Section 2 Perspectives on Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism in the United States and Canada

Sabine Sielke

For anyone concerned with US and Canadian cultures, multiculturalism inevitably turns into a crucial matter, sooner or later. The self-conceptions of both nations soundly rest upon processes of immigration and integration characteristic of former settler colonies—similar to Australia and New Zealand. At the same time, US and Canadian nation building came at the price of acts of exclusion that have had lasting effects—be it the European colonial powers' confrontations with various Indigenous peoples or, in the case of the United States, the enslavement, oppression, and ongoing discrimination of African Americans. All these processes—essentially processes of globalization—have significantly shaped US and Canadian political structures and cultures. The two nations' history and rhetoric of ethnic contact and conflict, however, also differ in important ways.1 Embracing its more positively valued metaphor of the mosaic, Canadian multiculturalist discourse has aimed at distancing itself from the trope of the melting pot, which was introduced by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782). What tends to be forgotten, though, is that when Kate Foster's Our Canadian Mosaic was first published in 1926, Horace Kallen, Randolph Bourne, and others had already coined the term "cultural pluralism" and helped to establish the "salad bowl" metaphor, which has displaced the trope of the melting pot in the self-conception of the United States since the 1970s.2

My endeavor to compare US and Canadian multiculturalism necessitates an examination of the historical development of North American multicultures and their policy of a "recognition of cultural and racial diversity" (Day 2000, 6). In doing so, Richard Day suggests, one must "distinguish among three prevalent usages of 'multiculturalism': to describe (construct) a sociological fact of [North American] diversity; to prescribe a social ideal; and to describe and prescribe a government policy or act as a response to the fact and an implementation of the ideal."3 While both the United States and Canada are de facto multicultures and, at least officially, remain committed to the ideal of cultural diversity, the two nations differ as to how such diversity is actually dealt with and how the multiculturalist ideal has been incorporated into political structures and institutions.

As a scholar of cultural studies, I am less interested in assessing, by way of statistics and census data, whether or not the United States and Canada deserve to wear the multicultural label as proudly as they do; the state of multicultural- ism cannot be measured and weighed using quantitative methods, though the attempt has been made. Instead, I raise the question: What specific cultural functions has the discourse of multiculturalism taken on and at what time in the United States and in Canada? In other words, I explore what cultural work this debate has performed and keeps performing. To a considerable degree, my reflections are informed by the assumption that self-construction always relies on an engagement with an other—in this case other cultures. In Canada in particular—that is, in a nation forced to permanently assert itself against its culturally dominant neighbor and "significant other"—the recognition of the other and of other cultures has played an increasingly important role in recent decades, not least perhaps because the United States appears to possess what Canada seems to lack—a clear-cut sense of national identity.4

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >