MASTHEAD-2Our country is strong despite our differences, writes Philip Carl Salzman. We are united in our commitment to Canada’s unifying ideas and values.

By Philip Carl Salzman, June 6, 2017

According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Diversity is Canada’s Strength.” This assertion is repeated by various Canadian sources, such as the Latino Star paper, and the Canadian Policy Research Networks conference “Diversity — Canada’s Strength.” In Canada’s Liberal government and many other circles, the statement that “Diversity is Canada’s Strength” has become a motto, and largely an unquestioned and unquestionable one.

Political slogans have their uses, usually to advance a policy position and claim the high moral ground. But they may also selectively draw on the facts of reality, and massage the truth so that it becomes unrecognizable. Whatever views Canadians may have about diversity, Canadians are independent citizens who often think critically rather than repeat ideas and slogans. In that spirit of critical consideration, this essay addresses the question whether diversity really is Canada’s strength. Let us begin by looking at diversity in sports.

The strength of world class sports is the uncompromising focus on the event. What people care about is how fast you can run, how far or high you can jump, or whether you can get the puck or ball into the net. In selecting team members, no one cares about race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preferences, or identity. The only pertinent question is the effectiveness of the athlete or player in the specified discipline.

In picking the Canadian Olympic Team, is any weight given to race, sexuality, and other extraneous characteristics? My impression is that team selection is based on performance. So too in the National Football League, which may be the closest that any human institution can get to a pure meritocracy. If you are competitive in speed, strength, skill, and determination, you will get a chance to show what you can do. The best of the college players are drafted, but other, non-drafted new players are frequently recruited from practice squads. Likewise veterans, even former stars, who aren’t performing can quickly be out of a job. Performance in competition is the basis of selection.

An NFL team works as a collection of merit-based individuals because they have a common goal. Canada works in the same way. We welcome people regardless of race, gender or sexuality, but we are not just a collection of diverse individuals. We expect all Canadians to share in our unifying ideas and values.

The virtues of census diversity are more often asserted than demonstrated.

The “diversity” that is usually referred to in assertions that “diversity is our strength” includes such census factors as mentioned above: religion, race, origin, etc. The question that should be raised in response to such statements is exactly how such diversity contributes to economic performance and social and cultural strength. The virtues of census diversity are more often asserted than demonstrated.

One argument in favour of the value of diversity is that people of different races, religions, and origins have different perspectives and knowledge, which can be enriching. But there is a risk here in treating people like parts of ethnic blocs, and assuming that South Asians, or Muslims, or South Americans are representative of their cultures, have the same experience, and think the same way. Such a view of diversity could in fact undermine social and cultural strength.

There is another kind of diversity that is not celebrated today, and that is diversity of opinion. Diversity of opinion is often in our time seen as abuse, as hate speech, advanced only by racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and whatever new -phobe is invented this week. Diversity of views about certain issues – such as those determined by social justice discourse, for example – is seen as a deviation that should be stopped and punished. This illiberal attitude goes directly counter to John Stuart Mill’s argument in On Liberty that diversity of opinion not only offers alternative points of view, but gives proponents of particular views the beneficial opportunity through debate to defend and thus strengthen their own views, or else replace them.

There is another kind of diversity that is not celebrated today, and that is diversity of opinion.

So what is Canada’s strength? To answer this we would have to take into account a wide range of factors:

First, geography. Canada is protected by vast oceans on three sides, and has a large, friendly country as a neighbour on the remaining side. Furthermore, Canada enjoys a rich and plentiful array of natural resources: landscape, forests, cultivating lands, water, and carbon and rare metal deposits, among others.

Second, Canada has benefited from its double European heritage, from France and Britain, which has given the country the Parliamentary tradition, the distancing of church and state, and the idea of human rights, enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A strong work ethic is also part of Canada’s European culture. Immigrants to Canada have for the most part, and until recently, learned at least one of the official languages of French and English, and adopted to a significant degree Canada’s Western European-based culture. This has led to a commonality of mainstream Canadian culture among Canadians, long term and recent.

Third, the Canadian mind-set and attitudes of respect, tolerance, and a talent for compromise have arisen to counter the deleterious effects of the foundational diversity of Canada’s two charter cultures – French Catholic and British Protestant – that has been the source of repeated conflict and instability, A good example is Quebec’s independence movement, which has threatened Canada’s very existence.

This diversity is not the strength of Canada; it is the unity and commonality forged through respect and compromise among Canadians in spite of diversity, that is Canada’s strength. This Canadian mind-set draws new Canadians from all around the world, most of whom willingly and enthusiastically enter into Canadian mainstream culture and thus strengthen Canada. My daughter, adopted in China, now fluent in French and English, says, “I’m a banana: yellow on the outside, Canadian on the inside.”

Our immigration policy and procedures should ensure the compatibility of the views and objectives of newcomers with Canadian law, institutions, and values.

How can we support Canada’s strength? One way is by selecting newcomers from other lands who are willing to contribute their talents to Canadian unity and commonality. Here the question of Canadian immigration policy arises. Our immigration policy and procedures should ensure the compatibility of the views and objectives of newcomers with Canadian law, institutions, and values. The recruitment of outsiders with different priorities and goals, unwilling to respect Canadian law and values, would be a disservice to Canada and Canadians.

Canadians are tired of hearing news about attempts to institute foreign religious law in Canada, about Canadian girls and women who are abused or murdered because their families judge them to be “too Canadian,” or because they married someone from the wrong religion or caste. Or news about Canadian police and soldiers being murdered by people angry at the West.

Canadian immigration policy and procedures should ensure the compatibility of the views and objectives of newcomers with Canadian law, institutions, and values. If we do, we will be reinforcing Canada's real strength, the unity of our common culture and shared institutions.

Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He has served as Senior Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Open Society International Scholar at the American University of Central Asia, Erasmus Mundus International Fellow at the University of Catania, and visiting professor at the University of Sydney. His latest book is Classic Comparative Anthropology: Studies from the Tradition. He is a member of the Academic Council of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, a Fellow of the Middle East Forum, and a board member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.