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Food, Religion, and Multiculturalism in Canada

vendredi 7 avril 2017, par Léa Michaud

Foodways are at the core of the interactions between different cultures, even more in Canada that is associated with the notion of multiculturalism. This concept defines Canada’s long-term policy regarding immigration and cultural interactions within the country. Even if Canada’s first religion corresponds to Catholicism, it has no official state religion and welcomes various ethnic and religious communities. The term “reasonable accommodation” came from 2008 Charles Taylor and Gerald Bouchard’s report to the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, created in 2007 in response of public discontent regarding this issue. Indeed, accommodation is an important notion regarding the shaping of Canada and its cultural interplays. Even if Canada seems to make efforts to accommodate with all the cultural differences resulting from a policy of integration, it might appear that it can lack of alternatives regarding the different religious dietary laws. For example, Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork. It is part of their culture and religion so they are engaged to respect it. However there isn’t much choice for people obeying this law in a public space like a cafeteria. It is even related to the idea of categorizing as the person eats differently. This is a problem one can encounter in other countries such as France where the question of providing Muslim children with alternative meals in schools is very controversial. Canada seems stuck between its will to integrate all communities and its will to satisfy all Canadians. It raises the question of religious freedom and Human Rights in a democratic country, as people should be able to practice their religion and foodways as The Canadian Charter Of Rights and Freedoms states it :

“Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms :
(a) freedom of conscience and religion ;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication ;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly ; and
(d) freedom of association.

Thus, this reveals that religious and eating practices are anchored in a power relationship in which ethnoreligious communities face the dominant culture and way of living. Indeed, there is a form of hierarchy of practices and a distinction between what is considered normal and what is defined as abnormal. In this approach, what is different is consequently considered inferior. Katayoun Alidadi underlines it in Reasonable Accommodations for Religion and Belief : Adding Value to Article 9 ECHR and the European Union’s Anti-Discrimination Approach to Employment ? : “Society may very well have a reflex to legislate for the normative majority” (Alidadi ; 2012 ;p.7). An example of this hierarchy lies in the relationship between the state and Indigenous people. In the poem Fog Inside Mama, Louise Halfe evokes Indigenous food and its rejection from the White culture : “I’d eat himoc in the bathroom so the white kids wouldn’t laugh at me”. This sentence expresses a need and a survival instinct consisting in hiding from one’s culture and diminishing it because the others do, and this, even if all people are supposed to be proud of their heritage. Thus, a lack of accommodation contributes to diminishing the other cultures, as it doesn’t incorporate them into the definition of Canada that is actually shaped by multiculturalism.

It is important to accommodate with foodways because they represent a way of expressing diversity and identity. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement in America, many Afro-Americans converted to Islam as a way of expressing their own identity and of resisting against the White culture that persecuted them. This massive conversion was associated with the Soul Food movement claiming and celebrating identity and freedom. Food is also at the heart of Indigenous communities as it is shown in The Gift of Diabetes by John Paskievich John and Brion O.Whitford, in which food is a means to heal and reconciliate. Indeed, food contributes to reshaping the power relationship between Indigenous people and Canada. So the cultural interactions are anchored in Canada’s historical and social background.

However, accommodation is challenged by globalization and mainstream culture. Mainstream can appear as hostile to ethnoreligious practices as it aims to homogenize the different cultures in order to make the global market easier to deal with. However, globalization calls at the same time for incorporating ethnoreligious into the market as it represents new buyers. Some efforts to accommodate are made but they are influenced by a desire to make more and more profits. So we can wonder if it leads to a loss of cultural meaning and specificity. Alidadi, in Reasonable Accommodations for Religion and Belief : Adding Value to Article 9 ECHR and the European Union’s Anti-Discrimination Approach to Employment ?, argues that homogenization doesn’t have the power of completely erasing cultural differences : “A culturally homogeneous society whose members share and mechanically follow an identical body of beliefs and practices is today no more than anthropological fiction”. Indeed, he implies that a sort of balance exists between specificity and mainstream.

Certainly, the Canadian state has to do with accommodation, especially through laws. Some of them aim to include, such as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act that establishes multiculturalism as part of Canada’s definition. They can also be a source of exclusion as it is the case with the policy announced on December 2011 that stated wearing a niquab while swearing the oath of citizenship prohibited. But as a multicultural country, it is difficult to please every ethnoreligious group that defends its own identity within the Canadian frame. Maybe including these groups to the decision-making process would help to satisfy the persons concerned and to legitimate the laws implemented. It is also important to rethink the place of ethnoreligious groups in Canada. Rather than only associating an ethnoreligious group with an “imagined community”, it would be more interesting to think of diversity as a tool that contributes to shaping and reshaping Canada by making it evolve through its various interactions : “Multiculturalism now encompasses a process that aims at modifying Canadian laws, institutions, thinking and other aspects of mainstream society to make them more accommodating of cultural and religious differences” (The Dilemma of “Reasonable Accommodation” in Canada’s Multiculturalism : State’s Decision to Ban the Niquab at Citizenship Oath Ceremony ; Shola Agboola ; p.9).

Thus, ethnoreligious communities are to be thought in a larger framework than the one they are associated with and corresponding to the country they left, in order to take the right decisions and make the Canadian system evolve the best way possible in respect of every culture : “Immigrant diets and foodways need to be contextualized within a global framework where food choices are no longer limited to the social and cultural contexts of the country of immigration, or country of origin” (Food, Foodways and Immigrant Experience ; Mustafa Koc and Jennifer Welsh ; 2002 ;p.4). However, I think that Canada’s concern for accommodation reveals a will to make people feel equal and accepted with all their differences, which we don’t encounter in every country. It seems that Canada tries to deal with its historical and multicultural background even if there is still a lot to do, especially regarding Native cultures.

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