Questioning multiculturalism

Mar 6 2017

Sociology students dig into the roots of race and ethnic relations


Dr. Kalyani Thurairajah, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, talks about race and ethnic relations in Canada. This is the first in a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th anniversary. Watch for pieces tied to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.


What does it mean to be Canadian?

It’s one of the first questions Dr. Kalyani Thurairajah asks students in her Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada (SOCI 368) class each semester. The answers, she says, tend to be a mixture of hesitant “multiculturalisms” or “not Americans.” The uncertainty in those responses shed light on what Kalyani fears is a larger problem.

“We’ve constitutionalized multiculturalism—it’s such an essential part of our Canadian identity,” she says. “But it’s not enough to teach multiculturalism as a source of celebration in a ‘look at how diverse we are’ way—having heritage days where we eat sushi for lunch and samosas for dinner.”

If we, as Canadians, don’t understand how that sushi or those samosas are tied to deeper issues and historical events like the internment of Japanese Canadians or the Komagata Maru incident, then Kalyani says that we aren’t seeing the whole picture.

It’s part of the reason she looks forward to walking 40 students each semester through race and ethnicity, and their connection to Canada’s history. The class begin with a look at colonialism, then the history of the quiet revolution in Quebec, Acadians, Black history, the first wave of Chinese immigration, Japanese internment and more.

“ I would like to be able to focus this entire course on contemporary issues, especially because there's so much happening right now, but I can’t talk about contemporary issues unless I know that students understand the past.” Kalyani Thurairajah 

While most students come into the class with a certain level of background knowledge, there are usually a few surprises.

“I knew the issues were pervasive, but I didn’t imagine that it would be to this great of an extent,” says fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student Jenna Love. “I was surprised to see the many different ways that race and ethnic relations in this country affect people, and to learn about practices like the Sixties Scoop that I had never heard of before.”

Other students, like Testi Ali (in his fourth year of the Bachelor of Science program), are familiar with much of the content, but not necessarily because they learned it in school.

“When I was in elementary school, we were assigned a project about the European settlers,” he says. “I asked my teacher why we weren’t learning about Black history and slavery as well and I was told there wasn’t enough time. So I decided to create a video about slavery with help from my parents. I got a failing grade for not following the instructions, but it was probably one of the most valuable projects I have ever done.”

Using slam poetry to explore Black History


Black History Month officially ended last week, but the conversation around slavery in Canada (a fact that often seems to surprise students who misunderstand the Underground Railroad as a signal that Canada didn’t have slavery) and the country’s many black Canadian historical figures will continue in SOCI 368.

In February, the class welcomed Omari Newton, a spoken-word poet, who told stories of several Canadians—Viola Desmond, Carrie Best and Willie O’Ree— many of whom a show of hands indicated that the class had never before heard of.

“It was probably one of the most interesting presentations I have seen in a long time,” says Testi. “The biggest thing I took from it? That knowledge is power—intellectual power. To understand someone, you need to sit down and have a conversation. A discussion. And you need to know something in order to be able to do that well.”

Taking a step back in order to move forward

Kalyani’s research primarily looks at second-generation immigrants and how they negotiate loyalties between their family’s homeland and country of settlement. But repeatedly seeing surprised students who didn’t know about these important parts of Canada’s history made her want to take a deeper look at what we really know about multiculturalism.

“At first it surprised me, and then it devastated me,” she says. “I would like to be able to focus this entire course on contemporary issues, especially because there's so much happening right now, but I can’t talk about contemporary issues unless I know that students understand the past.”

So Kalyani sought permission to collect data throughout her Fall 2015 and Winter 2016 SOCI 368 classes to find out whether the anecdotal evidence she was seeing was accurate. She conducted three surveys, asking students about how their views may or may not have changed based on what they knew before the course and given what they were learning.

“I wanted to see what knowledge they already had about the historical information I was presenting before they came into the classroom,” says Kalyani.

She is planning to spend summer 2017 compiling the data, but her preliminary findings indicate that their knowledge of Canada’s past depends greatly on where they received their pre-university education.

“I would like to focus on how much of Canada’s past is being discussed in a way that is productive prior to students arriving at university,” she says. “We know that not all Canadians go on to post-secondary education, and of those who do, not all are doing degrees in disciplines where these issues are discussed.”

Kalyani knows that the 80 students who take her class each year are getting a good foundation in race and ethnic relations, but she feels that isn’t nearly enough.

“In a post-Brexit, Trump-era world where people are discussing screening for ‘Canadian values’ and struggling to understand and make sense of who ‘the other’ is, asking our nation to come together under the umbrella of multiculturalism isn’t realistic unless we truly understand what that means.”

Kalyani feels that acknowledging Canada’s history of exclusion—and its history of apologizing for that exclusion—is an important first step to being a truly multicultural society.

RELATED: How to say you're sorry—psychology prof's research looks at the anatomy of a public apology

“Saying we’re multicultural without have any depth of understanding to that means nothing. There are some horrible things in our history, but we are not a country that just sweeps those horrible things under the rug. We have a history of publicly apologizing, but while Canadians may hear about a public apology they may not know anything about the event that led to it.”

She adds that teaching our history in a way that partners those apologies with an understanding of the situations that led to them might help create a sense of cohesion and shape our national identity.

“Those are both things that Canadians keep struggling to find,” she says.

This is the first in a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th Anniversary of Confederation. Watch for pieces connected to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.

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