Stresses in multiculturalism focus of diversity symposium
By Maclean Kay
Troy Media Corporation
CALGARY, AB, September 29/Troy Media/ – Canadians’ reputation for being too polite often comes across as simply being dishonest, according to a junior high and adult English-as-a-Second-Language teacher in Calgary.
Kate Franks, who works with newcomers from countries and cultures from around the world, said the level of tact is so high in Canada that often her students don’t find Canadians to be forthright. That translates into being dishonest, she said, not in the literal sense but, by trying too hard to be polite, it accomplishes the same thing.
“I’ve seen websites run by recent immigrants to Canada listing bad experiences here,” she said. The comments “discourage others from choosing Canada as a place to relocate.”
Canadians so prize their reputation as accommodating, welcoming and above all, tolerant, she said, that some may not want to hear what some recent immigrants have to say. That lack of feedback, on everything from personal space to facial expressions, leads to both confusion and a disinterest in bridging cultures.
Dan Shapiro, a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, agrees.
“It actually shows much greater respect to offer sincere criticisms, when cultural disagreements occur,” Shapiro said, “than to say nothing – or worse, to assume that behaviour you find inadequate is all you can expect from certain groups.” That, he added, is the very definition of patronizing, and is far more insulting than a well-intended critique.
There is a reluctance to offer criticism, Shapiro suggested, because so much stock is placed in a person’s identity in terms of culture, religion, gender, sexuality and so on. “When you attack a person or culture’s positions, it’s interpreted as an attack on them personally.”
On October 3 and 4, the Sheldon Chumir Foundation will be hosting a symposium on diversity called Identity and Polarization: Implications for Our Ability to Live Well Together, in Calgary. The symposium, Shapiro said, will look at identity and polarization: how people identify themselves, whether it can keep us apart and the public challenges it presents.
The symposium marks the formal launch of the Chumir Foundation’s diversity project, a multi-year effort aimed at exploring and addressing diversity issues. An impressive array of speakers from academic institutions such as Princeton, McGill and the University of Toronto will be at the symposium to debate and discuss topics that, due to some recent headline-grabbing controversies, are now timelier than ever.
Daniel Weinstock, Director of the University of Montreal’s Research Centre in Ethics and one of the guest speakers at the symposium, doesn’t believe that Canadians have changed their minds about the virtues of diversity, but, he said, there is no doubt that a lot of people feel threatened.
“Post-9/11, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity are viewed by some as more dangerous. The perception is that some groups don’t seem to be conforming,” he said.
In this atmosphere, small differences are sometimes blown out of proportion, exacerbating what would otherwise be dormant or an easing of cultural tensions, Shapiro said.
He used as an example a controversy which erupted in Calgary when a 14-year-old girl was ejected from a soccer game for wearing a hijab, because technically it was not regulation gear. Officials expressed concerns about the safety of her and other players, and acted according to then-existing regulations, but many felt she was singled out solely because of her religion.
The controversy was resolved when it turned out that there is such a thing as a ‘sport hijab,’ specifically designed so there can be no choking or tripping. “It was the perfect solution,” Shapiro said.
Unfortunately, and despite this “perfect” resolution, hard feelings lingered. There are bound to be some areas of conflict, he added, as native-born and new Canadians adjust to each others’ various practices and customs. The key, he pointed out, is to define “core, foundational values” and work through the conflicts case by case. Kneejerk reactions to issues such as the sport hijab only erode goodwill.
These perspectives and opportunities, she said, come partly from how people see themselves, but also from how others see, define, and – sometimes – stigmatize them.
Gill should know. She is the “Empowering Families” facilitator for ASPEN, a Calgary not-for-profit charitable organization that assists the economically vulnerable, which includes many immigrants.
Both she and Kate Franks are looking forward to the symposium. As Franks said, as Canadian society progresses, the issues are becoming increasingly important and, if they are mishandled, everyone’s quality of life suffers.
“We have a lot to talk about,” she said.