Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Third Canada?

Every time I hear the words "French" Canada and "English" Canada, I wonder about the Canada I live in. Let us call it the Third Canada. Obviously not a geographical territory, this Third Canada is distinguished only by its lack of distinctiveness. It exists both within the other two Canadas and outside them. Its inhabitants, while diverse, share some common characteristics. Many of them are "visible" minorities, though not exclusively so. They are "visible", and yet obviously not distinct enough, culturally or linguistically. They can speak neither English nor French "well enough"; their degrees have little value in the Canadian workplace; they cannot play hockey, cannot stand the winter and hate to shovel; their children love this country and would never want to "go back". I have heard this Canada's voice only rarely in the conversation about national unity, if at all.

While the demand for increased autonomy and decentralized governance are undoubtedly desirable social objectives, I find it difficult to see how in today's Canada, the claims of one minority, based on "cultural distinctivenss" can be prioritized (I am referring to the recent resolution passed by the Canadian parliament which recognize the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada)."

There is much more at stake here than the slippery slope of increasing claims for autonomy from competing minority interests. Two questions are at issue: the justification behind the quest for autonomy; and the relationship of the decentralized, autonomous structures to the "nation" - or the broader collective - in which they are embedded. This in turn begs the question as to what constitutes that collective.

To me, a collective such as the nation is defined most fundamentally by the understanding of social justice on which it is premised. One can think of a number of such understandings of justice, but let me mention two. I draw upon the work of Iris Young, well-known critical philosopher of our times. The first is a distributive paradigm which defines social justice as the 'morally proper distribution of social benefits and burdens among society's members'. This paradigm is most concerned with the distribution of wealth, income and other material resources, but often also extends to non-material social goods such as rights, opportunity, and power. Indeed, the precise goal of the distributive model is to accommodate political demands within existing sets of social relations as manifest in property rights, gender relations, division of labor and cultural norms.

By contrast, one can think of a transformative model of social justice, that is, an understanding of social justice where existing social relations can be altered beyond what is possible through a simple redistribution of rights and resources. Of course, in practice, the transformation of existing social relations may often start with a redistributive process. The point of the transformative perspective is not to make such redistributive the ultimate goal of social change, but to take it as an initial point in a continuum of progressive social change.

Historically, while liberal models have focused on distribution amongst individuals, now there are fairly well-developed liberal theories about group rights, which speak specifically to the question of "identity". Identity in this framework is understood as a set of attributes which distinguish one social group from another (such as culture or ethnicity). A distributive model distributes rights amongst group according to such attributes. All claims to group rights (such as autonomy) must be exclusionary: it must exclude those who do not possess certain attributes.

A transformative notion of justice can not value or devalue, a priori, such particular claims, but will require that we examine the social structures and the underlying nature of the social relationships from which such claims emanate. In this case, this will require that we examine the nature of the Canadian multicultural model: not only as an ideal as its proponents insist, but as a lived reality shared by all Canadians. That many Canadians experience multiculturalism as a universalization of norms associated with one or two cultures is not simply a failure of implementation. It indicates the troubled (if not impossible) co-existence of multiculturalism with unequal treatment Canadians in political and economic processes. Such inequality can not be addressed simply through the redistribution of rights, so long as rights are conceived simply as 'possessions' rather than as rules which indicate how people must relate to one another, not as isolated individuals, but as members of a collective who share not only an ideal of social justice but also a similar lived experience of that ideal. In this framework, identity ceases to be related to specific attributes, but instead, becomes relational and dynamic, able to express social priorities as they evolve.

I think it is critical that we seek to deepen Canadian democratic structures to reflect the concerns of justice and equity, rather than continuing on the path of 'identity', 'distinctiveness' and 'culture'. The political capital from the latter may well have been exhausted.

This was first published on

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