Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Reasonable Accommodation"

Nik by the Numbers -- the on-line site of SES CEO Nik Nanos -- is often a good source of information. SES is a research company that is frequently involved in public policy and political polling. I like their work. I'm no expert on public opinion surveys, but in my view they are almost certainly the best (most careful, thorough, and considered) polling/research firm out there. Nik by the Numbers is really an on-line forum which invites readers to comment on public issues, with Nanos providing just a brief empirical introduction to the subject based on current polling data. One of these brief introductions caught my eye, not because I think Nanos is mis-representing the issue but because I think he is correctly reporting the data. The issue was diversity and "reasonable accommodation" (a semi-new buzz-phrase that is being kicked about in considerations of diversity in Canada and how it should be approached as a matter of public policy). Nanos summarizes

"By significant majorities in Canada as a whole, and by overwhelming majorities in Quebec, Canadians and Quebecers declare limits to reasonable accommodation.

When asked whether it was reasonable to accommodate religious and cultural minorities, or whether immigrants should fully adapt to culture in Canada, only 18 percent of respondents said reasonable accommodation best reflected their personal views, as opposed to 53 percent who thought immigrants should fully adapt (21 percent who agreed with neither statement)."

Source: Canadians Want Limits ...

I'm not writing to fault Nanos' reporting of this data. He's just trying to open a discussion and, in my view, doing a pretty good job. What I find disturbing in this report is, in fact, the raw data itself. On its surface, it makes Canadians look like a pretty intolerant bunch of people. What we start to push this data a bit, and ask some questions of it, this intolerance does melt away a bit but it also becomes more politically charged and hence more dangerous. The real danger is twofold: (1) there is a real danger that Canada might be becoming a less tolerant place and that would not be a good thing. I'll go on record: I prize democracy, respect of diversity, citizens rights, individual rights, etc. I'll come back to this below because I think it is an important point. (2) This danger is amplified, however, by ill-considered and poorly constructed public debates on diversity issues that lack any historical or comparative perspective. If Canadians really want to consider the boundaries of diversity in their society, they need this perspective. Without it ... they have no framework into which to place their issues. Let me make a number of related points:

First, let's consider the phrase "fully adapt." I meet a lot of people in the course of my ordinary weekly activities who use a language similar to this. Surely if Canadians want immigrants to "fully adapt" to Canada, we should know what fully adapt means. I make this point because, in my view, most immigrants do fully adapt to Canada. I hear people complain about all matter of issues related to immigrants, some of which are simply wrong. Some people complain that immigrants "don't speak English" (or French), yet this is just not true. Canada has among the highest rates of language learning in the world. Other people complain about accents when speaking English or French (and, I say this as a person who has an accent when I speak French), isn't that a bit trivial? Folks, it takes a while to learn a language and learning the nuances of pronunciation can be even more difficult. Ask anyone who has tried to learn another language. If fact, I will be so bold as to say that the only people who have problems with accents are those people who speak only one language and have never really even tried to learn another. Complaints about language, then, as a matter of "fully adapting" completing miss the point, are empirically incorrect, and spring from ignorance.

I'm using language to illustrate a larger point. The demand the immigrants "fully adapt" to Canada seems to be based on the idea that they don't. Yet, this -- the idea that immigrants don't adapt -- is an assumption that doesn't seem to be based on any evidence. Where is the evidence that immigrants don't adapt? Language -- something a lot of people complain about as a sign of a failure to adapt -- actually bears out the other case and is based on trivial issues or ignorance.

Religion -- much in the news of late -- is another matter. Does fully adapting to Canada mean adopting a Canadian approach to religion? If so, again, the evidence seems to point to full adaption on the part of immigrants. Canada, of course, is a country that prides itself on freedom of religion. The whole idea of having freedom of religion, by the way, is for people to exercise this freedom. If no one wanted people to actually use this freedom -- that is maintain, develop, enhance, etc., their spirituality -- we would have this freedom as a right. Freedom of religion does not mean being silent about one's religion but the exact opposite: it means taking one's religion seriously. Let me use myself as an example. I'm Christian. Part of being Christian is ... well ... being Christian. I'm not a knock on your door and evangelize kind of guy but I also don't shy away from talking about the spiritual views, about God, or about Jesus. I exercise my right. That might annoy some people, but then they have the right to ignore me. The same thing, of course, applies to immigrants. If an immigrant is from a minority religion (in Canada) and they exercise their right to practice that religion they are, in fact, fully adapted to Canada. The exercise of that religion might annoy some people, but then they have the right to ignore them.

Again, I'm using an example to illustrate a point and trying to pick examples that are often flash points of public debate (communication and religion) to show that the way a lot of immigrants go about doing things illustrates the opposite of what is implied in the opposition between "fully adapt" and "reasonable accommodation." To repeat, this opposition seems to imply that immigrants are not adapting to Canada, yet ... the evidence points the other way.

Let me take one final point and return to the issue I raised above democracy. Some people have been upset that immigrants wear head scarfs to polling stations or suggest modifications to law. In the past (when I was a fair piece younger), some people were upset that an immigrant who was in the RCMP wanted to wear a turban instead of the regular headgear. I gross violation of tradition, I heard some people say. Well, is it? If someone is a citizen of Canada, folks, they have every right to contribute to public debate and to suggest changes to the way Canada operates. That is the basic nature of democracy: all citizens have the right to contribute to public dialogue and policy formulation. If you don't accept that, you reject democracy. If you start to say "well, I can contribute to public debate but that person over there can't" because their family only came to Canada 15 years ago, we are creating dividing lines between citizens. To say that is to reject the ideal of equality that is at the heart of democracy. It is to create different castes in society. Immigrants who suggest changes to public policy are doing absolutely nothing wrong. They are involved in the exercise of democracy. They have, in other words, fully adapted to Canada.

This is a really important point because it is those people who are saying "they have no right to challenge 'our' traditions" who are, in fact, not adapted to Canada because they are rejected democracy. And, democracy is a fundamental Canadian value. To impose limits on the equality of citizens, to make unreasonable demands for language learning (particularly trivial demands that relate to accents), to reject freedom of religion is, in fact, un-Canadian. Supporting these positions (rejecting equality of religion and citizenship) is, in fact, not a demand for full adaption to Canada but a rejection of full adaption. It is not a demand for "reasonable accommodation" but a rejection of the cherished values for which generations of Canadians fought (and, without wanting to sound melodramatic, died).

Let's not have a false debate on this subject. Let's not polarize "reasonable accommodation" to "full adaption." Let's understand what those terms mean. If we want immigrants to behave and act like Canadians, we have to behave and act like Canadians. We have to take our own values seriously. If we don't ... if we reject our own values, if we behave like a bunch of hypocrites, then how can we expect anyone else to take our values seriously. Said differently: if our own values (democracy, equality, etc.) mean nothing to us, why would anyone fully adapt to them?
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