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Assimilationists Are On The Wrong Side Of Canada's History

01/18/2016 09:53 EST | Updated 01/18/2017 05:12 EST
Kutay Tanir via Getty Images
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Fans of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Star Trek Voyageur are all too familiar with the Borg, an alien race that aimed to assimilate all other species into their collective. Before they moved to assimilate "others" they uttered the words "resistance is futile." No doubt, the producers of Star Trek meant to give assimilation a very negative connotation in popular culture and given the show's significant viewership around the globe the term likely fell out of favour in several parts of the planet.

In Canada, the term assimilation is especially unpopular. It's associated with painful events in the country's history. But the country's proponents of forced assimilation often underestimated the inevitability of resistance on the part of their targets. The lessons of our history seem lost on many Canadians as it's surprising to learn how many endorse making "others" like "them." According to a January 2016 Leger Marketing poll one in three Canadians agrees that "religious/cultural groups such as Jews, Muslims and Sikhs should abandon their customs and traditions and become more like the majority." Paradoxically, several Canadians that continue to fear assimilation are amongst those most apt to believe that their own cultural survival depends others assimilating.

Quebec history books frequently highlight the determination of many of Canada's British colonizers to assimilate French Canadians. In response to uprisings in Lower Canada (now Quebec) in the late 1830s the infamous Lord Durham urged that immigration from Britain be dramatically expanded so as to overwhelm the number of French Canadians with the aim of assimilating them into British culture. What Durham described as the inferiority of French Canadian culture served as justification for the need to assimilate.

The Quebec and broader French Canadian historic narrative legitimately refer to efforts to resist assimilation against too many attempts to diminish if not altogether eliminate the French language and culture from the public domain.Thankfully there were enough English Canadian leaders that chose a different path. To be fair, not all did so out of the kindness of their hearts. Rather they looked at the numbers of French Canadians and realized that pursuing their assimilation was futile.

Given the country's rather unfortunate experience with assimilation it's surprising to see the level of support it continues to enjoy.

Across Canadian history, Aboriginal Peoples were also prime the targets of assimilation at the hands of British and French colonizers. Recent revelations regarding residential schools in Canada offer shocking evidence of how destructive assimilation can be when taken to the extreme.

Important numbers of aboriginals also ended up being assimilated. Some historians contend that such losses were often the result of internal migration. In their view, assimilation was inevitable and a deliberate choice was made by many people to give up their language and customs to adjust to a new home. In far too many cases however people were not given the choice. Assimilation is still very much a concern for Aboriginal Peoples and Francophone Canadians who insist upon the need for continued vigilance to avert further loss of language and cultures. Thankfully our more recent history is characterized by efforts to correct historic injustices by supporting efforts at language and/or cultural retention.

Given the country's rather unfortunate experience with assimilation it's surprising to see the level of support it continues to enjoy. Ironically, while 80 per cent of Canadians agree that the country's youth should preserve their customs and traditions, many of these same people believe that immigrants should give up their customs and traditions.

Immigrants and their children have long emerged as a principal target of supporters of assimilation who often use another word to describe what pretty much amounts to the same goal. They remain persuaded that immigrants must choose between being part of mainstream society or maintaining their customs and traditions. When their arguments fail, they like to toss out the tired adage that when in Rome do as the Romans do. From a cultural standpoint, in ethnically diverse societies it's not obvious what it means to be a Roman (today it's even unclear in Italy). Looking back at Canadian history the proponents of assimilation have generally found themselves on its wrong side. The future won't vindicate them.

Jack Jedwab is Chair of the National Metropolis Conference on Immigration and Integration. The 18th edition of the conference, entitled "Getting Results: Migration, Opportunities and Good Governance," will be held at the Westin Harbor Front in Toronto between March 3 and March 5, 2016.

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