No barbarians please: New Citizenship Guide

Posted by admin on Nov 29th, 2009

By Radha Jhappan,, November 2009

Like more than 6.2 million Canadian citizens and permanent residents, I am a first generation immigrant. In fact, aside from the 1.3 million citizens of Aboriginal ancestry, whose ancient national territories held since time immemorial we have occupied, the entire population of what we now call Canada is comprised of immigrants and descendants of immigrants who have come in successive waves since the early 17th century. Like many of those immigrants, I have lived in several countries — six actually, on five continents — and have been fortunate enough to travel to 42 others. Canada is the country I chose to live in, and luckily, it chose me; it is a country I love and am privileged to call home.

I took the citizenship test in the late 1980s and remember being struck by the particular vision of Canada offered in it. I wondered why my citizenship was contingent upon my knowledge of which minerals were mined in which provinces, who was Prime Minister in 1867, or the precise location of the Canadian Shield (no, it turns out it’s not in the Governor General’s residence next to some huge Canadian Sword). I wondered who had decided which facts were critical enough to constitute the essential common grammar of new citizens, and which were to be omitted and why. I wondered how many people born and raised here would have the requisite literacy in Canadiana to pass the test.

So when the Conservative government (as the Reform Party Version 3.0 now styles itself) issued a new guide to Canadian citizenship on Nov. 13, 2009, “Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship,” naturally I was intrigued as to how the vision of Canada presented to new immigrants might have shifted over the last two decades, what is now included and excluded from the Conservative government’s official account of the country. The Reform Party version 1.0 was vehement in its opposition to official bilingualism and federal multiculturalism policy, and its 1991 Blue Sheet openly stated that the party opposed “any immigration based on race or creed or designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada.” As a result of the subsequent charges of racism in the party platform and amongst the membership, once the party resolved to form the national government such policies were withdrawn from the platform.

However, in its “Policy Declaration” of Nov. 15, 2008, it is still the Conservative Party’s declared goal of immigration policy to “focus on immigrants who best fit into the ‘Canadian fabric,’” whatever that is. There is clearly, in the Conservative mind, a hierarchy of the sorts of people who fit and the sorts of people who don’t. Would the latter, one wonders, be people of certain “races or creeds” who might “alter the ethnic makeup of Canada,” while the former are people who have ethnic origins in Europe? Or has the discourse moved to new, perhaps more sophisticated ground than simple racism?

The new citizenship guide is as important as it is fascinating: it does not just project a particular view of Canadian history, society, economy and “culture,” it lays out the “facts” and interpretations of selected facts that immigrants are supposed to absorb and be tested on in order to achieve citizenship status. Citizenship is about belonging, and this is now the official Government of Canada guide to how to stitch oneself into the “Canadian fabric”: it outlines the values to which new immigrants must subscribe in order to belong.

To be sure, several features of the guide may be regarded as considerable improvements over its rather insipid predecessor. For example, the new guide presents a much more extensive and complex account of the history of the territories now known as Canada, although the many thousands of years of Aboriginal history are mentioned in one tiny paragraph, while the “real” history, the history that counts, begins with the arrival of the Europeans and occupies 10 pages. Nevertheless, the guide presents a less sanitized account of Canada that even acknowledges some of the more ignoble policies pursued by the state, including the abuse of Aboriginal children in the residential school system, discrimination against the Chinese in the west, the turning away of Jews who tried to flee Nazi Germany in 1939, and the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Of course, we cannot expect an encyclopedic account: Canada is a complex country with a complex history, and at least this version contains more of that than the previous one.

However, what the new guide gives with one hand it takes away with the other. Its more detailed history alas verges on the anachronistic. It rejoices in monarchism, boasting three images of Queen Elizabeth II (the word “Queen” appears 30 times), and is replete with legions of references to constitutional monarchy and Canada’s imperial history. It does seem an odd choice at a time when poll after poll shows that the majority of Canadians would like to abolish the monarchy after QEII. Despite this, to the delight of monarchists, instead of updating the oath of allegiance, new citizens will still be required to swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors.”

New immigrants are obliged to swear this oath that Canadian-born citizens never have to take, whether they feel any such allegiance or not. Indeed, the guide bristles with undisguised attempts to establish and consolidate the essential Britishness (with a dash of Frenchness) of Canada: “Canadian society today stems largely from the English-speaking and French-speaking Christian civilizations that were brought here from Europe by settlers”; “the basic way of life in English-speaking areas was established by hundreds of thousands of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish settlers, soldiers and migrants from the 1600s to the 20th century; English common law, the civil code of France, and the unwritten constitution “secure for Canadians an 800-year-old tradition of ordered liberty, which dates back to the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 in England.”

Of course, “Canada” does not have an 800-year old tradition as it has only existed since 1867. The “ordered liberty” celebrated in this resurgent monarchism plays a critical role in establishing “who we are”; “we” are a chip off the old British block. This insistent assertion of Britishness not only renders invisible the many other groups who have played key roles in building the country, it disregards the multiculturalism that both describes the sociological/demographic reality of Canada and serves as a pivotal element of Canadian “identity.”

