A Plea for Depth Over Dismissal

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Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Art Miki sitting down at the signing of the redress. Roger Obata, Audrey Kobayashi, Gerry Weiner, and Maryka Omatsu are among the people standing behind them. Source: Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre,. Gordon King Collection 2010.32.26.

Daniel R. Meister

Following his death, assessments of Brian Mulroney’s legacy ranged from “one of the greatest prime ministers in Canadian history” to “the most hated PM in Canadian history.” For those lionizing, Mulroney should be remembered for supporting free trade, expanding environmental protections, and for opposing apartheid in South Africa. For those vilifying, Mulroney should be remembered for neoliberal policies of austerity and privatization, stubborn accusations of corruption, and the violent military response to the Kanehsatà:ke Resistance (otherwise known as “the Oka Crisis”).

Mulroney may be divisive, but what prime minister wasn’t? Running down the list, I thought maybe John Thompson, but his Catholicism certainly was at the time (though this says less about him and more about the society at the time). Moreover, there is a tendency when examining political figures to portray them as either good or evil, with little room for nuance or depth.

Take Mulroney and multiculturalism, for example. He is either praised for passing the Multiculturalism Act (1988) or condemned for supposedly neoliberalizing multiculturalism.[1] In ensuring the passage of the Multiculturalism Act, Mulroney gave needed legislative basis to a policy proclaimed nearly two decades prior. Ethnic groups had been lobbying for such a move for nearly as long and welcomed the development. But the Mulroney government is also remembered for its “Multiculturalism Means Business” approach to the policy. This was the name of a conference organized by minister of multiculturalism Otto Jelenik, held in Toronto in 1984 and at which Mulroney spoke.

Yet a so-called neoliberal approach to the policy perhaps began in 1981 under James Fleming, a Liberal in Pierre Trudeau’s government. Fleming was a well-meaning politician who had previously supported an anti-discrimination orientation to the multiculturalism policy. However, he much more aggressively pursued an anti-racist focus after he had an epiphany one evening on his couch. While dozing in front of the television, a documentary about white supremacy in the United States jolted him awake. Fleming was ignorant of Canada’s own pre-existing and long-standing history of racial discrimination, but he believed that what happened in the United States quickly moved into Canada. As a result, the film convinced him that he needed to act quickly.[2] In doing so, however, Fleming brought a curious blend of anti-racism and capitalist orientation to the policy, declaring that “treating those who seem different as equals is good business as well as good ethics.”[3]

Neoliberalism aside, promoting multiculturalism as good for business predated both Jelenik and Fleming. Far from being a top-down affair arranged by Mulroney, it originated with some of the groups lobbying for the policy in the first place. As political scientist Matt James has shown, during the Molgat-MacGuigan hearings (1970-71), groups including the Canadian Polish Congress argued that embracing a multicultural identity would confer an international “advantage in business.” In James’ analysis, “third-force participants themselves employed a business-friendly language that saw multiculturalism as a branding tool, which they used in turn to ‘sell’ their bids for recognition and support.”[4]

Further research into this point is necessary. For it is entirely possible that adopting the language of business was a strategic decision made in order to try to secure their goals. Yet it is equally possible that this focus on business represented the genuine political orientation of the groups who appeared before the hearings. In some cases, national organizations did not represent the full range of opinions of a given ethnic group, which could be divided along ideological and even generational lines.[5] In the 1970s, for instance, a new generation of Ukrainian Canadian university students critiqued and sought to change the conservatism of their community’s organizations.[6]

In pushing for multiculturalism, advocates of the concept turned to the language and logic of capitalism. In seeking to secure support for anti-racist initiatives, well-intentioned politicians have done the same. And in supporting multiculturalism, politicians and prime ministers have also sought to maximize their own political support. This much is clear, even if the reasons behind all of these decisions are not. In short, the history of the policy is complex, not simple.

Multiculturalism is particularly tricky to assess owing to the difficulties of defining the concept, its polarizing nature, and the fact that received narratives about it have been recycled and recirculated from the time of its introduction to the present.[7] For instance, multiculturalism is a specific federal policy, but it also used to refer to the broader fact of sociological diversity and to a range of ideas. Definitional clarity often eludes contemporary discussions. Yet providing definitional clarity by narrowly focusing on the policy has its own drawbacks. For instance, the Mulroney government apologized to Japanese Canadians for their treatment during the Second World War and made financial redress. While not technically a function of the multiculturalism policy, this was “a breakthrough in many regards … the first apology for historic injustice delivered by the Prime Minister of Canada in Parliament” – and staff from the multiculturalism directorate played a key role.[8] These are complex and intertwined histories.

