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Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

They're letting in too many Eytalians." It was the 1957 election in downtown Toronto, my very first, and the words were spoken by a perfectly nice woman who answered the doorbell. "They" were the Liberal Party of Canada.

The good old days. Jews faced quotas at universities. Protestant Orangemen and Irish Catholics duked it out on the streets. My inner-city high school had precisely one black student.

Aboriginals aside, as they mostly were, Canada has been built on successive waves of immigrants. Until recently, and somewhat miraculously, all have been integrated into something indefinable called the Canadian way, but not without the initial hostility of each new immigrant group to its less worthy successors. But there always seemed limits to this process. That our Governor-General would be a black woman, or that non-white people would come to be numerically dominant in our main cities, was literally unthinkable.

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Yet such colour myopia never made sense. No deity decreed Canada to be a white person's country. It was a fluke of history that we were explored and settled by the French and the British in their imperial phases, and that subsequent immigration flowed mainly from poorer white countries. For a full century after Confederation white was right, and racist discrimination against all visible minorities who landed in Canada was a dominant value, repudiated only by a minority.

Now, however, the empires' victims have struck back. Former colonies form the largest portion of the visible majorities who will soon populate Vancouver and Toronto and who will have a significant presence in Montreal, Edmonton and elsewhere. Me, I say hooray for the new Canada! Bring it on! Of course this phenomenon hasn't occurred without friction and it goes without saying that the transition will continue to be less than smooth. Simple bigotry by whites against the relative newcomers (and by many of them against each other) is a given, though we should give ourselves two cheers that such racism seems far less intense than might have predicted not so many years ago.

Frankly, I am repelled by the sight of a nun in full costume, an ultra-orthodox Jew in his bizarre uniform, or a Muslim woman imprisoned (in my judgment) in her niqab or burqa. But I also understand that none of them are any of my business, so long as they are not hurting others.

But with or without deliberate discrimination, structural realities assure that people of colour will suffer more unemployment than older Canadians, be paid less, drop out of school at greater rates, accept jobs below their credentials, and, perhaps above all, be concentrated in menial, dirty, low-wage, arduous jobs that other Canadians will no longer be caught dead doing. It's hardly too much to say that without immigrants of colour, hardly any country in the rich world could function properly. The Harper government is assiduously trying to woo these groups based on shared social conservatism while ignoring their economic grievances.

But as has been true from the time the very first native North American met the first foreigner, the latter has brought with them attributes, often caricatured, that have not been appreciated by those preceding them. The Irish, the Polish, the Italian, the Jew, even the French-Canadian - each had brought traditions and habits that were deemed insuperable obstacles to Canadianization - whatever that's ever meant. Today, all are integral to the Canadian tapestry. Sikhs, Chinese and South Asians seem to be following suit.

But this traditional pattern may finally be shattered. A crisis could be looming with immigrants who are Muslim. The relation between Muslims and the majority population is one of the great issues perplexing most European countries, bringing out the worst in a continent that has known more than its share of barbarism and savagery in the name of ethnic, racial, religious and cultural differences. And now the same issue roils Quebec, perhaps as a prelude to what the rest of Canada will soon confront.

There is no simple formula by which progressives should approach the issues involved, although some matters are easier than others. We can be disgusted with the open racism shown by so many opportunistic politicians across Europe, just as we can condemn ignorant prejudices demonstrated by Canadians. It is really beyond belief that the Harper government has appointed as head of the human-rights agency Rights & Democracy, which they've largely wrecked, a man who has publicly called Muslim immigration a threat to Quebec's security and declared that Muslim ghettoes in Montreal could become breeding grounds for terrorists.

But what do we progressives make of the heated dispute over the right of women to wear clothes that hide everything but their eyes. Would I be prepared to teach someone dressed like that in my class? Do we believe the public service should accommodate any woman who demanded she be served only by another woman? It doesn't matter that only a small number of women make these demands. The issue is the nature of Canada, its values, its tolerance levels. What irreducible values do Canadians share in common? These seem to me quite difficult questions. They really are something new for many of us to come to grips with.

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After all, they pit certain of our own values against each other (never mind against the values of the new head of Rights & Democracy and the government he represents).

I confess that I fear women-hating extremists of every sort, not least those that play prominent roles in all the world's religions (including the Harper government in its increasing genuflection to ultra-conservative Christianity). Frankly, I am repelled by the sight of a nun in full costume, an ultra-orthodox Jew in his bizarre uniform, or a Muslim woman imprisoned (in my judgment) in her niqab or burqa. But I also understand that none of them are any of my business, so long as they are not hurting others - the ultimate liberal test. When religious radicals do harm, as they so frequently and grievously do, they must be opposed with all the strength democracy allows. But many do no harm except to our different sensibilities. They just want to live their chosen life, however much others dislike it. Not only can't their rights be trampled on. Progressives must fight, as always, even to uphold rights we find distasteful.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa

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