Did you know that Canada was the first country to adopt "multiculturalism" as an official policy? It was introduced in the early 1970s and made a federal law by the Multiculturalism Act (1988). The policy is multifaceted and is designed "to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of all Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada." It embraces diversity and replaces the concept of the 'melting pot' where immigrants are expected to assimilate into the dominant culture.
The genesis of multiculturalism is often attributed to Canada's struggle to address biculturalism and bilingualism.
Its foundation is rooted in the fact that Canada was, and continues to be, a mosaic. We never had just 'two' groups. Rather, we had Aboriginal peoples and ethnic, cultural, racial, and religious groups who immigrated to Canada in wave after wave.
According to government statistics, immigration continues to shape Canada with 6.8 million foreign born residents and, one in five people is a visible minority. In 2012, Canada welcomed over 257,000 immigrants with more than 36,000 settling in British Columbia.
Debate on whether or not multiculturalism has failed or succeeded continues. Opponents argue that the society is divided with isolated communities. Supporters see vibrant communities contributing to Canada. Critics argue that Canada has failed to attain many of its stated objectives because it remains largely a federal policy - more needs to be done in our cities and towns.
A poll conducted for the Association of Canadian Studies on the 40th anniversary of the policy revealed some telling results. While a clear majority of Canadians support the ideals of multiculturalism 45 per cent thought immigrants should give up their customs and traditions and integrate into the majority culture. The Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society plays a pivotal role in welcoming immigrants to the Nanaimo area. Last year, CVIMS assisted approximately 980 clients who came from 84 different countries and spoke 65 different languages. They provide a full range of settlement services to immigrants including ESL for adults, employment services and children's programming.
As part of their diversity programming, CVIMS is partnering with the City of Nanaimo to host a month long speaker series. Samantha Letourneau, diversity co-ordinator, notes the reason for the series was not only "to highlight the diversity in this region" but also "to reduce the likelihood of racism and discrimination" by creating a forum for people to meet other people from different backgrounds.
Eight people have stepped forward to share their stories; we have heard from half of them.
I have been struck by their honesty and willingness to share their immigration experiences.
The forum is meant to expand your knowledge about where they come from and their cultures as well as to challenge what you think you know. It does just that, recognizing only so much can be achieved in two hours.
Perhaps the Regional District of Nanaimo may be interested in learning more about a network of Canadian municipalities who are working with other governments and organizations like CVIMS to address racism and discrimination; Prince George and Victoria are recent signatories. CMMARD best practices can be adapted to create a cohesive local strategy to create an inclusive community that welcomes immigrants and respects diversity.
Tracy Samra is a lawyer, consultant and former bureaucrat with more than 20 years experience working with Aboriginal groups in Canada. She is Cree and recently relocated with Nanaimo to live the Island life. She will write a regular column for the Daily News and can be reached via email at: NDDColumn@gmail.com
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