Friday, November 09, 2007

The Personal, The Political: C'est Problématique

By Todd Wong's reckoning, my recent essay in Vancouver Review, the result of a series of obsessive inquiries I was making that brought me to Guangdong a few weeks ago, was really a search for my "Chinese-Canadian roots." I never thought about it that way. It also never occurred to me at all, while I was researching and writing that piece, that I actually do have Chinese cousins, back in Ireland. Long story.

But that's one of the things about Todd that I like so much. Also known as Toddish McWong, the animateur of the Vancouver Chinese New Year / Robbie Burns Night event known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy (a tradition that goes back to Vancouver's Chinatown in the 1930s), Todd is an unrepentant humanist.

He's the opposite of a misanthrope. And his take on "multiculturalism" - official policy in Canada since 1971, entrenched in Canada's constitution since 1982, and a great worry-wound of the Anglosphere (and much of the Francophonie) these days - is similarly unrepentant, but sadly too uncommon. It's a perspective well worth taking into account.

Multiculuralism should not be about retreating into the cloisters of identity politics. It should not be about segregating ourselves into hierarchies of grievance. It should be about enjoying one another's company, finding ways to fit in without giving up central aspects of our experience, making room for people wholly unlike ourselves, and finding delight and pleasure in one another's distinct heritage - recognizing, all the while, the common basis of our shared humanity, and our citizenship.

The consequences of getting this wrong are enormous, and threaten to wreck the conception of multiculturalism that Canada has decided to make a core foundation of its nationhood. A glimpse of those consequences was amply provided last year by 11 Canadian Muslim intellectuals in their manifesto, published in the Toronto Star, under the headline: Don't be silenced by extremists."

The way my friend and manifesto co-author Taj Hashmi puts it: "Multiculturalism is a good thing so long as it doesn't inhibit people from integrating." The way my wife Yvette Guigueno puts it, it's about "finding ways to get into each other's liquor cabinets." The way John Ralston Saul puts it, it's all about "reconciliation and coexistence."

It's no fluke that the judges in Delgamuukw Vs. The Queen, the leading aboriginal rights decision in Canadian case law, use those same two words, reconciliation and coexistence, quite liberally in their judgment. Aboriginal rights are not meant to be about division, segregation, and apart-ness. Aboriginal rights law is meant to provide the basis for coexistence between the constitutional rights of aboriginal peoples and the rights of Canada's settler cultures. It's meant to reconcile aboriginal title with Crown sovereignty.

The way Todd Wong has been known to put it (when asked by reporters, `Hey, what's with the kilt? What's all the excitement about Robbie Burns? Do you have some Scottish ancestry in you?') goes like this: "Of course I do. I'm Canadian. All Canadians have Scottish roots."

By which sound and happy logic, I do have Chinese roots.

Todd has been known to be wrong, mind you. For instance: Never, ever attempt to practice the ancient and delicate Japanese art of origami during a session at the pub with your dragon-boat teammates.


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