Multiculturalism is a policy that is not only enshrined in law in Canada, but also an element of our national identity. It is said that, unlike the US which insists on trying to build a singular homogeneous national culture based on the differing historical cultures of its inhabitants, Canada will have a permanently heterogeneous national culture which celebrates cultural diversity, rather than trying to overcome it. Furthermore, it is noted that Canada is a cultural mosaic, with each culture making up a different part of the Canadian whole. This approach to national identity certainly has the strength of rendering Canada more inclusive and respectful of other’s cultures, but certain elements of the practise of this are less about inclusiveness and generating respect and understanding of other cultures, and more about consumerism, and commodification. One such element of the practise of multiculturalism that is more concerned with consumerism and commodification than anything else is the multicultural festival.
Multicultural festivals are held across Canada, and go by various names such as Heritage Days or Carassauga, but their essential substance is the same. There are pavilions for each culture interesting in creating one, and at these pavilions the general public can try food from the culture, or see the culture’s traditional dress, or dances. Purportedly these festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s diversity, but while these festivals offer an opportunity for members of a culture to display elements of their culture which is certainly positive they do not facilitate deep understanding of, or respect for other cultures among the wider population. Most of the attendees at these festivals go to try the food of cultures that they are unfamiliar with and see their traditional dances, dresses or artifacts, but the attendees are not given context to understand the food, dress, or dances of the culture. Rather, people line up and give their money and order their food, or sit or stand politely and enjoy the entertainment provided by the traditional dances, songs and dress of the people. But does this kind of mode of interaction with members of another culture generate understanding of, or respect for another culture? It does not seem to be the case that it does. By purchasing food from a cultural pavilion I merely realize that a culture makes a certain kind of dish, but I have no understanding of what role this food plays in their culture, or what role food in general does. Likewise, if I see a traditional dance, song or dress of the culture I do not learn what the traditional dance or song celebrates or honours, or what purpose is served by the traditional dress. In this way the attendees of the multicultural festival may at most learn a set of facts about another culture (ie what food they eat, what their traditional dress looks like etc), but cultures cannot be understood by learning unrelated facts about that culture. Rather, understanding a culture requires a more overarching understanding of the meanings of the society and how those meanings are embodied in a set of practises. Consequently it does not seem to be the case that the multicultural festival generates understanding of, and respect for other cultures.
Now, it might not be a problem that the multicultural festival does not generate understanding of, and respect for other cultures if this festival was merely regarded as an opportunity to see some exotic dances, songs, and clothing as well as try some interesting, unique food. But shouldn’t part of a festival that honours diversity be a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue, and understanding, rather than reducing cultures to producers of good food, and pleasant entertainment for the consumer? It does seem that honouring cultural diversity would require a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue and understanding, because we only come to appreciate, understand and respect other cultures if we understand the. Furthermore we can only appreciate cultural diversity itself when we come to recognize the value that others cultures have, and this also requires a genuine understanding of the meanings embodied in the practises that constitute a culture. Consequently, the multiculturalism festival fails to adequately meet the end that it avowedly tries to secure, the celebration of diversity, as it reduces cultures to producers of commodities (good food and entertaining dances and songs) for a mass of consumers, and thus it is more of an exercise in consumerism and commodification than it is in the celebration of cultural diversity. We can see that consumerism and commodification are the guiding principles of the multiculturalism festival through the analysis provided earlier, as we see attendees of the festival consuming food and entertainment provided by the culture, rather than engaging in a dialogue with members of that other culture to understand their practises. This is surely a case of consumerism and commodification if anything is.
One further reason why it is problematic that the multiculturalism festival does not meets it avowed aim of celebrating diversity is because this encourages people to see celebrating diversity as enjoying commodities from other cultures. If we are told that by going to a multicultural festival we are celebrating diversity then we will tend to think that celebrating diversity just means being a consumer who is open to enjoying the products of other cultures. Therefore, the multiculturalism festival not only fails to meet the end that it aims at, but rather also encourages people to have the mistaken understanding that celebrating diversity is a matter of being a consumer who does not prejudge commodities based on their cultural origin. But, for the reasons pointed out above, this commodified view of celebrating diversity has little to do with generating the intercultural dialogue required to genuinely celebrate diversity.
It should be noted that nothing in what I have written above means to suggest that the Canada’s multicultural policy is bad, rather I have merely tried to highlight some of the shortcomings of the multicultural festival as an element of Canada’s overall multiculturalism policy.