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Interculturalism and Multiculturalism: What's the difference?

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Many countries are multicultural. Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, the UK, the US, Brazil, France, to name several. However, in Canada, multiculturalism has been a defining national characteristic since the 1970s, when it was invented. I say invented because Canada is, officially, the first multicultural country. Interestingly, it was born out of the strife and struggle that followed the aftermath of the country becoming official bilingual (English and French) a decade earlier, and the advocacy of the plethora of 'ethnocultural' groups, from Italians and Ukrainians, Chinese and Japanese, 'West Indians' and 'East Indians' as they/we were called then, to be recognized and better included in the shifting Canadian mosaic.

This idea of mosaic, of the multiple cultures in a nation, is entrenched and so well-elaborated in Canada. Indeed, growing up in Toronto, which wears its multiculturalism on its sleeve, I/we take this multiculturalism for granted.

Yet, as I get older, I ask myself, how much do I really know or engage with the worldview of others and their cultural moorings in my midst? Sure, like many of us who live in globalized environments, I eat and drink multiculturally, I know a smattering of various languages (French fairly well, Spanish, less so, and my first-grader Marathi, my mother tongue and I am learning others). I live and work with peoples from countless cultural backgrounds. I teach and design courses in intercultural communication and competence. But, how much of my own self-understanding and cultural worldview has shifted and transformed because of that exploration?

The unspeakably horrific and tragic events in Canada in the last weeks, from the shocking uncovering of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian School to the murder of 4 Muslim Pakistani Canadians, has reminded me, and perhaps many others (around the country, perhaps around the world) that our Canadian multiculturalism is inadequate to bring about the understanding, respect and equal recognition of other humans different than ourselves.

Multiculturalism again is the idea of multiple cultures co-existing in a locale. So, what's interculturalism, and could it offer another approach to understanding, respecting and engaging with cultural differences?

To me, interculturalism is the idea of the bridge or bridges between and across cultures. Its focus is thus on dialogue and engagement across our differences, and how we see and interpret them and each other. Building bridges across different cultural worldview or frames of references takes time, surely. It takes skills such as empathy, active listening, observation, and curiosity, to name a few. Sure, learning more about each other's cultures and learning other languages could go a long way. It also requires that we critically reflect on ourselves - our own socialization into values, beliefs, practices, rituals, and so on, especially the ones that are 'unmarked' in society because they are entrenched and dominant.

We can and should celebrate multiculturalism. However, a commitment to interculturalism, coupled with developing the ability to probe deeper and confront our own biases and prejudices and the institutionalized inequities, discrimination and hatred that has long co-existed with multiculturalism, requires us to go further.

Here's a place to start, from an Australian perspective.

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