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Neil Bissoondath’s Selling Illusions. The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada: 20 Years Later

As the subtitle of Neil Bissoondath’s book says, multiculturalism is a “cult” in Canada, not a typical cult in which a small group of very devoted supporters worship something or someone, but a cult officially endorsed by the elites across the nation, seemingly accepted by the majority, inscribed in the legal system, the media, schools, textbooks, historical narratives, and endorsed by all the political parties. Published in 1994, this became one of the most controversial books in 1990s Canada; in the revised edition published in 2002, Bissoondath recounts the “roller-coaster ride” he experienced upon publication, the many reviews, promotion circuit across the country, rounds of media interviews and talks at universities and community colleges, phone-in shows on local television, and addresses to “audiences in one packed hall after another”.

But he soon noticed that the “unduly critical” responses were coming not from the general public, but the established media, political parties, and university professors. The many Canadians he encountered in his talks were either sympathetic or quite willing to discuss the arguments of the book. The “cult” of multiculturalism has been, indeed, a state-sanctioned ideology imposed from above without democratic consent. Bissoondath refers to a survey conducted in 1993 in which about 72 percent of the respondents stated that Canadian multiculturalism was not working and should be replaced by the cultural melting pot policy of the United States. The argument of Selling Illusions is in line with the feelings of these respondents: multiculturalism encourages immigrants to hold on to the habits, values, and ethnic identities of their former homelands rather than assimilate into the culture of Canada.

Multiculturalism is more Realistic than Assimilation

My position is closer to the multicultic view of the elites — but for diametrically opposite reasons. The general public senses that something is amiss in Canada but misses the target in believing that the problem is multiculturalism. The problem is not multiculturalism as such; it is the policy of mass immigration from non-European cultures. Will Kymlicka, and other communitarians such as Charles Taylor, are right: individual fulfillment is not something that can be achieve in isolation but only as a member of a community; a constituent component of a community is the cultural and ethnic identity of the members belonging to it. One of the key goals of multiculturalism is for “mainstream” Canadians to acknowledge the attachment of minorities to their respective ancestral communities; hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving from non-European lands every year cannot be expected to brush aside their customs and ethnic identities; they must be given recognition; to demand that immigrants relinquish their beliefs and traditions for the “mainstream values” of Canadians is a form of cultural supremacism, for it amounts to the belief that the “Western ways” of the majority of Canadians are better than the ways of immigrants.

The policy of multiculturalism, of course, does not call upon immigrants to create a new political order with illiberal institutions but expects them to accept freedom of speech, representative government, and cultural pluralism, that is, tolerance of the day-to-day habits, languages, foods, music, dressing styles, and many other aspects that make up the day-to-day lives of different ethnic groups. Multiculturalism encourages immigrants and mainstream Canadians, everyone, to accept a multiethnic and a multicultural life-world (if I may use the language of sociological theory), at the same time that everyone agrees that liberalism offers the best political framework for the existence of this life-world of coexisting and interacting lifestyles, rather than a common or uniform (Eurocentric) life-world.

In many ways, what makes Canada the most interesting example of multiculturalism in the world is that it was the first country to come to the political (and theoretical) realization (however implicit the arguments may have been) that you can’t have mass immigration from non-European lands without multiculturalism. Mass immigration from non-European lands calls for multiculturalism — whether this is recognized officially or not by the central authorities. The American melting pot model is anachronistic; it made sense when the vast majority of immigrants into the U.S. were from Europe. But in recent decades, as I suggested in Multiculturalism is better than Assimilation,

with the mass entry of Mexicans, there is little melting going on in many areas of the United States. While the United States does not have an official policy of multiculturalism at the federal level, one finds, under the pressure of relentless immigration and political correctness, a multiplicity of pro-diversity policies and programs at the state and municipal levels on matters related to school curricula, policing, hiring practices, and race relations generally.

This is not because there is something wrong with Mexicans; they are all too human. Simply, Mexicans are very different from European Americans; they have a strong attachment to their ethnic identity, pride in their history, and Spanish language; they don’t want to sit in classrooms and hear about how the Americans modernized the former Aztlan territories, or how many inventions White Americans were responsible for as compared to Mexicans. Multiculturalists are correct in realizing that there is a form of cultural supremacism in the expectation that they should obediently assimilate to the history, habits, and folkways of Europeans.

Bissoondath inadvertently recognizes that the American melting pot has dissolved in the face of mass immigration from non-Europe when he cites the following words from the American historian Arthur Schlesinger:

The cult of ethnicity exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms…between races and nationalities.1

These words come from The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1998), in which the author shows that America is just as multicultural as Canada (despite the endless pageants among Canadian assimilationists about its melting pot culture). What Schlesinger failed to understand is that the blame he otherwise attributed to the spread of political correctness, with its promotion of bilingual education, Afrocentrism, and minority pride in schools, was developed not in a vacuum but in direct response to the new racial realities of the United States brought on by immigration. Non-Europeans in America were both growing in numbers and in awareness of their identity, and they did not want to join a so-called “common American identity” which came from European Whites. Minority histories were first introduced in the curriculum in recognition of the fact that, to this day, Blacks and Indians have not assimilated well to the culture created by the majority European peoples of America.

