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College Quarterly
Spring 1995 - Volume 2 Number 3
Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada
N. Bissoondath
Toronto: Penguin Books
Reviewed by Michael Whealen

As soon as this semester is over, I'm going to get out my Cambridge Factfinder and look in the “Human Geography” section for that part of the world that has the lowest demographic representation of white males (henceforth “WMs”). Then, I'm going to spend a few weeks in that place on R & R leave. Let me explain. I teach a prescribed course called “multicultural awareness” to five sections of second-semester students in a community college law enforcement program. When designing this “vocationally relevant” subject with my colleagues, I had at first thought that people my age (“fortyish”) were prone to exaggerate the salience of racial discrimination in comparison to how our students perceived this issue. As it turned out, I couldn't have been farther from the truth. Toward the end of the course, we explore immigration and employment equity in the public service sector, and I can think of no better way to describe these classes than to say that they have constituted occasions for little racial jihads between the two groups of students-disgruntled WMs, and members of visible minority groups. While it is, of course, encouraging that the students are engaged and passionate about something, these skirmishes were invariably initiated by the WMs, who claimed that they were victims of “reverse discrimination” with regard to opportunities in law enforcement. The visible minority members in the class were invariably put on the defensive. As far as the WMs are concerned, the only principle of social justice they will entertain is that of “colour-blind equal opportunity” (henceforth “CBEO”). The idea of proportionality-that, for example, sectors of the civil service like the police should be demographically as similar as possible to their service bases-is, frankly, repugnant to them, as are my efforts to point out that until very recently Canada's immigration policies have been overtly racist and driven by a “we'll take you if we can use you” ethos. A typical comment made by a WM student vis-ˆ-vis the latter? “Humph. They're all (new Canadians) ignorant welfare bums. There should be a sign at Pearson airport that says 'Basic English a Prerequisite Beyond This Point,'” usually followed by a chorus of WM “yeahs.” (It takes me about fifteen minutes of valuable class time to unpack the erroneous and racist thinking behind assertions like this.)

With these things in mind, I turn to the item under review, Neil Bissoondath's Selling Illusions. The author of numerous short stories and novels, Mr. Bissoondath has recently turned his acute intelligence to the analysis of multiculturalism as both practice and policy in Canada. His argument, like the CBEO argument, is elegant in its simplicity. Unfortunately, as is the case with many simple arguments, it obscures more than it illuminates. While Mr. Bissoondath has few problems with multiculturalism as a practice, he finds it problematic as a federal policy for two main reasons. First, he objects to how the policy has divided the country. Second, he argues that programs like employment equity are unfair because they do result in reverse discrimination. The latter argument is, of course, the old and simplistic proposition that two wrongs do not make a right. (What Mr. Bissoondath has rather adroitly glossed over is the fact that social justice is a matter of degree, and not something that can be built upon trite axioms that reduce complex historical issues to manichean moral edicts.) Then there is the “fragmentation” argument. Well, Mr. Bissoondath's perception is again elegant in its simplicity. Near the end of the book he writes: “The ultimate goal, then, is a cohesive, effective society enlivened by cultural diversity: reasonable diversity within vigorous unity. We already have the first. Now we must seek the second, even if that would mean as it must a certain diminishment of the first.” (p. 224)

“Vigorous unity.” Come on, now, Mr. Bissoondath. This is little more than tinpot nationalism, the old (WM) “let's rally round the flag, boys!” stuff. One of the things that has historically separated us from our more rabidly nationalistic neighbours to the south (and we know their history, don't we?) is a creditably “weak” sense of what it means to be a “Canadian”-the Turbot wars notwithstanding. Moreover, history provides us with numerous examples of instances where rising tides of nationalist sentiment have coincided with increased incidents of prejudice and overt discrimination. Ultimately, I would suggest that Mr. Bissoondath's prescription differs from the position of the anonymous WM student I quoted only in degree, not kind. Perhaps Mr. Bissoondath, as an “East-Indian-Trinidadian-Canadian living in Québec” (he of course abhors the notion of hyphenated Canadians, but there it is), is suffering from historical amnesia. I would not recommend this book as a course text, unless it were to serve as an example of how thoroughly even some of our brightest public intellectuals have bought into the neoconservative gibberish being beamed up to us from south of the border. And, of course, I live in constant dread of that (no doubt inevitable) day when one of my WM students discovers Selling Illusions and comes up to me after class to say “See, sir, here's this really smart black guy, and he says that employment equity's crap. So it must be, right?”

Michael Whealen, a resigned WM, teaches law enforcement at Seneca College in King City, and is currently en route to Mongol Ard Uls (Mongolia).