the canada issue

How multiculturalism thrives at schools and universities

By Pamela Klassen, Professor, Department for the Study of Religion

Photo credit: Photo: Johnny Guatto

Two recent events have put the question of Canadian culture at centre stage: Canadians preparing to welcome thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes and the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The process of welcoming planeloads of refugees to cities and towns across the country has prompted many Canadians to come together as sponsor groups, fundraising and organizing to help resettle refugee families in their communities.

Along the way, these groups have newly articulated their ideas of Canada and what it means to be Canadian: providing safe havens for people fleeing war and violence, welcoming people from any and all cultural backgrounds, considering it an obligation to respond to people in desperate need, and not taking for granted the privileges of living in a society free from war. For example, the 1000 Schools Challenge, a group started in downtown Toronto, calls for schools – through parent groups – to join a longer tradition of Canadian refugee sponsorship: “We believe 1000 schools across Canada could commit to sponsoring refugee families, much like church [and synagogue] communities did in the 1970s and 1980s, and are doing today,” the group notes on its website.

That schools are now taking on the task of refugee sponsorship based not on shared religious commitments, but on a shared commitment to a multicultural and welcoming Canada, suggests one direction that Canadian culture may be heading. Schools and universities, especially when they are public and widely financially accessible, are some of the most vibrant sites of multicultural community today. They are sites of a new kind of lived multiculturalism, in which both common purpose and critical perspectives regarding “Canadianness” can coincide.

Compared to stories of schools and religious groups welcoming refugees to Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report (TRC) gives a very different perspective on Canadian culture. In its careful documentation of the violence suffered by Indigenous children forced to attend the government-funded, church-run Residential Schools, the TRC calls the Residential Schools a form of “cultural genocide” perpetuated in the name of assimilating Indigenous children into Canadian culture. The TRC Final Report, however, also calls for schools and universities to be sites where new, historically-informed understandings of colonialism in Canada can flourish. In response, university students have called for mandatory Indigenous studies to be included in curricula.

Learning and acknowledging how acts of violence and acts of welcome have both been done in the name of Canadian culture requires careful scholarship, teaching, and storytelling. Universities are spaces in which people can encounter each other across multiple lines of difference, whether religious, class, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Are they also places where Indigenous peoples and Canadians can enter into “nation to nation” relationships?

As the welcoming refugees movement and the TRC both remind us, schools and universities are places of power, of learning and of community building. Keeping schools and universities public, accessible, and diverse is crucial to their roles as multicultural communities that build common purpose and critical perspectives, reminding us that Canadian culture has never been, and will never be, culture in the singular.