Multiculturalism: An ideal?

The Globe and Mail recently posed a question to their readers regarding the state of multiculturalism in Canada, with a thought-provoking title: “Multiculturalism: celebrating our differences, or what we have in common?”

As one of their eight topics of discussion in its “Our Time to Lead” series, the multiculturalism piece in particular left me, for one, without a resolved idea. When you hear “multiculturalism” you immediately think of words like “tolerance”, “accommodation”, and “acceptance”. But are these catchwords any clearer? Or do they just promote the idea that there are “bad” or “unusual” things to tolerate, accommodate, and accept?

I recently heard someone say—and I quote—“Some Americans have friends who are Muslims.” The gentlemen thought he was being inclusive and accepting. But I think he forgot that some Americans are Muslims.

And it’s true of Canadians too, of course. Especially in our country, especially in our province, especially in our city, especially on this campus, nothing says that Canadians are a certain group of people, who are so nice, tolerating, and so forth. Just the opposite, in fact—“diversity” is part of our identity. So when do we acknowledge that? Is UTM just a campus where “some students” have friends who believe different things, come from different places, or speak different languages?

Well, to be honest, I don’t know. I want to hear from you. I could try to theorize about multiculturalism or give you a definition based on the three or four that I’ve heard in classes throughout my years of studying political science and gender studies, but everyone has a different expectation and multiculturalism means something different to everyone.

There is an unspoken “fear of the unknown” that I’ve seen at UTM. For example, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) is the biggest student club on campus—but how many non-Muslim members do they have? And how many non-Muslim students feel comfortable attending the events they host? I know for a fact that the MSA tries to dispel myths about Islam, but does it work? Is anyone really listening? Do they want to? If not, can we really call ourselves multicultural?

Is our campus just a cluster of cultures tolerating each other? And as the Globe asks, are we celebrating our differences, or what we have in common?

You tell me.


Saaliha Malik

1 comment

  1. Dear Editor,

    Last week’s editorial raised some important questions about how we talk about Multiculturalism and what it actually means. Tolerance, in particular, is a term that is often used as a goal and an ideal for diverse societies, but if Canadians want to be truly multicultural we need to move beyond just tolerance. As you pointed out, the word indicates a putting up with something uncomfortable or unwanted, and also implies a power difference between those who do the tolerating and those who are tolerated. To be multicultural in reality as we are on paper, we must come to an understanding that diversity and diaspora are essential to our identities as Canadians. It is equally Canadian to worship in a mosque as it is in a church; to eat biryani as well as pirogies; it is Canadian to speak the language and wear the national dress and engage in the cultural practices of whatever culture we might have connections to, if we so choose. It is not only a legal right, but a part of what unites us as a nation – we can be whoever we choose to be.
    Our campus has over 50 student clubs, and the wonderful thing about that is that we can all find people who share our interests and whom we can enjoy exploring them with. However, a downside to this is that we tend not to mix much and stay in our own little groups with like-minded people. University is for many of us the most inclusive, open, and diverse environment we will encounter in all our lives. Especially on a campus as vibrant and multicultural as ours, we should take advantage of the opportunity to make connections with people from different backgrounds than us (and perhaps realize that we actually have far more in common than we thought).
    I agree with you that often people do not approach each other due to preconceived notions and stereotypes, if not an outright “fear of the unknown.” As a Muslim and a Diaspora & Transnational Studies major, however, I am a little puzzled as to why you highlighted Muslims and the MSA in particular. It is oversimplifying to talk about Islam as if it is a single culture; religion and culture are not interchangeable and it confuses the issue to refer to them that way. In fact, the MSA is one of the most multicultural clubs on campus. The Muslim community on campus includes people from many different backgrounds, including countries from Europe, Asia, Africa and even some with Native heritage. And many of us were born and raised in Canada. In this sense MSA as a club exemplifies Multiculturalism. In response to your questions, yes, MSA does have non-Muslim members, and our events have been attended by non-Muslim students both this year and in the past, although these numbers are not large.
    Still, I understand your concerns about the lack of response on the part of many on our campus to overtures not just from Muslims, but from any student club they don’t readily identify with. I do think that there are those who listen, who are open to different discourses. However, and I am including myself in this statement, we all need to make more of an effort to act as one UTM community on campus. In fact, rather than approach Multiculturalism from the perspective that our different groups need to interact more, we have to stop regarding those who seem different on the surface as “other”.
    I would like to suggest a Clubs Night, an opportunity for different student clubs to come together, each of us sharing something unique with the others, whether that is a performance, food, art or anything else that we can bring to show each other. Kind of like a grown-up show and tell. It would be a great way for us to meet new people and perhaps find unexpected commonalities, and most importantly, create a more cohesive UTM community rather than lots of little ones. It could be our small way as UTM students of advancing a true Canadian Multiculturalism.

    Fatima Khalifa

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