The new Canadian citizenship test: No 'barbarians' need apply

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Mardi 23 février 2010

Radha Jhappan, Carleton University
Guest Contributor

Photo courtesy Chealion on Flickr.

The Conservative government of Canada recently issued a new guide to citizenship entitled “Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.” The guide projects a particular view of Canada past and present through some arguably selected ‘facts’ about which immigrants are to be tested in order to achieve citizenship status. The early Conservatives of the Reform Party scorned official bilingualism and multiculturalism. Its 1991 Blue Sheet stated that the party opposed “any immigration based on race or creed or designed to radically or suddenly alter the ethnic makeup of Canada.” Although this was dropped, the goal of the current Conservative Party’s immigration policy is to “focus on immigrants who best fit into the ‘Canadian fabric.’” There is clearly a hierarchy of the sorts of people who can stitch themselves into the national fabric and those who can’t.  Would the latter, one wonders, be people of certain ‘races or creeds’ who might “alter the ethnic makeup of Canada,” while the former are people who have ethnic origins in Europe? In some respects the guide is an improvement over its predecessor.

However, several new elements are cause for alarm, especially the declaration that appears under the title, “The Equality of Women and Men”: “In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings,’ female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”

The grammatical structure of the second sentence suggests that there is a larger set of “barbaric cultural practices,” of which the subset of specific offences listed are examples of those ‘tolerated.’ Why was it necessary to include the adjective ‘barbaric?’ Dictionary definitions of ‘barbaric’ include: extremely cruel and unpleasant, primitive or unsophisticated, brutal, savage, vicious, merciless, inhuman, bloodthirsty. What did the government hope to gain by characterizing potential immigrants from countries where some people engage in those practices but most do not, and many strongly oppose them – by tagging their entire cultures as ‘barbaric?’

What exactly is a ‘barbaric cultural practice?’ How widespread need a practice be to qualify as a cultural practice?  Must everyone or nearly everyone do it? Twenty per cent? One per cent? According to Statistics Canada, violence against women, including rape, spousal abuse/domestic violence, spousal homicide, and criminal harassment is “a persistent problem in Canada” that “affects women’s social and economic equality, physical and mental health, well-being, and economic security.” Over 90% of offenders charged with spousal violence from 1997 to 2002 were male, and up to the end of March, 2004 52,127 women and 36,840 children were admitted to shelters for abused women across Canada. Those numbers compare with rates from other countries. That is an awful lot of violence against citizens whom the government of Canada regards as having achieved equality.

I agree that sexual and other forms of violence against women are utterly unacceptable and yes, even barbaric. Has rape been experienced by many Canadian women, long before immigrants from African and Muslim countries were allowed to immigrate? Check √.  Sexual assault? Check √.  Spousal abuse? Check √.  Other forms of gender-based violence? Check √.  So are they “barbaric Canadian cultural practices” then? What makes them specifically cultural practices when we find rape/sexual violence as well as non-sexual violence and many other forms of discrimination against women in almost every ‘culture’ today?  Surely these are patriarchal practices, not cultural ones, though they may be expressed, practiced, and resisted in culturally specific ways.

And what is at stake but a man’s ‘honour’ (or warped sense thereof) when he murders his spouse or girlfriend for suspected or actual infidelity? Isn’t it driven by shame at having been ‘cuckolded’ and having lost exclusive property rights over ‘his’ woman’s body, mind, and sexuality? We call it ‘jealousy’ perhaps, or a crime of passion, or anger management issues: but women still end up dead at the hands of men who refuse to accept their right to make choices over their own bodies and lives.

This is not to minimize the differences between the latter kinds of crimes and ‘honour killing’ per se, which may be committed by the woman’s own family members rather than her husband or boyfriend. But there are crimes driven by patriarchal beliefs and women’s de facto social inequality in Canadian society. These crimes are committed whether they are illegal or not – are they ‘cultural’ then?

Now, I am emphatically not condoning or excusing any abusive, harmful practices against women, or children, or indeed men. But why characterize as ‘cultural practices’ only those few associated with certain areas of the world and in such a way as to tarnish entire cultures?  It is not as if Canadian men of European and all other ethnic origins here are innocent of these and other misogynist practices.

Finally, there is the Guide’s assumption that gender equality is a fait accompli in Canada. Of course, this government characterizes gender equality only in terms of physical violence and criminal law. No mention is made of social and economic inequality, which this government has actually promoted by banning federal pay equity claims and withdrawing funding from a range of equality-focused agencies and programs, including the Court Challenges Program. Canada’s openness and generosity clearly do not extend to social and economic equality for women.

Just as Canadians would be horrified if ‘Canadian culture’ were to be advertised as home to many barbaric practices, including rape, sexual assault, spousal abuse, sex discrimination, and pay inequity, neither should our government substitute ‘culturism’ as the new screen for good old-fashioned racism. Surely poking new citizens in the eye, insulting their entire cultures of origin, and making them feel like unwelcome and inferior outsiders will not cultivate the bonds of allegiance required by a harmonious civic culture of belonging.

Dr. Radha Jhappan is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa.


Interculturalism and pluralismEquity Matters


Thank you Radha for this great article on the controversial and judgemental use of "barbaric" in this new study guide. We do have our share of barbaric practices here in Canada! Beside this, I do find though that this guide goes deeper into Canada's knowledge than the previous guide and thus is pretty good at conveying a broader, more complete picture of Canada. But they should have been more careful with soem choice of words, that's for sure.