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This article is the first in a series addressing the myths that conflate multiculturalism and anti-racism.

Amid heightened awareness of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism this year, more Canadians have expressed pride in their country’s multicultural values. 

“Multiculturalism,” it seems, is a comforting ideal when persistent racial inequities disturb our collective consciousness. From far-right politicians who rally against “extreme multiculturalism,” to anti-racist activists pleading for a “defense of multiculturalism,” there appears to be consensus that multiculturalism is the binary opposite of racism.  

As Ghassan Hage has written, however, “multiculturalism [is] … merely a different way of reinforcing White power.”  

This four-part series unpacks the myths — implicit and explicit — upholding the false equivalence between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Indeed, multicultural discourse is more effective at obscuring racism than it is at addressing it.  

This first part addresses the “multicultural” smokescreen surrounding Canada’s immigration and refugee policy.   

Myth: Multicultural immigration is an act of racial benevolence

“Canada can make an honest claim to being the most open-minded and open-hearted place on earth … No country brings in as many immigrants as we do, on a per capita basis, from as many different places.” — John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail, July 2014

Multiculturalist discourse portrays Canada’s welcoming of non-white immigrants as an act of racial enlightenment and generosity. 

The removal of explicit racial preferences from Canada’s immigration policy, and its adoption of multiculturalism as state policy and practice in the late ’60s and early ’70s, however, was hardly a disavowal of national racism. Rather, these were unavoidable political decisions due to labour demands at home and global public-relations norms that increasingly frowned upon racialized immigration policies. 

Quite tellingly, (white) Canadian capitalists had always opposed restrictive immigration laws, since these undermined the strength of their labour pool.

Today, as baby boomers retire and the domestic birth rate remains low, Canada relies on immigration to sustain its economy. Indeed, the Fraser Institute — a Canadian right-wing think tank hardly concerned with anti-racism — has often adopted a pro-immigration stance for this reason.

In particular, Canada benefits from the presence of non-white immigrants — disproportionately represented in jobs that are poorly paid, physically demanding, dangerous and non-unionized.

Indeed, the justification for Canada’s temporary migrant worker programs — which bring in primarily non-white workers from the Global South to fill positions in caregiving and farm-work — is to fill vacancies in jobs that Canadians can’t or won’t do.  

As J. Adam Perry writes: “Not incidentally, the creation of Canada’s first experiment with temporary migrant farm workers …. coincide with … Canada’s adoption of multiculturalism as official state policy.” 

Temporary foreign worker programs became the loophole to Canada’s official position of non-discriminatory immigration. As non-white immigration increased, and white society resisted these changes, Canada increasingly channeled immigration away from permanent residency streams and into temporary migrant worker ones. 

This has enabled Canada to reap the rewards of cheap non-white labour without sacrificing any of the entitlements afforded to permanent resident and citizen labourers. Indeed, migrant workers are rendered perpetual outsiders — legally, politically and socially. Despite contributing to the economy, living within Canadian borders and paying into tax revenues, they are denied most of the entitlements available to Canadians. 

Many are — by law — paid below “minimum wage.” Migrant workers’ inability to unionize, their legal precarity and their lack of mobility make it nearly impossible for them to appeal violations of even their most basic rights. The disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on migrant farm workers exemplifies how they are “essential but expendable.”

Of course, conservative rhetoric suggests that anti-immigrant sentiment persists in Canada. Hage refuses this surface-level characterization. As he writes: “anti-immigration discourse, by continually constructing the immigrants as unwanted, works precisely at maintaining their economic viability …They are best wanted as ‘unwanted.'”

In this way, liberal and conservative discourse reinforce one another — positioning the political battle as one of “pro-immigration” versus “anti-immigration” distracts from a common interest in the ongoing entrance of non-white labourers, here on precarious and exploitable terms.

This also helps to frame a liberal enthusiasm for immigration — organized as it is under the language of “multiculturalism” — as “anti-racism.”

Myth: Immigrants come to Canada because of its multicultural hospitality

“Why would a country be so generous? The spirit of hospitality is woven deeply into the roots of the Canadian people and government.” — Evgeny Blumin, Forbes Magazine, August 2020.

Multiculturalist discourse invites Canadians to identify with a national personality that is kind, generous and giving. Canada as a preferred destination for immigrants and asylum-seekers helps to affirm this. Of course, many Canadians do possess these positive attributes. But assigning “goodness” to the nation-state entity distracts from the economic and political context that enables it.

Indeed, Canada the good only exists because of the historical and ongoing violence of the settler-colonial project. Multiculturalist discourse obscures this reality — also forgetting that Canada is a “good” place to live for the same reason that other places are less so. As Harsha Walia explains: “asymmetrical relations of global power … [that have resulted in] the mass displacement of impoverished and colonized communities.

Indeed, Canada benefits from a global economic system that primarily advantages Western people and nations at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. 

A 2017 calculation found that sub-Saharan Africa is, in fact, a net creditor to the rest of the world: billions more leave each year through dodged taxes, repatriated profits, illegal logging, fishing and trade in wildlife, and damages from climate change than enter via loans, remittances and aid. Resulting widespread poverty forces sub-Saharan African countries to produce “eight of the 10 fastest growing international migrant populations since 2010.

State borders interrupt our understanding of the world as an interconnected place, one in which the push factors elsewhere relate to the pull factors here. Borders also make it seem inevitable that those “pushed” out of their own homes should be denied full access to the fruits of Canadian prosperity. 

For example, the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — to which Canada was a signatory — impoverished millions of Mexicans, as government-subsidized U.S. corn flooded Mexican markets and forced farmers out of their livelihoods. Many now work as temporary migrant farm workers in Canada — and are thus legally denied the basic labour rights of Canadian citizens.

Canada also played an instrumental role in the 2004 Haitian coup, and in subsequently implementing a “destructive neoliberal economic restructuring program [that] …deeply hurt Haiti’s poor majority.” Yet in 2017, Canada sent over 500 “economic migrants” back to Haiti on the grounds that they were not legitimate asylum-seekers. 

The millions of global “climate refugees” — those made homeless and jobless as a result of climate change — are also not recognized by law. While the poorest half of the world’s population is responsible for just 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries will bear 75-80 per cent of the costs of the climate crisis. 

Canada emits more carbon per capita than any other G20 country; and, from mining operations abroad, to tar sands projects at home, has capitalized off of a global economy dependent upon environmental destruction.

The securitization and denial of racial others without Canadian status doesn’t disturb the multicultural narrative. On the contrary, multiculturalism is a nationalist discourse with strictly delineated notions of “those national objects for whom the state rules and those foreign objects whom the state rules over.”  Put otherwise, multiculturalist sensibility takes for granted the legitimate distinction between “Canadian” versus “non-Canadian” — with the latter subject to regulation and restriction to advance the interests of the former.  

As journalist Anders Lustgarten writes: “Refugees don’t need our tears. They need us to stop making them refugees.”

Multiculturalist discourse allows Canada to benefit from a system that systematically produces displaced people — while extracting moral currency for granting conditional entry to a fraction of its victims.

Part two in this series will address the common misconception that multicultural diversity promotes racial equity.

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming,and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash