multiculturalism day, canada's first official holiday celebrating samosas, dragon boats and dancers in bright skirts, was observed last week. Opa! Namaste, tout l'monde. Bon diversité.... For one summer day every year (June 27) we celebrate the special differences (and equality!) that all of our cultures bring to this great land. And, by the way, a respectful megwitch to our First Nations brothers and sisters for that land. We honour you.
Declared by heritage minister and new high priestess of diversity Sheila Copps, Multiculturalism Day is an orgy of hypocrisy, speeches and platitudes fluttering in the air like thousands of Hindu prayer flags. (It's OK to say that, right?)
By some karmic, I-Chingy coincidence, this was also the week of Caravan (June 21-29), with 19 pavilions featuring the food, crafts and colourful music of 27 ethnic groups. It's been 35 years since Ukrainian-Canadians Zena and Leon Kossar migrated from Saskatchewan and launched Caravan. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. How did we get here?
The call and the e-mail came late. Someone was inviting just about every artist, organizer, activist and community cultural type of colour to Ottawa. From Montreal, filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. From Vancouver, artist Sherazad Jamal. From Toronto, poet-activist Lillian Allen. And over 400 others from across the country.
Those of us who'd been through the culture wars of the 90s (or the 70s) began to e-mail each other furiously. It was something called the Minister's Forum On Diversity And Culture. And as it turns out, it was a plot.
The variety-show gala that marked the high and low point of the forum was actually televised. There you would have seen Copps and Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Jean Augustine shake their asses to a multiculti supergroup led by Toronto's Samba Squad. In person, it was even stranger.
We gathered the morning of April 22 for the first of two days of panels, speeches, bitching and complaining.
When Copps introduced the leader of each of Canada's big cultural agencies - white man, white man, white man, white man - we complained about representation. When the audience at my media panel had a chance to talk directly to Slawko Klymkiw, head of network programming at the CBC, we complained about access. Brown and yellow faces on air don't help if the same old farts make the decisions off-screen.
When the cold rain came down that afternoon, we complained about this miserable country.
Shabbily organized, vague and ultimately irrelevant, the two days of discussion amounted to a colossal waste of time and talent.
I sat in a room with Obomsawin, scholar Chet Singh, Senator Vivienne Poy, activist and video artist Richard Fung and 40 others. The combined experience in the room could have schooled the Supreme Court. But given no method, a hapless moderator and less than 90 minutes to sort through centuries of particular, complex histories, we descended into chaos. Some tried to wrest concrete ideas from the morass. What prevailed were personal stories of grief, and the unspoken by-product, one-upmanship.
Potato famine? Hell, we were enslaved for 400 years.
Oh yeah? The government stole our houses and put us in camps, and that was only 60 years ago.
At least you had houses. Those bastards stole the land out from under our feet, slaughtered most of us, raped our children and gave all our best names to suburbs and sports franchises.
So? At least you've got guilt working for you. I get on the subway and people stare at me like I'm a terrorist.
You're lucky people see you. Half the time people just think I'm white. Or Spanish.
And what's wrong with Spanish? You're denying linguistic privilege!
Shut up, all of you. One word: Holocaust. And so it goes.
Copps's forum was built on a foundation of scarcity. Shrink the time available as you raise the expectations, and 400 people get frustrated, then resigned, then ironic. By that evening, we were numbed enough to serve as a complacent audience for the variety show.
Two young VJs from the MuchMusic empire cheer-led us through the acts. Montreal rappers, South Asian dancers, rock from the Rez - it was like watching a heritage bureaucrat's version of Canadian Idol. It was like Caravan.
Caravan was built on preserving and presenting static, "foreign" cultures for the delectation of a presumed neutral consumer. Amazingly, 35 years later, Copps has bought that same model for her ministry's notion of "diversity."
Sheila, here's a tip: less sweetgrass and hummus, more Homi Bhabha. The post-colonial studies guru distinguished between cultural diversity and cultural difference. Diversity assumes fixed, homogeneous (and inevitably competing) cultures that remain unaffected by each other - asking black artists, for instance, to pack their blackness in a bag and bring it to boring Ottawa.
Difference defines the shifting, interdependent play of meaning that creates culture. Difference means blackness isn't just what's in that packed bag, it's part of the bag itself.
It's a lot to keep in your head when all you want to do is buy some quick political support or eat a nice pad thai. But without it, Sheila, you look like a conniving fool.