Since he immigrated to Canada almost three decades ago, Neil Bissoondath has consistently refused the role of the ethnic, and sought to avoid the burden of hyphenation - a burden that would label him as an East Indian-Trinidadian-Canadian living in Quebec. Bissoondath argues that the policy of multiculturalism, with its emphasis on the former or ancestral homeland and its insistence that There is more important than Here, discourages the full loyalty of Canada's citizens.
Through the 1971 Multiculturalism Act, Canada has sought to order its population into a cultural mosaic of diversity and tolerance. Seeking to preserve the heritage of Canada's many peoples, the policy nevertheless creates unease on many levels, transforming people into political tools and turning historical distinctions into stereotyped commodities. It encourages exoticism, highlighting the differences that divide Canadians rather than the similarities that unite them.
Selling Illusions is Neil Bissoondath's personal exploration of a politically motivated public policy with profound private ramifications - a policy flawed from its inception but nonetheless implemented with unmatched zeal.
I never anticipated the roller-coaster ride, never anticipated its length or its intensity. I didn't expect the depth of passion I would encounter, although I hoped that the book would touch some nerves. I had expected debate and a certain measure of vilification but not denunciation by a minister of the Crown and defence in newspaper editorials.
The publication of Selling Illusions in the fall of 1994 threw me into an experience that was dispiriting and exhilarating in equal measure, that seemed at times schizophrenic. If the adjective seems overheated, consider that on October 8, The Globe and Mail ran a long, prominent, totally negative review, the kind of review that left the writer no room for solace. One week later, on October 15, the book made its debut on the same newspaper's bestseller list at number one. This was my first indication that while much of the intelligentsia, particularly on the political left, would view the book with distaste, many Canadians in the public at large would react more favourably—and these were the people I wanted to reach: not those who made it their business to ponder and defend the ideology of multiculturalism but those who lived it day by day, perhaps only vaguely aware that they and their country were being shaped in a variety of ways, some obvious, some less so, by a policy that had been handed to them as a gift so precious that it was unseemly to examine it too closely for fear of seeming ungrateful or unduly critical.
In the winter of 1994–95, I was gone a great deal from home, on the promotion circuit across the country, seeing so little of the cities I was in that I remember nothing of, say, Saint John, New Brunswick, but can recall the waiting area of the CBC radio station there. I never knew what awaited me as I arrived in a new city. There were usually rounds of media interviews and talks at universities and community colleges, but occasionally there was a surprise. In Edmonton, for instance, I was ushered at the end of an exhausting day of interviews into an evening debate before the city's Multicultural Society. My opponent, a local writer who had been born, like me, in Trinidad, was the appointed hero of the day. I wasn't long in realizing that I was the devil debating an apostle on the merits of God before an assemblage of angels. Guess who "won" the debate. But for every such experience there were many others that proved more gratifying. In another city, after a phone-in show on local television, a cameraman asked to shake my hand. A black man in his thirties, he said that he was from South Africa, had fled apartheid and wanted me to know that he shared my views on Canadian multiculturalism. A similar encounter with a Somali taxi driver took place in Vancouver.
As I addressed audiences in one packed hall after another, I was struck by the number of "ethnic" faces in the audiences, and further struck by the lack of opposition. These were, in great part, the people who were asking me to sign copies of the book, often several copies that they wanted to give as gifts. The experiences reassured me. I relaxed enough that when one opponent called me a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) on a live, national television show, I found myself laughing. His aspersion so neatly proved my point about multiculturalism being a cult whose defenders responded to criticism by vilifying the critic.
Through the long weeks of travel and talk and exchanges both public and private, I came to understand that if Selling Illusions struck some critics as having little new to say, that was because I had simply put on paper what many peopleperhaps, if the polls are accurate, the majorityhad long been thinking but,intimidated by the atmosphere of reverence that surrounded the policy, had kept mostly to themselves. Many people read the book and found themselves staring into a mirror of their own feelings.
A month after the publication of the book, Ashok Chandwani wrote in the Montreal Gazette about a play called Divided We Stand, which explores the stories of young second-generation immigrants searching for an identity. "Bissoondath's concerns are exactly the ones the young second-generation immigrants tackle," he wrote, while inexplicably chiding me for my book's lack of humour. "These characters from backgrounds as diverse as his come out just as fiercely against hyphenated labelling and their parents' clinging to a past, culture and country totally unfamiliar to their children. Like Bissoondath, the characters want to be described and accepted only as Canadians."
