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National Opinion Centre

For someone who calls himself a libertarian, Maxime Bernier seems remarkably uninterested in individual freedom. As the most adventurous experiment in generations unfolds around him, he spends his time writing tweets about diversity that would make a real libertarian blanch. So, what might a real libertarian say about freedom and diversity in reply?

Let’s start with Bernier’s views. According to him, too many immigrants are living in enclaves, where they fail to adopt basic “Western” values, such as freedom and equality. Too much “diversity,” he says, threatens to undermine social cohesion and fragment us into “little tribes.”

His solution is to focus more on integrating these immigrants into the cultural traditions that make Canada distinct from other societies.

How identity, freedom and diversity interact

Bernier’s suggestion that our “cultural traditions” work with liberal (i.e. “Western”) values to create social cohesion seriously misrepresents the relationship between cultural identities and freedom. In fact, there has been a long and often divisive struggle between them, and not just in Canada.

For example, my father was an Irish Catholic born in the early 20th century. In those days, the church’s teachings went unquestioned, and a Catholic’s freedom was expected to align with them. So, while my father was free to choose a spouse, he did not feel free to marry a woman outside his religion, let alone someone of the same sex.

If our views on freedom have evolved since then it is not because Canadian identities have been working overtime to advance human rights, but because advocates of freedom and equality have kept up the fight to purge these identities of their anti-liberal biases. One thinks of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the pressure from civil society to include equality rights in the Charter, or recent Supreme Court decisions on Indigenous rights.

As for diversity, far from undermining freedom and equality, it has been a strong ally in this struggle. It exposes people to different lifestyles. It gives them new ideas about how they might live their own life. And it emboldens them to challenge traditional authority that forbids such choices.

In past, leaders of the cultural communities tried to discourage intercultural mingling for just these reasons. In hindsight, perhaps they were right to do so: the public’s deference to their authority eroded quickly as individual freedom spread. Abortion, same sex marriage, and assisted suicide are all products of the growing respect for individual freedom.

Standing back, we can picture the rise of freedom as a huge arc across history in which the locus of identity has been gradually shifting from the community to the individual. Canada is on the leading edge of this trend. Indeed, for many Canadians today, individual freedom is at least as important in the formation of their identity as cultural tradition.

Creating our own identities vs. inheriting them

Think of first-generation Canadians whose parents came from countries with strong traditional cultures, such as India or Pakistan. Many of them maintained this lifestyle in their new homes and passed on the traditions to their children. At the same time, these children were forming Canadian identities at school and elsewhere.

Somewhere along the line, these different identities would clash. When they did, it fell to these individuals to figure out how to align them better. Often, they were called on to make hard choices between competing values and practices.

The hijab or Muslim veil is a good example. Many of the women who have opted to wear the veil explain this as a personal choice. They wear it, they say, not out of obedience to Muslim law, but out of respect for it. And that’s significant. It grounds the practice in individual freedom, rather than tradition.

From an historic perspective, the idea that so many individuals are now integrating their distinct identities is remarkable. These people are single-handedly forging an identity that is not only culturally complex, but as distinctive as a fingerprint or a work of art. The identity thus is not inherited in the usual sense. It has been created through a unique act of cultural fusion, based on personal choice.

I believe many Canadians are starting to see identity this way, that is, less as something they inherit from their ancestors and more as something they create through choice. Historically, this is a new and important trend.

In the past, freedom came wrapped in the cocoon of a specific cultural identity, like my father’s Irish Catholic identity. But now diversity and freedom are working together to pry them apart, giving people the space to make some fundamental choices about who they want to be.

As the veil example shows, however, fashioning a lifestyle is not easy. It involves much more than a casual trip to the “identity boutique” to choose a few practices or values off the shelf. These choices must fit together to form a coherent and cohesive whole. This takes planning, hard work, and a commitment to carefully chosen life goals.

It can also go badly or even fail, as some of those first-generation Canadians will attest. The skills and tools to support fusion are only beginning to be forged. No one needed them before. An inherited cultural identity was the product of generations of social evolution and most of the key values, roles and relationships were already defined in it.

There is, of course, much more to be said about cultural fusion, but that must wait for another day. My main point here is that this shift is real, and it is happening. It also looks poised to play a big role in Canada’s future.

Liberalism may even be approaching a moment in the history of individual freedom that rivals the creation of human rights. And that should grab the attention of any serious libertarian.

Perhaps even M. Bernier.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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