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Canada pursues landmark legislation to preserve ethnic diversity

The Canadian Parliament will today consider a world first - a Multiculturalism Act. The legislation sets out principles for programs - such as courses in French, English, and citizenship - to help new Canadians integrate into society. It authorizes programs encouraging Canada's multitudinous ethnic groups to maintain their cultural diversity and languages. And it spells out the right of all Canadians to equal treatment by government and the community.

Americans like to talk about their ``melting pot'' for immigrants. Canadians speak of their ``mosaic'' or ``beef stew,'' where new Canadians are encouraged to retain their cultural identity.

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David Crombie, the minister in charge of ``multiculturalism,'' says the distinction between the two systems for integrating new arrivals into society is ``vastly overdrawn.''

In the US, despite the view that immigrants rapidly become ``regular Americans'' who may pop chewing gum, jog in the morning, and watch Bill Cosby at night, ethnic groups retain some aspects of their roots for generations. There is Pittsburgh's Polish community, New York's Italian district, and the Irish of South Boston.

``The theory may be melting pot, but there are a lot of chunks not melted down,'' Mr. Crombie noted in an interview. In Canada, the theory may be beef stew. ``But there is a lot of assimilation that has occurred,'' he says. ``At the street level, there is a big difference between the theory and the reality.''

Toronto has its Little Italy, Vancouver its Chinatown, and Winnipeg its Vietnamese community. Canada, which once was dominated by people who originated in either France or the British isles, now has around one third of its population from dozens of nations and cultures around the world.

One result has been the necessity for politicians to appeal to the new or old Canadians that hail from the Philippines, the Ukraine, Iceland, Cambodia, Jamaica, Nigeria, Lebanon, and so on.

A section in Canada's 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms rules out discrimination ``based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.'' Another section says the charter shall be interpreted ``in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.''

Three days before Parliament was dissolved in 1984 before the last federal election, the then Liberal government introduced a multicultural act.

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The present Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney expects to pass its multicultural bill before calling an election, possibly next summer or fall.

Crombie concedes that the legislation does not add much to existing multicultural programs. The government spends some $17 million (Canadian; US$13.2 million) per year to encourage various ethnic groups to retain their cultures and languages through a grant program. But the bill does not set up a department or a commissioner of multiculturalism as advocated by opposition party critics.

A department, Crombie holds, would ``ghetto-ize the ethnics.'' Multiculturalism is for everybody, he says, since Scottish-Canadians, Indians, or French-Canadians can be just as proud of their roots as those from overseas.

On the commissioner idea, he says, ``Multiculturalism speaks the language of choice and opportunity. It is not ... rules which you have to follow.''

What the legislation does do, says Crombie, is give some meaning to the vague wording of the Charter of Rights.

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