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Multiculturalism in Canada and Australia – a comparative history

1 March 20171 comment

Australia and Canada, generally considered bastions of multiculturalism as public policy, could provide lessons to rest of the world in forming approaches to rising xenophobia and polarised, populist political movements, according to the author of a new book that that charts the history of multiculturalism in the two countries.

Dr Jatinder Mann, recently in Australia to talk about his book – titled ‘The Search for a New National Identity: The Rise of Multiculturalism in Canada and Australia, 1890s -1970s’ – says that political developments over the past year across the world, including the Brexit vote in the UK and the victory of Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election, have ushered in battles over identity politics.

Dr Jatinder Mann

“What I think these show is that there is a section of society who feel that they have been left behind and forgotten,” Dr Mann said.

“Right wing populist parties to the detriment of mainstream political parties have capitalised on this and stoked people’s fears against immigration for example, although Islamophobia is sadly particularly prevalent in many countries. This is certainly the case with One Nation in Australia.

“I for one actually believe Canada and Australia can offer great lessons to many other countries on how to deal with immigration, particularly through their policies of multiculturalism,” Dr Mann said.

He said that multiculturalism was more an integral part of the national identity of Canada – a bilingual nation – than Australia.

Dr Mann, a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College in London, said in a recent survey Canadians ranked multiculturalism as number one in terms of the things that epitomised their national identity.

“If a similar survey were held in Australia I do not believe multiculturalism would rank so highly, perhaps in the top five,” he said.

“This is perhaps related to the different origins of the policy in the two countries, which has led to multiculturalism being synonymous with Canadian national identity.

“However, a policy of multiculturalism has survived in both countries for several decades, and although it has experienced both highs and lows, I do not see it disappearing anytime soon,” Dr Mann said.

He said that successful multicultural policies in both countries were hard won over significant time periods.

“The path towards the adoption of multiculturalism as the orthodox way of defining national community in English-speaking Canada and Australia in the latter half of the twentieth century was both uncertain and unsteady,” Dr Mann said.

“It followed a period in which both nations had looked first and foremost to Britain to define their national self-image.

“In both nations however following the breakdown of their more formal and institutional ties to the ‘mother-country’ in the post-Second World War period there was a crisis of national meaning, and policy makers and politicians moved quickly to fill the void with a new idea of the nation, one which was the very antithesis to the white, monolithic idea of Britishness.

“English-speaking Canada and Australia both identified themselves as British nations for a large part of their history.

“Furthermore, this identity came under considerable strain in both countries, a strain that was primarily due to the shock of external events.

“Secondly, Canada and Australia also adopted discriminatory immigration policies, which aimed to create white, British countries. Moreover, they both also gradually dismantled these practices.

“Thirdly, Canada and Australia experienced large waves of non-British migration to their shores and had to formulate official migrant policies to deal with them,” Dr Mann said.

He said that Australia and Canada’s respective brands of multiculturalism had similarities but were forged by different social processes.

Even though they both used the same terminology, official multicultural policies in Canada and Australia in the 1970s were actually quite different from the outset,” Dr Mann said.

“In the former the catch phrase of the policy was ‘Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework’. So, you can get the real sense from this that it was a policy, which in theory related to all Canadians,” he said.

“And it had come about after an intense period of national soul-searching, illustrated by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which carried out its activities over several years in the 1960s.”

Dr Mann said a speech made in 1971 by the then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s highlighted this.

Trudeau said: “A policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians. Such a policy should help to break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies. National unity, if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one’s own individual identity; out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions. A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society, which is based on fair play for all.”

“Here the emphasis was no longer on the nation, but instead on ‘cultural freedom’ and ‘one’s own individual identity’; and the choice of the word ‘vigorous’ to describe the proposed multicultural policy illustrated the extent of the government’s commitment,” Dr Mann said.

“In contrast the key headline for the official policy of multiculturalism that was introduced in Australia was ‘A Cohesive, United, Multicultural Nation’,” he said.

“Again you can see here that the emphasis was on cohesion and unity, etc. And unlike the Canadian policy was not initially aimed at all Australians, but only migrants.

“This is demonstrated by the Galbally Report in 1978 which was the major policy document on which the Australian Government based its multicultural policy,” Dr Mann said.

The Galbally report said: “We believe Australia is at a critical stage in the development of a cohesive, united, multicultural nation. This has come about because of a number of significant changes in recent years – changes in the pattern of migration and in the structure of the population, changes in attitudes to migration and to our responsibilities for international refugees, changes in the needs of the large and growing numbers of ethnic groups in our community, and changes in the roles of governments and the community generally in responding to these needs.”

Dr Mann’s book explores the profound social, cultural, and political changes that affected the way in which Canadians and Australians defined themselves as a ‘people’ from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s.

Taking as its central theme the way each country responded to the introduction of new migrants, the book asks a key historical question: why and how did multiculturalism replace Britishness as the defining idea of community for English-speaking Canada and Australia, and what does this say about their respective experiences of nationalism in the twentieth century?

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist