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The issue of identity politics has gained traction in Canada in recent years, just as it has in other Western nations and particularly in the case of our neighbours to the south. Appeals to identity have been especially apparent throughout the tenure of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s current Prime Minister, with words such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ featuring prominently in his speeches and budgets — the 2018 Federal budget labelled, by pundits, the ‘gender budget’ given its introduction of Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) into its calculations.

This emphasis on identity, however, does not seem particularly Canadian, and I do not see it persisting in Canadian public debate. Canadians pride themselves on their multiculturalism, which is inclusive of identity and is more based on unity than it is on the accentuation of individual or group traits. It is multiculturalism, not identity, that is fundamental to what it means to be a Canadian. It is the integrity of Canadian multiculturalism that will need to be preserved if Canada is to respond effectively to global pressures such as mass migration and climate change, which will only intensify over time.

In October 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt a multiculturalism policy, with the then Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, stating in his address to the House of Commons that: “The Government will support and encourage the various cultures and ethnic groups that give structure and vitality to our society. They will be encouraged to share their cultural expression and values with other Canadians and so contribute to a richer life for us all.” This would, also in the elder Trudeau’s words, “help to break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies.” The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was later passed in 1988, which recognised the central role of multiculturalism in shaping Canada’s future.

When speaking about multiculturalism, the elder Trudeau stressed the importance of a full participation of different individuals and communities in Canadian society. There is a clear sense in his writing that Canadians, regardless of their origins or language, must shape the country together, and that it is vital that they are able to do so.

The Canadian Multiculturalism Act established that multiculturalism is fundamental to what it means to be Canadian, and I believe that the vast majority of Canadians would agree that this is reflective of how they think today. And while perhaps rather timid in most situations — not including, of course, when supporting the Canadian men’s and women’s ice hockey teams — many Canadians feel great pride in the country’s multiculturalism and in the genuine respect that all kinds of individuals and groups are shown, regardless of where they are from, what language they speak or the colour of their skin.

One concrete example can help to show what I mean. In the several years prior to my first departure to the UK for postgraduate studies, my home city of Edmonton launched a project called ‘Make Something Edmonton’. As part of this initiative, the Mayor and other city leaders encouraged Edmontonians of all backgrounds to come together to launch new creative projects. I can still remember the Mayor at the time, Stephen Mandel, saying that “It doesn’t matter where you come from, where you went to school, or what your family name is. The only thing that matters is whether you work hard and are willing to build something together with others.” The idea was that if you have a great idea and are willing to roll up your sleeves to begin on it, others will support you regardless of who you are.

This to me is a very Canadian way of thinking: each person and community is respected, but this respect also implies that others will help to ensure that Canada remains a place where individuals and communities can express themselves in the ways that are best for them. In other words, Canadians must work hard to maintain the integrity of their political, social and cultural institutions, and that all share some responsibility in this.

The discussion in this way is more than one of just identity, self-expression and recognition of difference. One’s identity matters, but one’s expression needs to make some contribution, even if small, to the flourishing of the country’s institutions and communities, and to the preservation of the welcoming spirit that is true of the Canadian experience. This is not to deny that identity is important; rather it is to suggest that identity politics is very un-Canadian, and that it runs counter to what most Canadians would probably say is part of their collective make-up.

Given that multiculturalism is part of the Canadian social fabric, a rise in identity politics would suggest to me that something is beginning to go badly wrong in Canada — for instance, that Canadians are losing faith in their public services, or that social inequality within the country is increasing rapidly. But this is not the case and Canadians have much to be proud of in these areas. Indeed, the idea of ‘social class’ is a shock to most young Canadians upon moving to the UK, where it is apparent that education and accent matter very much in one’s life and work opportunities.

But Justin Trudeau has attempted identity politics, and in recent elections the Conservatives have attempted to create wedge issues related to ethnicity. The move to the political right in the United States and in other Western nations is also worrying for Canada, and many Canadians are rightly on guard about the potential for division based on race, gender and other markers of difference.

The recent Alberta provincial election was the most vitriolic in the province’s history, and identity politics did figure into the campaigning across the main left and right parties. There is little doubt that the Canadian federal election will be similar, particularly given the emphasis that the current prime minister has placed on identity over the last five years. So, there is good reason to worry and to not take for granted the welcoming spirit that Canadians have worked hard to build over the last 150 years.

On the whole, identity politics does not seem to me to be an effective approach to governance in Canada. It is a short-term approach to politics that puts self-interest and a desire to win above rigorous long-term thinking. It is instead a commitment to multiculturalism that instils pride in Canadians, even if this is a quiet pride. And they can see when a political leader is taking them for a ride; Trudeau’s public support has plummeted over past years, due in no small part to his failure to follow through on his many supposed commitments to inclusion.

A Canadian population growing from 40 million to 100 million by 2100, as some believe is possible, will require considered reflection on multiculturalism. I do not believe Canada will go the same way as other societies, characterised by their internal divisions. Canadians embrace difference and see this as one of their major strengths. It is the continued embrace of difference within Canadian multiculturalism, over the long-term, that will be Canada’s real test and opportunity for leadership as other parts of the world seem to move in the opposite direction.

Emerson Csorba is the Network and Outreach Lead at The Ditchley Foundation. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.