Therefore I recognize the inescapable multicultural reality of a culture with diverse ethnicities and open borders. Assimilation is the illusion. Given this racial reality, we Europeans need to make use of the levers of multiculturalism for the protection and enhancement of our ethnic and cultural heritage. To demand assimilation is suicidal since a “common” culture based on the fusion of multiple ethnicities coupled with our current open borders is not really a culture that can be identified with the historical reality that Canada was created by Europeans.

Bissoondath is for Assimilation

His book was popular in large measure because he was an immigrant from Trinidad calling upon other immigrants to let go of their ethnic ancestries, not play multicultural politics, but join the “common Canadian culture”. Nevertheless, in the end, the Canada Bissoondath envisions and cherishes is not of immigrants assimilating to the Canada created by Europeans, but of immigrants joining him in celebrating the making of a radically new Canada characterized by a fusion of cultures, a potpourri of mixed ethnicities constructed out of the “free” choices of deracinated individuals.

Bissoondath’s sense of assimilation is akin to that of some of the most ardent and eloquent defenders of Western values — from Amartya Sen to Liu Xiaobo, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to his own uncle, Nobel prize writer V.S. Naipaul, who also left his country of origin to become a British citizen, and believes in assimilation to the “universal” values of freedom and democracy. Bissoondath came from a family of relatively well educated Trinidadians fond of European lands. He mentions a letter he received “from a relative long living in England” soon after he departed for Canada, saying:

Trinidad is behind you, and you have to forget Trinidad and Trinidad attitudes. You have to understand the larger world you are now in…try to understand the country and the people and don’t fall into the trap of thinking about race all the time.2

Bissoondath’s childhood memories of Trinidad are both boring and few; before coming to Canada he was already seeking to escape the “confines” of his heritage; and when he visited Trinidad a mere year after departing, he was “impatient to get back to Toronto”. This utter lack of attachment to his homeland is unusual, but perhaps understandable in light of the culture of violence and racial tensions in Trinidad. He takes it as proof that everyone can and should escape from the confining atmosphere of their heritage. He arrived in Toronto in 1973, and was immediately drawn to its diversity and the multiple choices it afforded individuals.

While about 95 percent of the Canadian population was ethnically European in 1973, non-Europeans had started arriving in larger numbers in the 1960s, so that, by 1970, half of all immigrants were coming from Caribbean nations, Asia and South America. It was this reality that Bissoondath encountered in Toronto where many of these immigrants were taking residence, not to mention the diversity among European themselves. From his arrival until the writing of his book in 1994, or the publication of the revised edition in 2001, the number of immigrants from non-European lands kept increasing. From 1981 to 2001, the number of visible minorities — excluding Aboriginals — increased more than threefold from 1.1 million people, or nearly 5% of the population, to 4.0 million people, or 13% of the population.

This rapidly changing ethnic reality is what Bissoondath identifies with Canada. He is calling for assimilation to this newly emerging and ever more racially and culturally mixed Canada. He is not calling for assimilation to European Canada.

Hating Eurocanadians who Affirm their Ethnic Identity?

Bissoondath is just as critical of European Canadians attached to their heritage in Canada as he is of immigrants attached to the recognition multiculturalism affords them. Actually, he is more critical, designating as “racist” members of the “political right” who oppose our current immigration levels. He is right on target about the way the left brands as racist “anyone critical of multiculturalism policy”, and the way minorities manipulate multiculturalism both as victims in need of special treatment and as proud members of their ethnic groups, while accusing Europeans of being racist if they show pride in their own heritage. Bissoondath would like all individuals to stop thinking in terms of their collective identities and view their identities as social constructs shaped by the free play of their own choices in a changing environment. But why does he presume that allowance for individual choice in the making of one’s identity somehow precludes individual attachment to a collective sense of one’s identity? He knows that the charge of racism has “particularly virulent” consequences in Canada, and yet he says that to define oneself by one’s ethnicity or race is racist.3 Are all Canadians then obligated to feel the way Bissoondath feels about his identity?

This is what has happened to European Canadians; they are the only ethnic groups disallowed from showing any pride and attachment to their heritage — despite, or, I should say, because of the way multiculturalism has been understood as a call only to minorities to protect and enhance their ethnic identity.

Anyone who endorses the radical transformation of Canada’s culture from an overwhelmingly European nation into a thoroughly immigrant and ethnically mixed culture is a cultural Marxist. He says that multiculturalism “is in many ways a statement of activism” directing the government to play a role in shaping the cultural evolution of Canada.4 But the real force of activism is mass immigration from the non-European lands. Multiculturalism in a Canada that was still 96% percent European in 1971 would have amounted to the reinforcement of Canada’s already existing identity. By contrast, advocating assimilation in the context of mass immigration from non-European lands is a form of activism that is radically transforming the nation forever at a pace never witnessed in human history.

