Canadians are an ethnic group in their own right, professor says

Multiculturalism suppresses identity

Richard Foot
National Post

Canada has a distinct ethnicity, in spite of a multicultural “conspiracy” to repress it, says a sociologist at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“There is such a thing as an ethnic Canadian,” Rhoda Howard-Hassmann writes in the current issue of Canadian Public Policy, an academic journal. “But both public policy and much academic analysis conspire to prevent Canadians from recognizing this, by insisting that their ethnic identity must be that of their ancestors.”

In an article titled Canadian as an Ethnic Category, Prof. Howard-Hassmann argues that Canada’s long obsession with cultural diversity has scared its citizens away from admitting, and celebrating, their home-grown ethnicity.

The author excludes both Quebecers and aboriginals in her analysis.

But she says that English-speaking Canadians — whether third-generation Irish descendants or new immigrants from India — can claim to be ethnic Canadians, bound by a common language, history, lifestyle and territory.

For decades, says Prof. Howard-Hassmann, Canadians have failed to acknowledge their own identity because advocates of multiculturalism either convinced them it did not exist, or made them reluctant to discuss it for fear of being branded racists.

Prof. Howard-Hassmann says this has produced a “hidden nation” of Canadians. It is why Lucien Bouchard, the Quebec Premier, stated in 1996 that unlike Quebec, Canada was not a real country.

English Canada is a real country, Prof. Howard-Hassmann insists. Its citizens just need to recognize that fact.

“I don’t want the kind of gung-ho nationalism that we see in the United States,” she says in an interview. “But why is it so unpopular to say that Canadians are an ethnic group in their own right? Instead we’re encouraged to say that we don’t have an identity unless we can pinpoint coming from somewhere else … Saying, ‘I’m a proud Canadian’ is a little bit despised.”

Charles Beach, an economist at Queen’s University and the editor of Canadian Public Policy, says the article will be provocative, but was published in part because of a vigorous discussion underway in academia on the merits of multiculturalism.

That debate has reached beyond academic circles: Calls come from ethnic associations for official recognition of religious rights, such as Muslim law. Immigrant groups demand further funding for heritage language education in schools. Meanwhile, Neil Bissoondath, the novelist, attacks multiculturalism for promoting ethnic segregation.

Prof. Howard-Hassmann says she supports the federal government’s multiculturalism laws in so far as they make immigrants feel welcome in Canada. But she says the government exaggerates the intent of the law when, for example, it prefers to identify its own citizens as Italian, Argentine or Indonesian rather than simply Canadian.

“Ethnicity is not something that you inherit,” she says. “Ethnicity is practised. Anywhere else in the world people define you by where you live, what your language is, and by your normal customs. We live in Canada, we speak English, our customs are Canadian, a lot of Canadians feel Canadian — but they don’t know how to express it.”

In the past, they have not even been able to so. Only in 1996 did the federal government include Canadian as an ethnic category in the national census. Now officials in the federal Heritage Department, charged with promoting multiculturalism, are considering dropping the “Canadian” option for the next census in 2001.

During a research project two years ago, Prof. Howard-Hassmann interviewed 78 community leaders in Hamilton, Ont. Of these, 36 were immigrants. Asked how they defined themselves in ethnic terms, 44 said they were Canadian.

“Many of the immigrants said, ‘Of course I’m Canadian,’ ” she says. “Some were very insistent — whether black or Indian — that they were Canadian, and they wanted that recognized.”

Canada may be a country of “biological strangers,” says Prof. Howard-Hassmann, but its people share a common ethnicity.

“Public policy needs to promote this Canadianness, which increases citizens’ loyalty to each other and the nation as a whole.”

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