The Road to Multiculturalism

CBC Radio 2 Song Quest

Among Canada’s most famous treasures is its endless array of ever-astonishing natural landscapes. So, when CBC Radio 2 launched its second annual Great Canadian Song Quest – in which popular musicians from the 13 provinces and territories were commissioned to compose songs commemorating listener-selected roadways in those places – it was a fair bet that the subjects would largely favor broad vistas and open highways. But in Ontario, where the first Song Quest yielded a brilliant homage to Algonquin National Park by Hawksley Workman (“They Left It Wild”), CBC listeners went in another direction. The stretch of road they chose to celebrate was a street in Toronto called Roncesvalles Avenue.

Roncesvalles Avenue is a “Main Street” slice of urban landscape from a time gone by, characterized by small business and handsome single-family dwellings. The neighborhood became home to the wave of Polish immigrants who settled in Toronto after World War II and, though it shows signs of insurgent trendiness, retains its Polish immigrant character. This Song Quest selection eschews the natural beauty of the province in favor of one of Canada’s other great themes: its ongoing experiment in multiculturalism.

Roncesvalles Avenue: Ontario selection in Song Quest 2010

It is telling that Canadian radio listeners would select a slice of pavement iconic of the power and success of immigration at a time when ugly nativism is on such open display in the United States and Europe. (Perhaps the American version must be called faux-nativism, since America is fundamentally a country of short-memoried immigrants.) Indeed, the week before Radio 2 unveiled the new Song Quest compositions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was boldly – and quite accurately – describing her country’s struggle with multiculturalism as ”failed, utterly failed”.

The divergent experiences of Canada and Germany are not an accident. In Canada, the ideals of preserving and enhancing multiculturalism are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. National, provincial, and local governments actively promote integration and inclusiveness, as well as celebrations of cultural diversity. In Germany, immigration was an ad hoc solution to what was originally perceived as a temporary labor shortage, and its migrant workers were ghettoized, marginalized, and largely excluded from the benefits of citizenship and active participation in the body politic.

Of course, full embrace of multiculturalism in Canada remains elusive. Many communities are still far too homogenous for multiculturalism to be much more than an abstraction; and the truer test of tolerance and empathy is found in a more practical reality. Canada also retains the stains of its hideous colonial transgressions and continues to struggle with American-like urges to rewrite its racial narrative in terms of its trans-Atlantic immigration, patronizing the aboriginal experience and disregarding other immigrations before and since. But the struggle is as important as the elusive resolution. It signals that, despite the inherent challenges, the multicultural ideal is worth fighting for.

There is an interesting wrinkle to this already interesting story. When listener-voting for the Song Quest roads was completed, the artists tapped to compose the songs gave brief interviews about how they planned to approach the assignment on the morning and afternoon pop music shows. The Ontario songwriter was Jully Black – best known, perhaps, for her spirited paean to the candidacy of Barrack Obama, “Running”. When interviewed by Radio 2 Morning host Bob Mackowycz, Ms. Black sounded dumbfounded about what she might write about Roncesvalles Avenue. When Mr. Mackowycz suggested to her that he grew up in that neighborhood, and she should feel free to ask him questions about the spirit of the place, she could only muster the astringent query: “How many people like me do you see there?”

The question bristled with enmity. Ms. Black, who is black, was saying: what is a cool, young, black woman supposed to write about a place where aging white people live? Mr. Mackowycz handled her awkwardly chilly question with grace and the interview concluded. But I didn’t hold out much hope for the song she would write.

Jully Black

When the Song Quest songs were finally played, Ms. Black’s song, “At the Roncies”, was a revelation. Cast in her characteristic bouncy pulse and hooks-a-plenty R&B style, the piece is a true love song. She displays a genuine empathy and affection for the people of Roncesvalles Avenue. Her hip musical sensibility, far from decontextualizing the place, serves as a uniquely effective bridge between two of the cultures that comprise Canada’s mash-up. The lyrics, while far from brilliant, are rendered without any trace of irony or ambivalence.

Ms. Black’s initial reticence about the exoticism of her task melted into a wonderful tribute to Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism. Her work is also a living example of the way in which thoughtfulness, compassion, and decency allow us to find the common humanity in each other and gives us an appreciation for the richness that cultural variegation adds to the fabric of our society. But to see, we must first look.

Listen to “At The Roncies” by Jully Black

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