ARCHIVED - Appendix 3: Opening address by Alden E. Habacon

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Presentation by Alden E. Habacon

“The Manager of Diversity Initiatives for the English Television Network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) will deliver a speech on his vision of linguistic duality and cultural diversity in Canada.”

Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue – Simon Fraser University
580 West Hastings Street – VANCOUVER
Asia Pacific Hall
November 24, 2008


It should be acknowledged that the term "multiculturalism" can be problematic among French-speaking Canadians due to the historic and political debate tied to the preservation of the status of the French language and culture in Canada. For this reason, many Francophones do not recognize multiculturalism as a desirable way to approach immigration, new Canadians, ethno-cultural groups or diversity. The manner in which I have used the term "multiculturalism" in the following speech more closely resembles the French use of the word "interculturalism:" the exchanges between cultural groups within a society. When reading the French translation, it would be more accurate to think of “Multiculturalism 2.0” as meaning "Interculturalism 2.0" or “Interculturality 2.0,” which refers to a Canadian's individual ability to manage and negotiate the influences and possible fusion of various cultures in one's cultural identity. Many thanks to my French colleagues at Radio-Canada, who are also working hard in the field of diversity, for ensuring that this point be clarified and that the meaning not be lost in translation.

It is a great honour to have been invited to join you today in what I believe to be an extremely relevant and timely topic. I’d first like to thank everyone here for taking the time to participate in the discussion.

As I’ve been thinking about today’s forum, one thought has continued to nag me, and perhaps it may be on some of your minds now. So I’ll bring it out in the open: “What could possibly be more important than the current financial crisis?” And that’s an important question. It’s had a very tangible impact on CBC. And in fact, it feels like all the world’s leaders, and all our news media, have been taken hostage by this issue. We have the great privilege of spending the day together listening, thinking and talking (hopefully, in that order) about something possibly more important, “The Big Picture.” The big picture for Canada. Today’s discussion is about the intersection of Canada’s evolving diversity, and our official linguistic duality is ultimately a discussion about the future of Canada.

In fact, in the many diversity, immigration and citizenship forums, conferences and dialogues I have attended over the past four years, this topic—because of its enormity—is often avoided. It has become the “giant elephant” in the public sector room. But I am sure it is on everyone’s mind because it almost always comes up in the discussions at dinner.

On many occasions, I have been asked this tough question: “What impact might Canada’s rapidly changing ethno-cultural make-up have on our efforts to sustain a bilingual French and English Canada, and subsequently, how have social attitudes about the French language and Canada’s French-speaking communities been or how will they be affected by Canada’s diversity?”

It’s this question that I hope we tackle directly and honestly. Let’s just be straightforward, and address the issues related to answering this big-picture question. Let’s commit this morning to pushing this dialogue forward.

My greatest fear for today is that the dialogue gets stuck, hung up on having to sell the value of being a bilingual English and French country, in the same way that many conferences on multiculturalism are stuck in talking about the mosaic, which, as many of you know, is an obsolete concept in contemporary Canada. My hope, and I am very optimistic, is that we do not find ourselves at this same place in the discussion a year from now.

I don’t want to spend too much time on why English-French linguistic duality is important and valued, but I would like to share a recent story. I was actually just recently in Indonesia where I was invited by Foreign Affairs to participate in the 2008 ASEAN-Canada Dialogue on Interfaith Initiatives. I was invited to offer insight on how CBC programming directly and indirectly supports inter- and intra-religious understanding. It was a great honour to be there. The fact that Canada would send someone born in Southeast Asia to speak to representatives of Southeast Asian countries about diversity meant Canada was walking its own talk on diversity. I have to admit, however, that I am not what most people abroad expect when they think of a Canadian. Yet, like many Canadians, it is when I travel outside of Canada that I feel the most Canadian.

In a room of people that more or less looked like me, it was even more obvious that I thought and saw the world differently—that I sounded like a Canadian. There was something about the discussion that really bothered me: it was the use of the word “tolerance.” Tolerance was all they could talk about, but when I think of tolerance, I think of a “grudgingly having to put up with.” Conversely, in the Canadian diversity paradigm, tolerance is simply not enough. If you were born and/or raised in Canada, you intuitively understand what accommodation means and entails.

Where does this inherently Canadian sensibility of accommodation come from? There are numerous places to which we can turn. According to John Ralston Saul’s recent book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, it is part of the legacy of Canada’s Aboriginal past. But we can also attribute this to the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which, combined over decades, has facilitated the evolution towards a Canadian “culture of accommodation” that is envied by the entire world. This policy, aimed at protecting our linguistic and cultural diversity, is an expression of the fundamental principle that Canada aspires to be: to borrow from the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, a “society of difference”—one that is made up of different opinions, and that accepts cultural and creative abrasion as a celebrated part of Canadian life. As a result, Canadians are free to constantly expand and critically think about what it means to think, sound and act like a Canadian. And it is in this unique socio-cultural space that Canadian multiculturalism is able to evolve and grow.

My experience of when I feel the most Canadian is shared by many other second- and third-generation Canadians, and especially foreign-born Canadians who return to their countries of origin. Ironically, despite looking like and possibly even sounding like those around you, when traveling through Europe, the U.S. or Asia, it becomes crystal clear that Canadians see the world differently. They think about issues, people and being different differently. One of the things I have learned through my work in diversity is how much culture is actually embedded in language. Positive and negative attitudes towards other peoples are often subtly hidden in the nuances of a language. Knowing this, I constantly wonder how much of today’s Canadian sensibility—or my own personal perspective about work, life, culture, the arts, the environment and the world—is unwittingly the result of living in an officially bilingual country. I think if we understood this more clearly, in the same way we understand how Chinese and South Asian culture and language have influenced Vancouver and Toronto sensibilities, there would be a greater appreciation for the place of the French language in our cultural schemas.

As there are two themes in today’s forum, I will begin with Theme 1, The Evolving Canadian Identity.

The world is shifting—technologically, culturally, attitudinally and economically. Among all this change, the most socially innovative thing is happening in Canada: an innovation in cultural identity that I call Multiculturalism 2.0.

Many of you are familiar with the notion of the ethno-cultural “mosaic.” When talking about Canada’s diversity, the mosaic remains deeply embedded in the rhetoric of our politicians. In reality, however, despite how beloved the mosaic is as a metaphor for pluralism, it and all its variations—from the tapestry to the fruit salad—are obsolete in today’s global context.

Canada’s growing urban centres have outgrown both this traditional model and the conventional language of multiculturalism. And in the same way that the Internet has evolved into what is called Web 2.0 and now 3.0, Canadians have moved past the rigid paradigm of the ethno-cultural mosaic. Today’s Canadians have an incredible level of cultural mobility; with a fluid and multiplied sense of identity, Canadians are able to navigate between a rich variety of cultural spaces. Replacing the mosaic model is the “schema.” A schema, as in the root word for “schematic,” is defined as “an internal representation of the world; an organization of concepts and actions that can be revised by new information about the world.” It is a term conventionally used to describe the complex architecture of a circuit, and it is equally useful as a conceptual tool for understanding the complexity of today’s Canadian identity.

Among the many trends that set the context for Multiculturalism 2.0, technological trends are by far the most influential. Most assume it to be immigration or demographics, but there are numerous examples around the world of countries that are far more demographically diverse than Canada, with very different experiences of cultural multiplicity. Driven by industry and commerce, technology has had a much greater impact on Canada’s experience of diversity. The proliferation of the Internet and the reduction of manufacturing costs to processing power ratio has made high-speed communications technology more accessible and part of the average Canadian’s daily life. These two developments combined have increased Canadians’ mobility as well as their emotional and psychological connectedness—locally, nationally and internationally. We don’t need the global financial crisis in order to know that Canadians are staying more connected, in real time, with family and loved ones overseas than ever before. It is this real-time connectedness that makes transnationalism a commonplace reality in the lives of Canadians. Transnationalism isn’t really about living in more than one country. It is about being a part of the collective psyche beyond our political borders.

The second most important trend to note is the emergence of a new set of Canadian sensibilities that is being called the “new Canada,” a term first used in a study conducted in 2003 by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada and the Globe and Mail. Their research affirmed that second- and third-generation Canadians have an incredible combination of social, economic and cultural mobility. Canadians’ experience of cultural identity is so complex that it has been challenging to articulate—often over-simplified as a cultural duality, or an “in-between” space.

Unlike our Australian and American counterparts, Canadians are not burdened by having to cut their ties to a culturally rich ancestry in order to find acceptance as part of mainstream culture, or vice-versa. This emergent group of Canadians is not only the “new face and voice of Canada;” they are the most highly educated group, rapidly professionalizing and very influential on Canada’s psyche, as members of both immigrant communities and the evolving mainstream collective.

The research on new Canada also revealed a major shift in attitude towards ethnicity. Simply put, ethnicity isn’t seen as a core Canadian value.

This brings me to: What’s new in today’s Canadian identity. Multiculturalism 2.0 has many “new features” (and I love borrowing this techno-language to describe this) and these “new features” include: the heightened degree of global connectedness (in real time); the fact that transnationalism (emotionally, psychically and sometimes physically) is now commonplace; and the fact that cultural diversity is at the core of mainstream Canada. There also are three fundamental differences in contemporary Canadian identity, which I think are necessary to articulate.

First of all, ethnicity informs one’s cultural identity, but does not define it.

In contrast, in the essentialist paradigm of the mosaic, you are defined by your ancestry, regardless of how little or how much your ancestry is actually part of your everyday life. This traditional model is problematic for Canadians who occupy multiple cultural spaces, such as second- and third-generation and foreign-born Canadians; and especially those who identify as being of “mixed race.”

In other words, my being brown, non-white and Filipino, for example, informs my cultural identity, but does not define it. I am not suggesting, however, that being brown is not important. It is very important. I have been brown for a very long time. Rather, my being brown informs who I am, but does not define who I am. If this sounds familiar, yes, you may have heard president-elect Barack Obama say this while describing his perspective on being a Black American.

Secondly, Canadian cultural identity is fluid. For example, if, in the next few years, you learn to speak Mandarin, Punjabi or French, and as a result you become more involved in these communities—then your cultural identity will also change. The same is true if you are promoted to another department of the public sector with a slightly different bureaucratic culture. Our identities adjust to our surroundings, influences and interests. This is rather common sense, but the mosaic assumes Canadian identity to be fixed.

Third, Canadian identity includes all forms of culture: work cultures, music sub-cultures, academic cultural space, virtual on-line cultures, media consumption cultures, and the most commonly shared Canadian cultural space: sports. But there is no room in the mosaic for hockey, or other Canadian-isms like curling, environmentalism, social healthcare, volunteerism or other Canadian obsessions like American television. Clearly, there is more to cultural identity than ancestry.

A couple of years ago, at a talk to a diverse group of Simon Fraser University students, I asked the question of how many were in, or had been in, a “mixed-race relationship.” To my surprise, EVERY student raised their hand. This openness towards a complex and often complicated reality is something we take for granted. Once in a while, I have to remind people that, not so long ago, it was considered unacceptable for those of French and English ancestry to intermarry. It would have been considered as “mixed race” as the visibly diverse combinations we see today.

Today, we wouldn’t even notice it.

Canadian identity is complex. The attitudinal shifts and the increase in mixed-race relationships in Canada is evidence that Canadian identity will continue to evolve and become increasingly complex. With this in mind, when thinking about Theme 2, The Intersection Between Linguistic Duality and Cultural Diversity in Everyday Life, there needs to be an understanding that this intersection, or these intersections, is as diverse and complicated as Canadians are diverse and complicated.

I would like to break down the complexity into two areas of thought: how linguistic duality intersects, firstly, with the everyday lives of second-generation Canadians, and secondly, in the lives of new Canadian immigrants. They are certainly related but totally different experiences and should not be confused.

As a second-generation Canadian, I would like to share with you some of my experiences and observations of both. Like many Canadians, I began learning French in elementary school. I don’t really remember when it began, but the songs and stories in French are a part of my childhood. Through grades 10 to 12, as part of my International Baccalaureate Diploma, I took a higher-level French program that aimed to make me bilingual in two years. My final exam was entirely oral, and involved a literary discussion about the French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. Unfortunately, after high school, I didn’t continue learning French and I haven’t needed it until now, 17 years later. It has become one of my biggest regrets. I’ve become a little obsessed with learning French, to the point where I think I’m speaking French in my dreams.

In hindsight, I realize that the benefit from this intense French program wasn’t just the language, but in fact the introduction to the poetry of Jacques Prévert. Prévert wrote poems about love and life after World War II. In his poetry, I discovered an artistic appreciation for everyday life and everyday people. It is a point of view that continues to influence me intellectually today. The other benefit was the friendships with all the French immersion students, whom I envied. I stood out because of my being visibly diverse; they stood out because of their being linguistically and culturally diverse. Together, we shared a common experience of being more complicated.

Second-generation Canadians intuitively understand linguistic duality. Many speak other languages at home, or, like me, can speak another language when forced to, but easily understand that language. Most Asian-Canadians, for example, understand the broad value of being at least bilingual. The lifetime challenge is keeping it, and being motivated to improve one’s use of French and a third language, like Cantonese, Mandarin or Punjabi, for example. My generation of Canadians gets it. We understand its value personally and socially. However, as my generation has professionalized, we have come to realize that French-language job requirements prevent us from acquiring the most influential leadership positions throughout the public sector. Many Canadians have discovered a glass ceiling that no one really wants to talk about. Rather than being motivated to overcome this, the private sector happily entices this culturally intelligent pool of talent away—strategically hiring to adapt to a changing Canada and thus remaining relevant as employers. But as a result, the public sector is not benefiting from the rich pool of leaders that exists in Canada.

For new immigrant Canadians, I believe the situation is quite different. Many new immigrants living outside of Quebec think of learning French as a luxury. When survival and establishing one’s family is all-consuming, and learning English as a second language is difficult already—and additionally, there is very little evidence to show that French would improve one’s social or cultural integration—what motivation do new immigrants have to speak French? Many immigrant parents aim to learn English from their children, and don’t realize the long-term value of ensuring their children also become proficient in French.

In conclusion, I would like to question what we all hope to achieve through this ongoing discussion. What is the desired “end state?” I’ll be totally honest with you. For me, it is a Canadian “Barack Obama.” And I mean Barack Obama in the symbolic sense. His campaign captivated the entire world. In fact, Canadians had Barack Obama parties, which sounds ridiculous. And our very own federal election seemed to pass under the world’s radar with a record low voter turnout rate. Perhaps this is because it was the “same old, same old.” Clearly, what inspired Americans to vote was a crisis and their leaders. As I watched the election results in Indonesia with my new friends from the Canadian embassy, I thought to myself, Barack Obama was not an accident.

In so many ways, Canada is a world leader in diversity and human rights. We are respected for our philosophical, social and economic practices. But on that day, the U.S. hit a benchmark that many Canadians, including myself, are jealous of.

So how do we produce our very own Barack Obama? Because until we do, we are not fully meeting our own standards of inclusion and representation. I think it involves taking the question I posed in the beginning and turning it on its head.

Instead of asking “What impact might Canada’s diversity have on a bilingual French and English Canada?” or “What impact might Canada’s diversity have on attitudes towards the French language and Canada’s French-speaking communities?”—both questions that come from a position of fear—let’s ask an even bigger-picture question: “What is required in order for us to see—in our own lifetime—the most educated, most culturally intelligent, most diverse generation of Canadians in the highest levels of leadership in our country?”

The answer is not in loosening our French-language requirements.

The answer is in doing whatever it takes to ensure that this generation and the following generations of Canadians are truly bilingual. We can sit and watch our official language policy become a systemic barrier to the leadership roles in our largest Canadian institutions. Or, we can have the vision of a Canada where leadership is a genuine reflection of what makes Canada distinctly great, where leaders intuitively understand Canada’s complexity because they live it and where these leaders’ own vision of Canada is influenced by the rich linguistic and cultural complexity that is Canada today. It is my hope that, whatever we accomplish today, great or small, brings us closer to that Canada.

I hope that these few comments will help stimulate discussion and I’m very glad to have been invited to participate. Thank you.

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