Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ontario election: multicultural flip-flops

I wasn't going to touch the faith-based school controversy that, instead of electoral reform, appears to be the defining issue of the Ontario provincial election campaign, but I find that I must. There is only so much perplexity I can stand before I have to start talking about it.

Let's review. The McGuinty Liberals are out of the gate as firm supporters of a public school system--except for the Catholics. The Greens want to abolish the separate school system and have one public system for all, and they have United Nations backing as well as popular support for this move. The NDP is exactly nowhere on the question, offering this tepid nonsense:

NDP critic Peter Tabuns said the New Democrats also support maintaining the status quo in public education, but with one key proviso.

"We need to put money back into the system to deal with the fundamental problems that teachers and students are dealing with," Tabuns said.

This was the party, remember, that strongly supported full funding for the Catholic Separate School system in the 1980s.

And the Conservatives? Why, let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools contend, as some grumpy old Tory somewhere once mumbled.

What on earth has happened to that good old multiculturalism debate? You know, the one where the sides have lined up for years: the Right opposed, the Left in favour (supposedly), pushing its charming vision of a brightly-coloured mosaic of peoples, faiths and languages? All the players have switched sides here, and this onlooker, for one, is getting a little curious, not to mention confused.

Of course, it never has been as simple as that. As a progressive, not to mention a student of anthropology, I've had my own problems with official multiculturalism, and I'm not alone. But Liberals created the policy, affirmed it and promoted it. Conservatives have supported cultural integration, but of the kind where "they" simply become "us." Just let it all happen naturally, I say--culture isn't a thing, it's what people do. "Canadian culture" is a living braid of many different world-views, traditions and practices. It changes all the time--it's not a sea that eventually swallows immigrants, nor is it a collection of pretty little boxes containing cuisines, folk-dances, exotic religious rituals and costumes.

But I digress. Back to the Ontario election campaign. What is emerging on the cultural front? Liberals, stout defenders of those little boxes, suddenly want one system for all (well, two), and start talking sensibly about public education. (To give McGuinty credit, he earlier dealt in Solomonic fashion with the "Shariah law" non-issue by completely secularizing the Ontario Arbitration Act.) And Conservatives, who once talked about "Canadian values," and saluted the good burghers of Hérouxville as cultural heroes, now want to fund a whole bunch of different school systems on the taxpayers' nickel--identity politics at its absolute worst.

This is a wedge issue, all right, but what an odd turn of events: the Liberals promoting educational integration and the Conservatives pandering to the ethnic vote. Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

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