On CBC radio one morning last week some solemn ass was explaining what makes Canada so marvellous. "We're unique," he said, using "unique" in the Canadian sense, meaning "not like the U.S." He said Canadians reject the melting-pot ideal. "We don't impose one style of life on everyone. We are free to be what we want to be. That's multiculturalism."
He spoke as if delivering hot news, but surely most listeners recognized this comparison of American melting pot and Canadian mosaic as one of the oldest cliches in our national bafflegab. Many of them must also have known that the poor fellow was uttering complete nonsense.
Multiculturalism made news in Toronto this week when it appeared that the city's cute and self-conscious festival of ethnicities, International Caravan, was dying. Caravan started decades ago as a way for ethnic groups to make their presence in the city felt. In the earliest days you paid two dollars to visit dozens of national "pavilions," which were often in church basements. You could buy perogies or goat meat or couscous and watch teenagers (who always appeared to have been conscripted against their will) attempt folk dancing in ancestral costumes. It was supposed to break down barriers between groups, though it also emphasized them. It was mainly a chance for Toronto to proclaim its amazing, world-class tolerance.
Multiculturalism originally appeared on Canada's national agenda because many people, being neither British nor French in background, felt left out by the mandate of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. So in 1971 the federal government made multiculturalism official policy. This led in 1972 to a Minister of State (Multiculturalism), and that in turn meant we needed a Canadian Multiculturalism Council, which we acquired in 1973. Its activities are still supported by the Multiculturalism Directorate. Naturally, whatever happens conforms to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. Many in Ottawa believe this activity does all sorts of good things for the country as well as employing civil servants.
Even so, not all members of designated ethnic groups are grateful. Many are sardonic and a few are bitter. Some even say (ingratitude goes this far) that the whole business is a way for politicians to bribe what they call "the ethnic vote."
Still, multiculturalism at least demonstrates that we aren't a melting pot. On the other hand, neither is anyone else. Most countries with any pretensions to democracy allow citizens to live as they wish.
The metaphor dominating this whole argument began life in 1908 in The Melting Pot, a successful play by Israel Zangwill. He reworked Romeo and Juliet as an American drama involving Jewish and Cossack families from Russia. Zangwill argued that in America old ways would disappear and everyone would develop acceptably American attitudes and habits.
Most immigrant Americans never took that notion seriously. They learned democratic ways but they retained customs and identities from their countries of origin. Anyone who doubted this could consider the proof, assembled by sociologists, that many members of each ethnic group continued, even after three generations, to look for comfort and identity among people descended from the same culture.
Few knowledgeable Americans have taken the melting pot seriously since 1964, when two social scientists, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (the future senator) wrote Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. They described huge populations that showed no interest in giving up their customs for the sake of becoming Americanized.
Today Americans are farther than ever from fulfilling Zangwill's narrow-minded ideal, as anyone can learn from the school boards in the Southwest, where bilingual education in Spanish and English is a major controversy.
Toronto's Caravan has mattered less each year, partly because every national cuisine is always available and partly because the concept of multiculturalism has itself grown tired. Some of us love diversity and pluralism but find that the word "multiculturalism" has taken on the deadening sound of a decree.
Last year, when no sponsorship money appeared, Caravan was cancelled. This year ticket sales were so meagre that it couldn't come up with a $100,000 advance on the rent it was to pay for Downsview Park, where all the pavilions were to be assembled. There's been talk of moving it back into church basements, and it might struggle on for a while. But soon it will exist as nothing more than a historical footnote. And one day, if we are lucky, government-organized multiculturalism will fall into the same category.