He brushes the political right as “mostly driven by its fears” and “fantasies” about Canada’s past.5 But the views defended in this blog are based on how things were in Canada for centuries, whereas Bissoondath’s party is endorsing an experiment without precedent and based on a willful misinterpretation of Canada’s history. He writes:

Homogeneous Canada, a reality only so long as its minorities could be ignored, is no more. If Canada was never exclusively a ‘White Christian country’, it is even less so now.6

Sorry Bissondath: Canada was a White Christian Country!

Make up your mind: did European Canadians exclude minorities and inhabit an exclusively White country, or were they wrong to pretend that Canada was exclusively White and Christian? The historical record shows that

  • 90 per cent of all immigrants who came to Canada before 1961 were from Britain,
  • at the time of Confederation in 1867, despite the large numbers of immigrants in the preceding decades, 79 percent of the population had been born in Canada,
  • the French-speaking population numbered about 70,000 in the 1760s, and thereafter, until the 1950s, the population expanded rapidly, not through immigration, which had essentially ceased after the British assumed control, but through the high fertility rates of the French natives.

Therefore, Canada was a nation created — all its institutions, culture, education, parliamentary government, common and civil law, modern infrastructure — by Anglo and French immigrants and natives. I repeat, when Bissoondath arrived in 1973, Canada was still overwhelmingly European in ethnicity.

The claim that Canada was never “a White Christian country” is a historical fabrication intended to justify the current cultural Marxist agenda. Bissoondath says mainstream Canadians should not fear that an “ill-defined Canadian way of life is disappearing”, accepting mass immigration is just “part of growing up”.7 He implies that before diversity arrived, Canada had no identity other than being racist in excluding minorities; for all his emphasis on assimilation to Canada, he never says anything positive about the history of Canada; it is all about the world he encountered in Toronto and how he felt about his own identity; the Canadians who created the country are portrayed as closed minded, even though most of Canada’s cultural heritage was already in place in the 1970s, and many of the contributions made thereafter have been in pop culture and cultural Marxist thinking.

He notes that the language used by proponents of multiculturalism consists mostly of “comforting and soothing” words, but his book is suffused with equally insubstantial words about the wonderful cultural complexity and vibrancy of diversity. How does one explain the incredible cultural accomplishments of ethnically homogeneous ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and16th and 17th century Spain? What truly great artist, philosopher, musician has Canada produced since diversity began in earnest?

Bissoondath rightfully criticizes multiculturalists for never addressing the question of limits:

How far do we go as far as a country in encouraging and promoting cultural difference? How far is far enough, how far too far? Is there a point at which diversity begins to threaten social cohesion?8

Bissoondath presumes throughout that multiculturalism on its own nurtures a strong sense of ethnic identity. But multiculturalism is best seen as an official acknowledgement of the growing and planned diversification of Canada and the strong bonds humans have naturally to their ethnic heritage. In this light, the question that needs addressing is how far should Canada go in promoting mass immigration; is there a point at which the actual diversity of races begins to threaten the “Western” cohesion of Canada? There are no known cases in human history of liberal democratic cultures outside Europe. There are no known cases of racially mixed liberal democracies in the world. We are currently in a state of experimentation.

Bissoondath chastises the former Reform Party’s policy of reducing our immigration intake from 250,000 to 150,000. He wants more diversification. He prefers his city of residence, Quebec City, above all other cities, but feels uncomfortable with the “old, racially minded nationalists” in Quebec. Race is “simply like the shape of one’s ears”, why should it matter to the native Quebecois if millions upon millions of immigrants keep pouring in, so long as there are no multicultural policies? Well, for one, the PQ party, which is a party that emphasizes cultural, not ethnic nationalism, has been unable to advance its drive for independence due to the “ethnic vote”, the mistrust immigrants have of cultural nationalism.

Bissoondath categorizes any policy or idea about setting limits to immigration as if it were a call for a racially homogeneous Canada. How many more years of mass immigration does Canada need before it ceases to be homogeneous and can be identified as diverse? Why is he assuming that a Canada that is minority European is bound to be richer culturally than a Canada that is 90 percent European? None of these questions are ever asked in Canada because, when all is said, the cult of immigration from non-European lands is the true religion accepted by all parties and elites without debate and democratic input — unlike Bissoondath’s critique of multiculturalism which was the subject of open debate across the nation and did not preclude him from achieving honorary status.

[1] Arthur Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, 1998, cited by Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions. The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, 2002 edition (first published in 1994): 90
[2] Bissoondath: 222
[3] Ibid. 163
[4] Ibid. 39
[5] Ibid. 57
[6] Ibid. 54
[7] Ibid. 69
[8] Ibid. 40
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