Globe and Mail, Toronto.
Friday, February 6, 2004 - Page A21
By JOHN IBBITSON
The Aga Khan Foundation, which wants something like $30-million of federal money to help establish a global centre for pluralism in Ottawa, is very excited by what Paul Martin has been saying this week.
Its excitement is premature: Word is that the Martin government is not close to approving such a project, although there is interest in it.
The foundation is tapping, perhaps overoptimistically, into a quickening current of thought coursing through foreign-policy discussions in the national capital.
That current, in a word, is pluralism. It could become a defining element of a new foreign policy for Canada.
We think of the nation state as a distinct racial or cultural community living in a particular place and represented by a particular government. France is a nation state. So is Japan.
But humanity has always been a messy business, and every decade it gets messier. The European population is in decline, thanks to low birth rates, and so foreign nationals must to be brought in. But Turks are not Germans, and Moroccans are not French -- or so think many Germans and Frenchmen. Which is why racial tensions are rising throughout the Old Continent.
In the Third World, the notion of a nation state never made much sense. Most countries there comprise several, sometimes dozens, of cultural groups, confined within borders arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers, and afflicted with governments unable or unwilling to transcend local animosities.
In this respect, the English settler nations have much to offer the world by way of example. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have incorporated millions of new arrivals -- first from Europe, more recently from other continents.
Even here, there are divisions. The antipodean settler states struggle against their European majorities' reflexive fear of being overwhelmed by Asian immigration. The United States grapples both with the legacy of slavery and waves of illegal and resented, but nonetheless needed, Hispanic immigrants.
Canada has its problems as well. Like all settler states, it has failed to reconcile its imported culture and population with aboriginal society. And there are the inevitable tensions between new arrivals and those who came before.
Nonetheless, governments around the world increasingly look to Canada as the world's most successful pluralist state. We have found a way, despite many strains, of accommodating the founding French and English cultures, and have welcomed succeeding waves of European, Asian, Hispanic and African immigrants.
Unlike the rest of the world, the more polyglot Canada gets, the more politically and culturally stable it becomes. The Vietnamese couldn't care less about the uprisings of 1837, nor should they, nor should anyone. In our growing ahistoricism lies the secret of our tranquility.
So Swedish academics visit Canada to study our programs for assimilating immigrants. Canadians at Davos are grilled by both First and Third-World leaders on how to avoid race riots. Countries emerging from civil war ask for our help in establishing state and local governments.
This is why the Aga Khan Foundation wants to make Canada the home of a $70-million institute that would export Canadian pluralist values and programs through academic and governmental exchanges. The foundation (and I should point out here that Globe publisher Phillip Crawley is a member of the national committee of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada) is prepared to put up $40-million if Ottawa will put up the rest, and if it is prepared to work closely with the foundation in co-ordinating programs.
Paul Martin appears committed to the idea, if not necessarily to the specific proposal. The Throne Speech mooted the idea of a Canadian version of the Peace Corps. The Prime Minister, in his reply to the Throne Speech, observed that, "one of the distinct ways in which Canada can help developing nations is to provide the expertise and experience of Canadians, in justice, in federalism, in pluralistic democracy."
And it is why, during that formidable town-hall performance on CBC on Wednesday, he talked about involving Canada in rebuilding Third World social infrastructure.
A word of caution: It is one thing for people to immigrate here, agreeing to leave ancient animosities behind. It is another thing to get peoples who have been warring side by side for centuries to embrace secular, multicultural, liberal democracy. There is a limit to what Canada can practically offer.
At least it helps to put things in perspective here at home. The Martin government wants to reform parliamentary procedures. Several provincial governments are contemplating reforms to the way legislatures themselves are elected.
While Canada seeks to form a more perfect union, the rest of the world wonders how we pulled it