Ethnic festivals connect with the politics of identity
By Robin Arthur
It’s been twenty eight years since the Nova Scotia multicultural festival was first kick-started in Halifax. It’s a weekend of great food, music and dance from across the world. It’s hosted on the Halifax Waterfront in June when at least 20,000 people converge on the festival grounds over the weekend. But has it changed anything? The answer is yes and no.
Some years ago, a radio station in Halifax was hosting a talk show on terror following the arrest of alleged terrorists in Toronto. A listener had called in to say that he was absolutely sure that all Muslims are in cohort.
Another caller said the terror incident was proof that our immigration program is a failure. So, underneath the skin, there still perhaps is, among a few, a prejudice about people who are different from the mainstream.
But on the other hand, the festival has created trust. The fact that one undertakes the culinary adventure to sample foods from across the world – whether that be Korean, Caribbean or Sri Lankan – says that trust has been built and the gaps in understanding of cultures has been narrowed.
It’s also important to realize that “ethnic identity” is not something the cat brought in. The fact is identity emerges on the streets, in the schools and in workplaces of our cities. Ethnic festivals therefore represent backdrops against which individuals can participate in the politics of identity. Thus an event such as the multicultural festival may be considered symbolic where people of ethnic communities articulate a particular account of themselves in the on-going narrative of Canadian identity.
Of course fears and anxieties from both newcomers and the mainstream are natural. There are fears on the part of the host society, of loss of identity and a familiar way of life. Conversely there are fears and anxieties among newcomers about acceptance, belonging, security and loss of their traditions.
But there is a common good in pluralistic societies. The secret is to create a society in which multiculturalism bonds rather than divides. If multiculturalism divides, then our sense of nationhood is at stake. And with it a lot more.