Over the past few decades, the idea of Canada as a multicultural national has been celebrated in popular and official culture alike. The introduction of an official multiculturalism policy in 1971, elaborated in the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, with funding support to promote the culture and history of ethnic communities in Canada, gave substance to the idea of Canada as an inclusive nation. The promotion of multiculturalism in curriculum materials and its incorporation into the language of Canadian Citizenship tests have further advanced the notion that Canada is a place where diversity is cherished and celebrated. It is a message conveyed to those born in Canada, as well as to those newly arrived.
Although it is celebrated, multiculturalism in Canada is deeply contested in terms of its history, its scope and application, as well as the lived experience of diversity. There exists a real tension between officials discourses of multiculturalism, and the manner in which they are meant to foster diversity and inclusion, and the way in which multiculturalism has been experienced in real terms. As Neil Bissoondath famously suggested in Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2004), “government-sanctioned” multiculturalism has been strong on simplicity and less responsive to complexities, and in some cases to seemingly irreconcilable differences as evidenced by efforts to ban the wearing of niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. To what degree was, and is, multiculturalism in Canada an imposed idea? To what extent does it provoke antagonisms? To what extent does it suppress dissent and difference in the interest of suggesting a happy whole?
These questions offer a different starting point for engaging with the history of race, culture and difference in Canada. Rather than presuming a utopian ideal where hate speech represents an extreme reaction and opposition to the ideals advanced by the language and framework of multiculturalism, this project understands that the very roots and origins of the discourse of multiculturalism in Canada are fragile and contested. Instead of a binary therefore, this project understands the discourse on multiculturalism as a spectrum where hate speech resides at one extreme. This framework enables the project to think about the foment of hate speech as part of an iterative process and one that cannot be readily dismissed. In the fomenting of hate speech, particularly when historic phenomenon are repurposed, hate speech proponents sometimes root their views in contested realities that shaped the original discourses and debates on race, desirability, and inclusion. In order to understand the pervasiveness of hate speech therefore, the debates at the core of multiculturalism policies and discourses must also be understood.
Similarly, this project understands that the history of human rights in Canada is not one of solid foundations but one where the notion of rights, and particularly, their universal application was similarly built on unstable terrain. Often, notions of rights emerged from the violation of rights as evidenced by the residential school system in Canada, the oppression of labour protests during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War and the persecution of gays and lesbians during the cold war, to name a few. Although progress in the protection of rights in Canada is now celebrated, with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms regularly referenced as a source of pride, it is important to consider how progress in the domain of human rights rested on original violations of rights, liberties and freedoms. Here too, attending to fragilities in the human rights framework in Canada, enables us to consider the extent to which rights discourses around hate speech in Canada are simultaneously aspirational and redolent of original debates around the scope and application of rights issues, including free speech and freedom of expression.