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Patrick Luciani: Canada’s culture isn’t changing—it’s disappearing

Commentary

The statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald is covered by a red sheet in Kingston, Ontario, June 11, 2021. Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press.

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani examines The Crisis of Culture: Identity Politics and the Empire of Norms (Oxford Press, 2023) by French sociologist Olivier Roy, translated by Cynthia Schoch and Trista Selous, which examines the ways society derives its identity and character from its location, time, and history, and what happens when you sever that connection.

Canada’s memory and culture are disappearing. A case in point is the recent renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square by Toronto’s city council to the African word Sankofa Square. Globe and Mail writer Marcus Gee suggested Lightfoot Square in honour of Gordon Lightfoot, but that would be reverting to our Canadian past. For the sake of multiculturalism and diversity, Toronto’s Mayor Olivia Chow needed to eliminate the name of Henry Dundas and his Scottish heritage from our memory and make a grand gesture to our new tolerance and international character.

On our ten-dollar bill we celebrate an obscure Canadian hero in Viola Desmond, a Black Canadian woman, while we take down statutes of once-admired leaders. We were determined to find our own Rosa Parks to deepen our shame as racists and ask for forgiveness; that’s what our times demanded. And Ms. Desmond was a perfect substitute in our political environment. Ontario’s Liberal Party now wants to change the national anthem from “Our home and native land” to “Our home on native land” to deepen our national guilt further.

Canadians once shared an identity that defined what it meant to be Canadian. If you’re over 50, you might recall your high school years when Charles Dickens and Mordecai Richler were mainstays in literature classes and the name Samuel de Champlain was familiar to every student before leaving elementary school. The sense of being part of a larger community these writers instilled has disappeared as we retreat into our ethnic and cultural silos and, with it, a sense of being Canadian.

These thoughts came to mind while reading the recent book The Crisis of Culture: Identity Politics and the Empire of Norms by French sociologist Olivier Roy, translated by Cynthia Schoch and Trista Selous.

The author argues that we aren’t simply seeing the replacement or change of our culture with another but the slow dismantling of our culture and history.

Past generations are no longer understood in their historical context but must be judged by today’s standards and mores. Bach’s compositions are nothing more than a particular taste, no better or worse than country music or hip-hop. This is what the author means when he writes that local cultures are in crisis caused by the effects of globalization. All high culture has been brought low, and the low has been raised, a phenomenon of cultural flattening.

We in the West now inhabit a peculiar world where we no longer feel at ease in our own land, where standard codes and norms are in flux. How did we reach a point where our shared culture began to shift beneath our feet? Professor Roy offers four explanations: the “individualist and hedonist” 1968 revolution that spread from street rebellions in Paris, the influence of neoliberal financial globalization, the transformative power of the internet, and the dismantling of global borders after the end of the Cold War, a process Roy terms “deterritorialization.”

Perhaps the greatest damage in this new world of deculturation is that history is an obstacle to progressive ideas where Churchill and Voltaire are assessed by the ruthless standards of our own time. As one reviewer of Roy’s book noted, “The young act like the last generation, judges on the secularised version of Judgement Day.”

We no longer have what we thought were culture wars; we now have a “war of values.” We have moved to what he calls “aggressive normativity,” where we are all expected to know how to behave in all social circumstances. We must perpetually be aware of whether we are giving or receiving offence, which jokes to laugh at and which ones to avoid. We are surrounded by a world of microaggressions where we are expected to make fine, granular distinctions about whether we are the solution or the problem.

Once we worried about the clash of civilizations, now we have a clash of cultures within Western countries exaggerated and amplified by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Throw in a highly polarized media that appeals to subcultural groups, and the political divisions in society are further broken down and aggravated. Even English has collapsed as it spreads worldwide into what Roy calls “Globish,” now incomprehensible to English-speaking countries. A preference for personal fulfillment replaces reason and freedom. In this new world, culture doesn’t just change; it disappears.

Roy makes an essential point that governments do not drive new laws in this political environment but reflect changes in civil society. As he states, “the law is asked to enshrine classifications chosen by individuals” where one’s suffering is absolute even if it is in their minds.” And when culture disappears, so do facts and history. On the Right, Trump insists the 2020 election was stolen; on the Left, Whoopie Goldberg says the Holocaust wasn’t about race because it was only a conflict between “two groups of whites.”

Much of The Crisis of Culture was anticipated by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. In it, Bloom blames our universities for failing our students by allowing them to live in a world without a moral basis for their beliefs and in a world of relativist confusion. Even Canada’s Charles Taylor reminds us that genuine authenticity can never be separated from the community and the past.

Just as being a person is impossible without memory, every society derives its identity and character from its location and time. The Crisis of Culture reminds us that culture is history that gives society meaning and character. Lose that, and nothing much remains.

Alicia Planincic: We know the one thing Canada could be doing to select better economic immigrants. So why aren’t we doing it?

Commentary

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marc Miller during the federal cabinet retreat in Montreal, Jan. 22, 2024. Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press.

The federal government is considering active international recruitment as a way to bring immigrants with valuable skills into Canada. This is a good idea. But like a hockey team looking to attract free agents, Canada should first ensure it’s not overlooking prospects already in the system.

The recruitment plan was first suggested last fall in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) proposed plan for the future of immigration. In our view, active recruitment could complement the existing system used to select economic immigrants. It can deepen the applicant pool and target those with the skills Canada most needs.

But at the same time, Canada already has around 200,000 applicants waiting to be processed through its Express Entry system for economic immigrants. Only a fraction is ever invited to apply for permanent residency.

What if we’re missing someone right under our nose?

Who ends up getting an invitation to apply is based primarily on how applicants score on Canada’s Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS)—a points-based approach to economic immigrant selection. The beauty of the CRS is that it allows IRCC to easily, and objectively, select the best of the bunch (i.e., those likely to bring the greatest value to the Canadian economy). This approach, first introduced over 50 years ago, has enough positive features that it’s been emulated globally.

But it could be better.

The main problem is that the points system is supposed to be a predictor of immigrant success, but the factors it considers now account for only 16 percent of the difference in immigrants’ earnings in the short term. Longer term, it’s even less.

That means at least one of two things is happening: the factors that get you points under the current approach are not good predictors of immigrant success; and/or other important factors that do predict success are being overlooked.

Turns out, both are true. And either way, it means Canada is likely overlooking excellent candidates.

Candidates receive CRS points for things like language abilities, number of years of schooling, and whether they have a sibling in Canada. But factors like what their degree was in, or where they got it from, are not reflected. Meanwhile, the biggest limitation of the points system is that it ignores labour market information. It therefore tells us little about how valuable someone’s skills are to the Canadian economy.

To go back to hockey analogies, this way of assigning CRS points is like ranking players based on the number of games they have played in the NHL, whether they have a brother in the league, and whether they speak French—while neglecting things like how many points they tend to get every year. The evaluation would not be meaningless, but it’s easy to see how some of the best players wouldn’t be ranked at the top.

To improve the CRS, Canada needs to better capture the value of the skills a candidate brings. As it turns out, the best-known way to do so is pretty simple: have the points system reflect their current earnings.

Why is that? Wages reflect both the needs of the economy (demand) and the relative availability of labour (supply). Generally speaking, if demand for a certain occupation or skillset is strong, or few are willing or able to do this work, wages will be high.

There are other ways to improve the CRS, too.

One is to remove the variables that don’t influence an individual’s economic potential. These factors not only muddy the ranking of candidates but also can unfairly bias certain people or groups. For instance, individuals can earn points for having a sibling in Canada even though the math shows this has no direct impact on economic success. Family in Canada may be a legitimate reason to consider someone for immigration, but is not an economic one, and it is being used in the economic stream. At the same time, favouring people who already have family in Canada puts individuals from smaller countries, or those with less immigration to Canada, at a disadvantage.

Another way to improve the CRS is to regularly refine it as new and better information—including the type and quality of skill (e.g., field of study, program of education) most highly valued—becomes available and can be incorporated. The CRS cannot reflect the economy of 50 years ago. It has to be the latest and greatest of today.

The recruitment of skilled talent globally is big, exciting, and holds much potential. But Canada should not lose sight of the power of the points system, nor the talent that is in plain sight. Before marketing the country to individuals around the world, Canada should do more to select the best among those who have already put their name in the hat—to support greater prosperity for all.