Perhaps more worrying are a couple of other value shifts. For example, the former (Liberal) citizenship guide described Canadian values as including “freedom, respect for cultural differences, and a commitment to social justice.” Canada is presumably no longer committed to social justice as the term has been expunged from the new document. Whereas in the old guide, Canadians were “proud of the fact that we are a peaceful nation,” and that “Canadians act as peacekeepers in many countries around the world,” now that we are at war the new version recounts at length tales of military history, military service, and a variety of wars (illustrated with lots of romantic, manly soldiering images). Strategically placed directly after a list of citizen responsibilities (obeying the law, taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family, jury service, voting, volunteering, and protecting and enjoying our heritage and environment), is an exhortation for new immigrants to serve “in the regular Canadian Forces (navy, army and air force)” as “a noble way to contribute to Canada and an excellent career choice,” even though possibly a deadly one. Still, what better use of new immigrants than as cannon fodder in a far-off shooting war, especially in a country infamous for its “barbaric cultural practices?”

That phrase, in my view,encapsulates the single most alarming statement in the new guide. It has been happily repeated in interviews by Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, and quoted with little or no commentary in the media (“It’s no secret that we’ve seen instances of culturally rooted abuse of women, so-called ‘honour killings,’ forced marriages, and spousal abuse, and even female genital mutilation. We want to make sure that people understand that multiculturalism doesn’t create an excuse to engage in those barbaric cultural practices.”).

The declaration appears at the top of page 9 of the guide, in a blue box under the large title, “The Equality of Women and Men.” It announces that: “In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”

In case there is any ambiguity as to who might be responsible for these barbaric cultural practices,” the text is immediately followed by three photographs arranged in a row: from left to right, the first shows a black man in a white coat, presumably a medical professional, apparently taking the blood pressure of a white woman; the second is set in a classroom and depicts a veiled woman and a veiled girl with a second woman with long dark hair, drawing or writing; the third shows an elderly whitewoman and man holding hands against a mountain backdrop. Are these photographs, particularly the first two, supposed to be our subliminal cues as to the kinds of people involved in “barbaric cultural practices?” That is, female genital mutilation and honour killings are generally associated (respectively) with Africa (especially North and West Africa) and the Middle East, and especially with Muslim countries.

It could be argued that the photographs are illustrations of some of the “citizenship responsibilities” listed underneath, such as (respectively) taking responsibility for oneself and one’s family (getting a job), helping others in the community, or protecting and enjoying our heritage and environment. Yet the placement of these particular images directly beneath the harsh warning re: “barbaric cultural practices” (as opposed to beneath the citizenship responsibilities section) perhaps serves another purpose.

I want to pose a few questions about some of the claims in this declaration.

The emphatic announcement that “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence,” is particularly disturbing because the grammatical structure of the sentence carries a message in and of itself. It suggests that there is a larger set of “barbaric cultural practices,” of which the subset of specific offences listed are examples of those “tolerated.”

Why was it considered necessary to include the adjective, “barbaric?” Dictionary definitions of “barbaric” include the following: extremely cruel and unpleasant, primitive or unsophisticated, unrestrained, brutal, savage, vicious, merciless, inhuman, bloodthirsty. Whose idea was it to proclaim to potential immigrants from countries where some people engage in those practices — but many, even most, do not, and many strongly oppose them — that their entire cultures are tagged as “barbaric?”

Other questions arise from the Conservatives’ aggressive admonitions against these “barbaric cultural practices.” What exactly is a “cultural practice?” What makes a practice specifically a cultural one?How widespread a practice need it be in order to be defined as a cultural practice?

And even though the statement makes it appear as if the Canadian Criminal Code actually includes dedicated provisions for each of the offences listed, with the exception of female genital mutilation (added in 1997), it does not. There are no specific crimes relating to spousal abuse, gender-based violence, or honour killings (although Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan is apparently considering including the latter following an apparent case of honour killing in Kingston this summer). All of those offences would be prosecuted under generic, non-gendered provisions such as assault, homicide, murder, torture or sexual assault.

Surely our government could have made the point just as emphatically by saying, for example: “In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Violence and other forms of abuse of and discrimination against women are illegal and will be punished to the full extent of the law.” In fact, to just as great if not greater effect, the guide could have listed a variety of offences against women (and children) that are both illegal and socially unacceptable in Canada without singling out these specific offences that are associated with particular parts of the world.

Just as Canadians would be horrified if “Canadian culture” were to be advertized as home to many barbaric practices, including rape, sexual assault, spousal abuse, gender-based violence, sex discrimination and pay inequity, neither should our government substitute “culturism” as the new screen for good old-fashioned racism. If the citizenship guide is intended to coach new immigrants on fundamental Canadian values and how to “fit in,” surely poking them in the eye, insulting their entire cultures, and making them feel like unwelcome and inferior citizens is not the way to cultivate the bonds of allegiance a harmonious civic culture of belonging requires.

Radha Jhappan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

This article was originally published in

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