Thursday, November 12, 2009

Racism in the 'Global Village'?

Perhaps it’s fitting that the term ‘global village’ was coined by a Canadian. Canada is the country that’s quintessentially multicultural (we invented that term, too), where people from all over the globe live side-by-side. Its citizens have high levels of pride and support for immigration, and an overall perception of being the most highly regarded country on the planet, affirmed by a 2007 GlobeScan survey. Indeed, Canadians themselves believe that racism is marginal in Canada.

But, there’s more to this picture than meets the eye. According to a recent poll, 75 percent of Canadians think that immigrants have a positive influence on the country. But, data from the Ethnic Diversity Survey 2002 indicates that while most Canadians deny having racist views, they maintain a ‘social distance’ from minorities – they prefer not to interact with members of other racial groups in certain social situations. To be sure, racial boundaries are a reality of Canadian social life, from Chinese Markham and Sikh Surrey to Jewish Westmount and Italian Woodbridge.

It’s strange, however, that while segregation and low employment among immigrants persist, the sentiments of many Canadians about their country and people are tremendously optimistic. Take, for example, the attitudes of Muslims in Canada, a group that has in recent years come to the fore of the public imagination. A recent Environics poll of Muslim attitudes in Canada shows that just 5 percent of Muslims say that most Canadians are hostile. This sentiment is unique among the western democracies. According to data from the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes study, Muslims living in Great Britain, Spain, Germany, and France are much more likely to feel hostility towards members of their faith. Indeed, Canadian Muslims are generally happy with their decision to immigrate to Canada, with about eight in ten saying that Muslims are treated better in Canada than other western countries.

Muslims also believe that Canada is headed in a positive direction and, demonstrating an attachment to Canada, 94 percent describe themselves as proud to be Canadian, almost matching the national average of 93 percent. Importantly, the majority of Muslims in Canada (57 percent) believe that most Muslims want to adopt Canadian customs, and 13 percent believe that Muslims want to adopt Canadian customs in addition to remaining a distinct community. Thus, seven in ten Canadian Muslims believe that their fellow Muslims wish to integrate into the ‘Canadian way of life’, whether remaining a distinct community or not.

Perhaps this positive perception of Canada is reflective of another reality of Canadian life – people here interact with each other. Rather than being isolated, Canadians are closer to each other than ever before. Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui writes: ‘Canadians know each other far more than ever before – sampling each other’s cuisine and culture, especially music; dating and marrying across racial and religious lines; and being actively involved in interfaith activities that have reached unprecedented levels.’

To be sure, the bonds people form with each other are what reduce prejudice and increase understanding. But, strong social cohesion will not come about simply by all citizens sharing a set of values (indeed, in a country as diverse as Canada this would be an impossibility), but, rather, there must be engagement between the diverse communities.

To improve social conditions between diverse communities, American political scientist Robert Putnam recommends official language acquisition, federal support for areas with immigrants, and local civic and religious organizations that reach out to immigrant communities. All this looks like it was a page torn out of Canadian multiculturalism – we’ve been doing it for decades.

Our multiculturalism policy has created tools and institutions to foster interaction between different peoples, as well as an ethos that teaches that we should come to know and work with one another. In this regard, we are a model for the world. To be sure, there is a racial divide in Canada, and the multiculturalism policy needs to address this. But, in the grand scheme, and relative to other countries, multiculturalism in Canada brings people closer together.

In the end, though, it is only through interaction with the other that we will form the necessary social bonds that diminish prejudice. And this plays out in civil society, where we participate together in the daily life of society, through yoga classes, after-school sports clubs, religious associations, what-have-you. It is here where we learn about each other, in the collective attempt to create a society of co-operative and collaborative humans, affirmed and strengthened by our differences. Truly, the global village – where people of all different ethnic, religious, philosophical, sexual identities work and play together – is a place where prejudice has no place.

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