Unlikely Utopia, Michael Adams

Viking Canada, 2007, 180 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06368-0

Despite occasional setbacks, the twenty-first century has been a remarkably good time to be Canadian. Steadfastly progressive politics despite occasional conservative leadership, strong economic indicators and amazing social cohesion: for a country that many counted for dead in the early 1990s, Canada has bounced back and a new feeling of smug nationalism has swept the land. One of the cheerleaders of this new conception of Canada is pollster Michael Adams, whose perspective on the opinions of the land make him a privileged commentator on current trends. His 2003 dissection of Canada/USA differences, Fire and Ice, remains one of the most illuminating essay on the social differences between both countries.

After 2005’s American Backlash, which tried to apply many of the same polling results to analyze the American character, his newest pop-sociology book is Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism. As the unsubtle subtitle indicates, this is “a good-news story about Canadian multiculturalism”. Contradicting many, Adams attempts to prove that the Canadian experience in dealing with immigration is producing exceptional results.

This is a faintly daring thesis for a number of reasons. Over the past few years, national evening news have relayed a stream of mini-crises and events almost designed to make us feel as if the Grand Canadian Experiment with multiculturalism was reaching saturation point: Controversies over religious (ie: “non-Christian”) symbols in schools, the Herouxville debacle (in which a tiny Quebec town passed an explicitly racist code of conduct), racially-tinged crime reports in Toronto, public hearings on cultural accommodation in Quebec, and so on. Not knowing any better, one would think that there was nothing to do but turn back the clock, barricade the borders and go ask the Queen for advice.

Then there’s the typically Canadian gift for self-doubt. Adams scores the book’s first rhetorical victory early on when he points out that Canadian have a quasi-pathological need to put themselves down. Few Canadians will agree that their national social model is inherently superior: for every success, Canadians will feel obligated to ward off accusations of smugness by pointing our the country’s failing in dealing with first nations, with immigrant’s educational equivalents, with the country’s history of racism, with systemic discrimination. “Canadians seem to expect, if not downright savour, bad news.” [P.xviii]

Adams sees things differently. In the first of the book’s four chapters, he looks at recent immigrant survey results and finds more cause for celebration than concern: 85% of respondents would still come back to Canada if they had to do it again, 75% of all Canadians think immigration had a positive effect on the country (a result far above other countries) and 85% think that multiculturalism is important to our national identity. He finds evidence that the average Canadians think the system is in trouble for other people, but not for them.

In the second chapter, he looks at numbers from Statistics Canada to find out that so-called “ethnic enclaves” in Canada are hardly homogeneous, but reflect the increasing diversity of Canadian cities. Further finding show that immigrants consistently rank the weather as what they like least about Canada, that Canada is doing better than other western countries in integrating foreign-born residents in politics, and that intermarriages between ethnic groups are skyrocketing, having “increased by 35 percent between 1991 and 2001.” [P.82] “If Canada is becoming a hopelessly segregated society, rising rates of intermarriage are a strange symptom of the alleged disease”.[P.85]

Chapter Three focuses on Muslims in Canada by presenting the results of a special survey conducted in late 2006. Again, Adams finds few causes for concern: Large majorities of respondents are proud to be Canadian (94%), think that Muslims are better treated in Canada than in other Western countries (77%) and believe that most Muslim want to adopt Canadian customs (58%). In fact, Adams finds little cause to think that the Muslim experience in Canada is any different from any other group of immigrants.

Finally, Adams, looks at Quebec’s own complex feelings about multiculturalism, concluding (not unreasonably) that the frenzy of controversy about “reasonable accommodations” is more a reflexion of Quebec’s own insecurities as they see their culture as being already threatened by the English-speaking masses outside the province’s border. To that, one should add Quebec’s ringing rejection of religion as a dominant cultural force during the past few decades, giving rise to self-consciously secular society that also seems threatened by both the immigrant arrivals and the conservative forces outside Quebec.

But beyond the data, there’s a lot to like in the way that Unlikely Utopia is written. Pop-sociology has rarely been so much fun to read, and considerable praise should be heaped on Adams’ shoulders as he manages to bring all the numbers together in a coherent thesis. Unlikely pop references abound, as do common sense put-downs and snarky attacks against paranoid right-wing pundits.

Unlikely Utopia is amusing, clear and rhetorically deft. Adams must have a fantastic team of beta readers, because time and time again, the book manages to spot and handles objections even as they come up in the readers’ mind. For instance, Adams answers the questions raised by the Paris riots by pointing out at the lack of ghettos in Canadian cities, and deals with the obvious question of “home-grown terrorism” by pointing out that such things are always statistical outliers that don’t reflect majority opinion or social trends. He adds “If -horribly- a terrorist attack does occur on Canadian soil, there is no need to throw out this book; nothing in it will necessarily have been proven false. But if one day you wake up and read on the front page of the newspaper that tens of thousands of cars have been burned by angry, excluded youth in the suburbs of a Canadian city where unemployment among ethnic minorities approaches 40 percent, by all mean throw the book out. I’ll have already used mine as kindling.” [P.145]

The other bit of Unlikely Utopia that is worth pondering is the supposition that “diversity seems to work better the more there is of it. As American society has shown us, a society with only two major racial groups – one affluent, the other persistently much less so – is anything but easy to manage. In Canadian society, although we have a long way to do, the sheer scale of our diversity may come to offset issues of prejudice and discrimination – or as one commentator put it, we may one day simply have too many races for racism to survive.” [P.60]

Some will find this ridiculously optimistic, but I think that Adams is on to something here, and that his entire book presents are far more nuanced portrait of the situation than the evening news choose to highlight. The unseen majority of the immigrant experience in Canada is uneventful in the way most lives are lived in Canada. As a diversity-loving multicultural liberal, I happen to be in
Adams’ target audience for Unlikely Utopia, but the numbers seem to be on our side for once.

But for all of my admiration for Adams’ work here, I’m stopping short of recommending the book as a purchase. Like American Backlash, the amount of material in the book’s slim 180 pages hardly warrants the high price tag. Wait for the paperback or put yourself on the waiting list at the nearest library. It’s an entertaining book with a positive message and a fantastic sense of the New Canada growing under all the chaff thrown up in the media, but it’s hardly worth $34.00. You can get a far cheaper illustration of the triumph of Canadian multiculturalism by looking over the food court at the nearest mall.

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