by Bob Chodos
The multiculturalism debate rages on. In The New Republic in February, Indian-born Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen warned of “the disastrous consequences of defining people by their religious ethnicity and giving priority to the community-based perspective over all other identities.”1 Here in Canada, the March issue of The Walrus carried the provocative cover line “Face It!: Forget Quebec, Our Crisis is Multicultural.” Inside the magazine, prominent pollster Allan Gregg gave readers a tour of intercultural conflict zones, from the London underground to the banlieues of Paris to the beaches of Australia.2 The London bombings indicated that Britain’s policy of encouraging immigrants to retain their traditions had not succeeded, but the riots in France’s banlieues showed that that country’s strongly assimilationist policy had not worked any better.
As for Canada, Gregg detected a growing accumulation of disturbing signs:
Twenty years ago, roughly half of the immigrant population gravitated to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. Today, nearly 80 percent does – and this is 80 percent of a much larger total. Within these growing urban centres, immigrant groups are clustering in tightly knit, ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods partly because, according to the government’s own studies, many ethnic groups feel out of place in Canada. Their first loyalty is to their group, and, against a history of the children of immigrants “moving out,” today there is an increasing concentration of visible-minority groups “staying home,” staying alien to host cultures and having little sense of civic nationalism.3
Is Gregg’s picture an accurate one: is Canadian multiculturalism doomed to live out the consequences predicted in Sen’s dire warning? Or does the fact that we have so far avoided overt conflict indicate that Canada is doing something right? In this article I look at the experience of an elementary school in Mississauga, Ontario, where this seems to be the case: where multiculturalism shows signs of working.
The mouse that barked
It is a late afternoon in May in the library of Thornwood Public School, a K–5 school on a winding street in central Mississauga in Peel Region west of Toronto. A Spanish-speaking parent is reading The Barking Mouse,4 a bilingual Spanish-English story based on a Cuban folktale, to a mixed audience of children, their parents, high school students, teachers and York University researchers. Her young son Gabriel translates the Spanish into English for the audience, which includes speakers of Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and other languages as well as English. Gabriel is increasingly animated as he gets into the drama of a story, which concerns a family of ratónes, mice, who have foolishly provoked a gato, a cat. As the group discusses options for the mice, Gabriel suggests that apologizing to the cat might be the best strategy. In the story, however, Mamá Ratón ultimately rescues her family by barking at the cat, which turns tail and runs away. The punch line is: “You see, kids, it pays to speak another language!”