The “two-way-street” metaphor paints a simplistic picture of integration. It’s a much more complex and dynamic process.

When immigration officials and advocates talk about the integration process for new Canadians, often they reach for the metaphor of a “two-way street.” Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada notes that “the focus of the integration programs at CIC is on operationalizing the ‘two-way street approach’…through assisting individuals to become active, connected and productive citizens.” The Canadian Index on Immigration Integration talks about the “metaphorical meeting of the immigrant and the receiving population somewhere in the middle of the street.” Former Immigration minister Jason Kenney used the phrase in speeches, where he emphasized the duty of newcomers to adapt to their new home and the responsibility of Canadians to accommodate them.

But does a metaphor matter? It does, given Canada’s increasingly diverse population and the challenges of ensuring successful integration of immigrants and their children. Getting the metaphor right will convey expectations to newcomers and the host society alike regarding their respective roles in the integration process.

The “two-way street” is handy shorthand. With integration, immigrants and the host society both adapt to each other’s presence, instead of the assimilationist expectation that immigrants will completely adopt the values, attitudes, norms and lifestyles of the host. The aim of integration is for immigrants and their children to obey Canadian laws and eventually and voluntarily to adopt Canadian values, attitudes, norms and lifestyles, most notably gender equality and acceptance of other groups. The ultimate goal is that they eventually enjoy economic, social, health and political outcomes that are broadly comparable with those of “old-stock” Canadians. Accommodation by the host society aims at facilitating that integration process.

While diversions from this norm exist; for example, voluntary exclusion as in the cases of Mennonites or other religious communities, or involuntary exclusion because of racism and discrimination (separation or segregation, to use psychology scholar John Berry’s terms), the overall emphasis is on this integration process.

However, in order for metaphors to be successful, they have to speak to the broader population, not just the specialists, and they have to resonate in a visceral way. They have to be simple and easy to grasp, but they also have to avoid being simplistic. The “two-way-street” metaphor is unsuccessful for a number of reasons.

Streets are for cars, not people. Cars do not meet on a two-way street, they drive past each other (and if they do meet, usually it is in a crash!). Integration is about mingling, interacting and adapting.

The integration process is asymmetric: it is more important for immigrants and new Canadians to adapt to Canadian laws, norms and values than it is for the host society to adjust to them. The meeting point is not “somewhere in the middle” between the host society and the newcomers, but much closer to the host society (80/20 percent, in my view).

And integration is dynamic and ever changing, not linear. What is deemed acceptable evolves through the democratic, legal and political processes, as newcomers assert their identities and their rights and the host society responds. What was originally considered unacceptable (e.g., turban-wearing Mounties) becomes normal; what might initially be considered acceptable (e.g., sharia family law in Ontario) is deemed unacceptable following public discussion and debate.

It also must be noted that the values of the host society are dynamic and change over time; for example, attitudes toward gender equality, homosexuality and same sex marriage have undergone a sea change in Canada and elsewhere over the past generation. Immigrants and new Canadians are expected eventually to follow suit.

The metaphor also fails to capture the diversity and multilayered identities in Canadians, and how these can change with contexts and individual preferences. Ethnicity, religion, gender, age, generation, and lived experiences all play a part at the individual and group levels.

So, what are better phrases that describe this process and dynamic, and how do these capture the roles of newcomers and the host society?

Similar to the multiculturalism dynamic, the integration/accommodation dynamic captures the fact that newcomers integrate into the host society while the host society accommodates and adjusts to newcomer needs and identities. A combination of push and pull between newcomers and the host society, mediated through political, judicial and everyday socio-cultural processes, finds an equilibrium point, which evolves over time. Individuals and groups provide the push that forces the host society to respond. And, of course, as the host society itself becomes more diverse and its values evolve, this mediation happens between not only the “old stock” Canadians of the host society but also the more established and more recent groups of immigrants.

A more sophisticated version of this characterization can be seen in Harald Bauder’s description of integration as a process of Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, or the host society (thesis) being challenged by newcomers (antithesis), resulting in a new balance and accommodation (synthesis), hence reducing the difference between the “newcomer ‘other’ and the Canadian ‘self’.”

Another concept used by some academics and policy-makers in a multiculturalism context, is that of harmony/jazz. Harmony is provided by the legal and constitutional framework that applies to all Canadians — it is the underlying melody. Jazz reflects improvisation in dealing with accommodation requests within that overall context. Again, the underlying harmony predominates. This approach has the advantage of being more flexible in dealing with accommodation pressures.

So what best describes integration and multiculturalism? Passing each other on a two-way street or “making music together?” My preference is the latter, as it describes the dynamic, complex and varied nature of how we, in our ever more diverse society, continue to search for a new and hopefully improved equilibrium.  Perhaps just as every jazz band interprets a musical composition in new and unanticipated ways, so does a healthy, diverse multicultural society.

I would like to thank Michael Adams and Harald Bauder for their helpful comments and suggestions on integration definitions and metaphors.

Photo: rmnoa357 /


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