Seven years after the book first appeared, the renowned travel writer Pico Iyer briefly discussed Selling Illusions in a lecture delivered at Hart House, University of Toronto. In his talk, he mentioned that the book's discussion of the promotion of tolerance over real acceptance "echoed much of what I'd heard in Canada from those referred to, in one of the less happy local terms, as 'visible minorities.'"
Selling Illusions did no more than point out what all could see but few dared declare: the multicultural emperor had no clothes.
The multicultural emperor, however, had bite—or at least a loud growl. Then Minister of State for Multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone, came to the defence of her department by declaring in a speech to the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, "I don't enjoy Neil Bissoondath. I don't enjoy his lack of understanding of choice." I had failed to understand, she said, that all Canadians had the freedom to choose what they wanted to be and what they wanted to do—which only proved that she had utterly failed to understand the book, which was precisely a plea for the government to stop limiting those most personal of choices through its interpretation and promotion of multiculturalism. Lumping me with critics from the Reform Party, she stated her belief that such attacks on multiculturalism were threatening the very fabric of Canadian society. In other words, she echoed in more elegant form the advice I'd once received from two of her minions at a conference in Ottawa—that I shut up. That was as close as she got to engaging the substance of the arguments.
Undeterred by stinging media reaction to her speech, Ms. Finestone, whose penetrating intellect today enlivens the Senate of Canada as much as that august body can be enlivened, then told Susan Ormiston, an interviewer for CTV's W5, that "There isn't any one Canadian identity. Canada has no national culture." Failing to see that in voicing multiculturalism's unstated mantra she had just made a stunning claim, Ms. Finestone reacted to Ms. Ormiston's expression of surprise with a dismissive, "Well, where's your national culture?" In the coming days, letters to the newspapers provided her with the answers her bureaucrats could apparently not supply.
Soon other defenders of multiculturalism weighed in. In Canadian Forum magazine Andrew Cardozo performed what H.J. Kirchhoff would describe in The Globe and Mail as a "hatchet job masquerading as an interview...Cardozo quotes Bissoondath, but entirely ignores what the writer says." In the Montreal Gazette, columnist William Johnson awarded Selling Illusions his "Prize for Worst Book in 1994," which came as a relief to me. Had Johnson—a man of immense knowledge and meagre understanding who has built a wind-bagged career largely defending Pierre Trudeau's legacy—approved of the book, it would have been a sure sign of failure.
At the end of 1994, This Magazine published one of the most interesting responses by the dub-poet Clifton Joseph, who was frank about the goals, as he saw them, of ethnic minorities. There was a need, he argued, to redefine the issues that had driven the country for so long; the entire French-English-western dissatisfactionnational unity debate sprang from and focused on, in his view, a "legendary Eurocentric and ultimately soft-sell white supremacist framework." Ethnic minorities' long-term interest lay in taking hold of this agenda—set so long ago by another, essentially white-European Canadaand remaking it so that it becomes about them and their issues. It was a call for the founding peoples of Canada to pocket their old quarrels and stand aside. Joseph's view is excessive, provocative and passionate, his language fairly rattling with clichéd political jargon. At the same time, it is, in the atmosphere created by official multiculturalism, logical, clever and politically astute. Lurking in the background is a belief born of multicultural ideology. As journalist Richard Gwyn has observed: "Between Joseph's provocative exaggerations and the declaration by Multicultural Minister Sheila Finestone that 'Canada has no national culture,' there is remarkably little difference." Remarkable, too, the bedfellows! In the end, what was most striking about the experience was the intransigence of the powers-that-be and their apologists—their refusal to see that what I was talking about was less the specifics of what they do than the psychology, the spirit, they perhaps unwittingly disseminate. Convinced of their own rectitude, they revealed a stern unwillingness to examine their ideas, their programs and their effects. There was a sense of drawbridges being winched up and archers unleashing the occasional misconceived volley.
Equally as striking was the desire of the powerless-that-be to engage the discussion. None of the countless people I met ever wholly agreed with my observations, but very few ever rejected them all out of hand. There were too many moments of recognition. There was an unmistakeable desire to explore these avenues more fully, in personal terms; to see more clearly who they were, where they were and what it all meant for themselves, their children and for the country that was theirs.