But why is this complexity so hard to find? In Reds, Rebels, Radicals, Ian McKay shares the insight that a previous reader had written in the margins of a book that he was reading. “To write like this, seeing all politics as either essentially rt. [right] or wrong, is a ‘scorecard’ approach. There are no full steam attempts to understand why the wrong are as they are—same for the rt.”[9] Scorecard history and the tendency to judge people as either good or evil is popular because it is easy. But even easier is the increasingly common impulse to deem individuals or research topics unworthy of further engagement, dialogue, study—or even “scoring.” It is, in other words, a politics of dismissal. And it seems to stem from scholars and pundits recognizing themselves as well-meaning but flawed, but being unable unable to see others and their work through the same lens.

To be clear, this article is not a plea for a return to scorecard history. Scorecard history is not a sound approach either. For, in the end, history is a qualitative discipline. Ranking prime ministers, or anyone else for that matter, is a silly exercise. Good deeds and bad deeds cannot be weighted and tallied up so that some final score can be determined. For that matter, categorizing deeds as good or bad in the first place flattens a great deal of complexity, like intentionality or unforeseen consequences, and it is precisely in that great universe of gray that real insights can be found. Insights into continuities between past and present, into how politics work in practice, and into the most accurate assessments of legacy. For the legacy of most leaders, much like the legacy of the policy of multiculturalism, will be neither entirely beneficial nor detrimental. But through a rigorous, nuanced, and deep examination of the lives and legacies of politicians and their policies, we stand to learn much about our country’s past – and its present too.

Daniel R. Meister is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of The Racial Mosaic (MQUP 2021).


[1] For praise, see for instance Constantine Passaris, “Multicultural Community’s Political Muscle,” The Guardian [Charlottetown, PEI] (10 October 2017), A11, which argues “Mulroney’s most significant achievement was to elevate Canada’s multicultural policy to a higher level by introducing a Multiculturalism Act.” For critiques, see Reva Joshee, “Neoliberalism versus Social Justice: A View from Canada,” in Power, Voice, and the Public Good: Schooling and Education in Global Societies, ed. Rodney K. Hopson, Carol Camp Yeakey, and Francis Musa Boakari (Emerald Publishing, 2008), 31-53; Katharyne Mitchell, Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), chap. 3; and Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Christina Gabriel, Selling Diversity: Immigration, Multiculturalism, Employment Equity, and Globalization (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), chap. 4.

[2] Marina Strauss, “Film on Racism Jolted Fleming into Action,” Globe and Mail (2 July 1981), 10.

[3] Quoted in The Second Decade of Multiculturalism: Opportunities for the Future. Report of the Fourth Canadian Conference on Multiculturalism, October 24-25, 1981, Ottawa, Canada ([Ottawa:] Minister of Supply and Services Canada), 38.

[4] Matt James, Misrecognized Materialists: Social Movements in Canadian Constitutional Politics (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), 75.

[5] Jean Burnet, who worked as a researcher for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, critically remarked that the pro-multiculturalism conferences held during that period “revealed embarrassing differences between [ethnic] groups and between generations within these groups, which effectively negated the notion of a third force.” Burnet, “Taking into Account the Other Ethnic Groups and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism,” in James S. Frideres (ed.), Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 12.

[6] See for example the unsigned editorial in the SUSK newspaper: Student (16 October 1969), 2, which reads in part: “The Ukrainian community in Canada is caught between two worlds: ‘one dead, the other powerless to be born’. The Ukrainian student movement must stand on the side of life. Many Ukrainian organizations have become irrelevant to today’s youth. They are becoming a fatality of the generation gap…”

[7] Phil Ryan, Multicultiphobia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

[8] Jodi Giesbrecht and Travis Tomchuk, Redress Movements in Canada (Ottawa: CHA, 2018), 8; and Roger Daniels and Tom Ikeda, interview with Orest Kruhlak (3 August 2010), Densho Digital Archive.

[9] Ian McKay, Reds, Rebels, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (Toronto: BTL Books, 2005), 81-82.

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One thought on “A Plea for Depth Over Dismissal

  1. F. Sabo

    Worst Prime Minister in our history. He sold us out to the Americans so he could sing Irish Eyes Are Smiling with Ronald Reagan.

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