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Ethnicity and Democratic Governance

Kymlicka receives $250,000 Ontario Premier’s Discovery Award for achievement in social sciences

Team member Will Kymlicka describes how the $250,000 Ontario Premier’s Discovery Award for achievement in social sciences will advance his research
(September 2009) Full interview with Will Kymlicka

Q: The Premier’s Discovery Award announcement highlights your expertise in multiculturalism and minority rights in democratic societies and praises your research on the idea of `liberal multiculturalism’. How will the award enhance your capacity to do research or to influence the public debate in this field? What aspects of the debate regarding liberal multiculturalism do you most want to explore?

Since the 1960s, Western democracies have embarked on a series of `multicultural experiments’ in accommodating ethnocultural diversity, whether in relation to immigrants, indigenous peoples or regional national minorities. These experiments have been controversial and widely discussed, but we still lack some crucial information about how they relate to the underlying principles of a liberal-democratic society — e.g., principles of individual freedom, equality of opportunity, effective democratic participation, and so on. In my earlier work, I have tried to explore this issue at a conceptual level. I’ve tried to show how governments and courts have conceptualized multiculturalism policies in liberal terms, with the hope and expectation that these policies will be consistent with, and indeed advance, core liberal-democratic values of freedom and equality. But we know far less about how multiculturalism is working in practice. We don’t have reliable or systematic evidence about which forms of multiculturalism are working as intended, and which are having perverse or unintended effects. Indeed, we don’t even have good international data about which countries have adopted which types of multiculturalism policies. With the help of this award, I’m hoping to develop a more rigorous and systematic database that can be used by scholars and policy-makers around the world to test the effects of these different experiments in multiculturalism.

Q: Your early work in the late 1980's was often based on the Canadian experience of liberal democracy and minority rights. More recently, you have focused on debates about multiculturalism within international bodies and institutions. How did your work evolve in this more international direction?

Canada is widely seen around the world as a leader in multicultural experiments – we were the first country to adopt an official multiculturalism policy, and our approach to bilingualism and to Aboriginal rights has also been innovative. So international organizations have been very curious to learn more about how these experiments are working. For many years I have been invited by these organizations to discuss the Canadian experience, and to draw out its potential lessons for other countries. The more I engaged in these discussions, the more I realized the enormous challenge these organizations face in trying to develop generalized principles for the accommodation of ethnic diversity. International organizations want to develop certain international standards or norms for the treatment of minorities, but this is very difficult to do, given the enormous variety in the types of minorities around the world, and in the political, economic and historic circumstances of different states. My sense is that the UN and other international organizations have been stumbling around in this field, without a clear overall strategy, and I’ve been interested in studying the difficulties they’ve faced, and in identifying what a more coherent international approach might look like.

Q: You note that Canada has been seen as a relatively successful model. But a number of recent events - such as the racism that followed the Tamil protests in Toronto, or new studies of discrimination towards religious minorities, racial minorities and people with 'foreign names' - have put this into doubt. Do we remain a successful model and what is the future for minorities and minority rights/accommodation/integration in Canada?

I recently wrote a report for the federal government that attempted to review the state of the debate on multiculturalism in Canada, and what was most interesting to me was the strangely polarized nature of the debate. On the one hand, as you indicated, we have disturbing evidence that the `Canadian model’ is under enormous strain, and people speculate that, we too, may soon face the sort of anti-immigrant backlash that many European countries have exhibited. On the other hand, other studies show that, on many measures, the Canadian approach consistently outperforms other countries: attitudes towards immigrants are more positive in Canada than in any other Western democracy; immigrants are more likely to participate politically in Canada than in other countries; the children of immigrants have better educational outcomes in Canada than in any other Western democracy; visible minorities face a smaller `ethnic penalty’ in the labour market in Canada than in other countries; and so on. Indeed, as more international comparative studies are being conducted, Canada’s relative advantage in this field is actually becoming clearer. So my sense is that while we have many important challenges in Canada, we have no grounds for thinking that we would do better by rejecting multiculturalism. Rather, I would say that our nearly 40-year experience with multiculturalism has given Canada some unique advantages and resources, and we need to find new ways to make use of those strengths to deal with our many unresolved issues of racism, intolerance and discrimination.

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