As bombs dropped in Iraq last Friday as part of the U.S. “shock and awe” campaign, U of T vice-president of human resources Angela Hildyard said she hoped “the promotion of equity and diversity will help bring peace to our society.”

Hildyard was opening a three-day conference hosted by U of T called “Excellence through Equity: Confronting the Tensions in Universities.” The opening of the conference coincided with the International Day Against Racism.

The keynote speaker last Friday was U of T professor George Elliott Clarke, an acclaimed author and poet. Clarke dedicated his speech, entitled “In Defense of Multiculturalism,” to former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He highlighted multiculturalism policy introduced by Trudeau’s Liberal government as a “radical socially transforming act.”

Clarke gave some history on the development of multicultural policy in Canada and responded to its detractors. Multicultural policy reflects the idea that “cultural pluralism is the very essence of Canadian identity,” said Clarke.

“Multicultural is merely an extension of the principles [of the British North American Act],” explained Clarke. “This country was erected on the idea of parity between different groups, even if that idea was never upheld—and of course it was not upheld—but the idea is still there in the original constitution of this country,” he said.

The adoption of a multiculturalism policy “extended to non-Anglo and non-Franco citizens official notice of their existence as minority groups within the state.”

With multiculturalism, added Clarke, “the government finally said that it belonged to all Canadians of whatever ethnic or cultural backgrounds they may have.”

Clarke rejected some assertions that multiculturalism leads to a loss of “Canadian values” or a nation of “hyphenated Canadians.” The hyphen should be seen as “a bridge, not as a minus sign,” argued Clarke.

“Every immigrant is automatically a composite, a hybrid, a mixture of here and there, then and now, the bilingual, and the bicultural,” he said.

Clarke also defended employment equity programs. “Multiculturalism is meaningless without equity and equity is meaningless without multiculturalism,” he said. Clarke expressed his support for the adoption of affirmative action policies in the university system. “This society always did practice affirmative action, but only for certain groups…[groups of] one gender and one race,” he said. Clarke also spoke of personal experiences with racial profiling and other forms of racism. He noted a tendency in Canada to resist talking about racism, dismissing the topic by claiming it’s primarily a U.S. issue.

Clarke concluded passionately, “The noun and adjective ‘Canadian’ must be transformed in our daily lives so that it comes to mean a rainbow showering gold upon us all from sea to sea to sea. Multiculturalism must become synonymous with justice. Shall we overcome?”

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