destruction.”
Multicultural secularism — which disavows religious preference on the part of the state — is shaped by European definition of “religion.” The compatibility of this “religion” with capitalist expansion undermines Indigenous spiritualities. As Joe Alphonse of the Tsilhqot’in Nation has said: “it would be like us going overseas and trying to turn the Vatican into a bingo hall … why wouldn’t you guys want us to do that?”
Canada’s celebration of multicultural diversity is cruelly ironic, given the country’s foundational erasure of diversity via the Indian Act and its uniform classification of colonized peoples as “Indians.” Today, “Indigenous” similarly reduces people of diverse nations and identities to their common status as victims of the settler state.
The notorious instruction to “kill the Indian, save the man” summarizes the genocidal logic propelling colonial rule. Residential schools were designed to “kill” diverse Indigenous character — to alienate Indigenous peoples from their land, languages, spiritualities, communities and philosophies.
This genocidal legacy is evident today — in British Columbia, for example, only four per cent of Indigenous people are fluent in their mother tongue; across Canada, all 70 remaining Indigenous languages are deemed “endangered” or “vulnerable” by UNESCO.
Suppressing Indigenous culture was a colonial necessity. The matriarchal, gender-queer, extended-kinship networks underlying Indigenous governance norms were incompatible with patriarchal European systems organized around the heterosexual and monogamous nuclear family unit. As the Yellowhead Institute writes:
“Women, transgender, queer, and Two-Spirit people were … targeted and disempowered with the intention of removing them from leadership and minimizing any confrontation or challenge they posed to the patriarchy of Western systems of governance.”
Modern-day violence against Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people is a legacy of this enforced hetero-patriarchy.
Multicultural “diversity” is superficial — embracing but the commodifiable trinkets of “culture,” such as food and clothing, that are easily accommodated within the monocultural reality of global capitalism.
“Decolonization” involves the restoration of structural diversity — the rights of Indigenous nations to organize themselves and their resources according to their own governance systems, ones that facilitated for centuries their respectful and sustainable co-existence with land, non-human animals, other nations and future generations.
Indigenous nations have and continue to work towards this decolonial future — asserting jurisdiction over their territories, fighting to fulfill their territorial responsibilities, keeping alive their languages and philosophies, advocating against the violence they experience and generously allying with non-Indigenous peoples also subject to state oppression.
Today, as we confront the limitations of our existing world order — one that has produced large-scale environmental degradation and extreme poverty — the dearth of active alternatives is an imaginative barrier to envisioning and installing a different one. The elimination of diversity — under multiculturalism, no less — threatens us all.
Multiculturalism is not anti-racism
Those of us who benefit, in some way, from racial and colonial dynamics, find ways to distance ourselves from them — we say that “things have improved”; “thank goodness we’re not the U.S.”; or, even, “at least we’re not Quebec.”
But rather than search for differences between past and present or here and there, we’re better to find continuities. Indeed, whatever has changed, white people and systems dominate the world, materially and politically. Multicultural Canada is not immune to this.
Racism is adaptive. While legally enforced systems of racial apartheid are no longer the norm, segregation persists through racialized class differentials; biological racism is no longer in vogue, but cultural manifestations have taken their place; race-based slavery has been supplanted by citizenship-based indentured servitude; the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors are now traumatized through systems of child welfare.
Multiculturalism isn’t our salvation: it’s another racial adaptation. It can’t and won’t overcome racism. It was never meant to.
Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming,and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.
Image: Sally T. Buck/Flickr
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