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The Evolution of Pluralism

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Identity/Allan Smith

After World War II, the factors compelling a pluralist definition of Canada strengthened. In the first instance, this change was a function of the large-scale immigration that once again became a feature of national life. The unprecedented diversity of the newcomers, who arrived not only from Britain but also from Italy, Greece, Portugal, Germany, and the countries of east-central Europe, acting in combination with the continuing absence of a nationalizing idea, made it more difficult than ever to understand the Canadian polity as a national state of the conventional sort.

Paradoxically, the intensifying thrust towards “nonnational” definitions of the country which these developments produced was often at its clearest in formulations that had nothing directly to do with culture and ethnicity. Representations of the national experience framed in terms of climate, geography, and landscape worked to attenuate the links that had once been though to exist between northern heritage and national identity. Moving decisively away from the idea that Canada’s northern character made it a place in which only peoples of northern stock could be truly at home, partisans of the new environmentalist view saw nature as operating on all those exposed to it, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. The conviction held by literary critics Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood that, in the harsh and difficult landscape they took to be quintessentially Canadian, it was the capacity for endurance and survival that gave Canadians their “national” character, thus involved a complete rejection of the old ideas and with them any reference to the way in which culture and ethnicity might or might not enhance and strengthen that capacity.

Even historian Donald Creighton’s continuing application of the Laurentian concept that he had first developed in the 1930s conveyed the same general message. To be sure, he was not altogether convinced that culture had nothing to do with one’s ability to respond to the challenges of the environment; certainly, French speakers of the St Lawrence valley had failed almost completely to respond to its great nation-creating imperatives. In the end, though, his stress also was on nationality and citizenship as a function of what an individual made of what he or she found. Persons of any ethnicity and background – Samuel de Champlain, Pierre de La Vérendrye, or the pioneering farmers of the northwest – could belong to and take their place in the “dominion of the north,” provided only that they had the disposition to grasp and meet the challenges that life there posed.

If conceptualizations of Canada and its experience cast in terms of land and climate turned out to be compatible with a broad and latitudinarian idea of nationality, the increasingly influential depictions of the country that took ideology and political culture as their focus were no less so. Political scientist Gad Horowitz’s emphasis on the tripartite character of Canadian political culture as a key element in national existence made class and the consciousness related to it the central cleavage in Canadian life. But, far from contributing to a lessening in the emphasis on regional, linguistic, and cultural division, the effect of Horowitz’s focus on ideological diversity was to reinforce notions of heterogeneity in general. S.M. Lipset’s work affirmed the pluralist view of Canadian society even more clearly. Seeing Canada as a moderately conservative society whose people valued deference, hierarchy, and order, he had no difficulty defining it in terms of the way that its relative antipathy to universalist principles reserved an explicit place to particularisms and differentiation of all sorts.

The most compelling evidence that the pluralist idea was becoming central to an understanding of the country was offered by those scholars who explicitly built the concept into their account of Canadian society. Historian W.L. Morton’s approach was especially adroit. Concerned to stress the country’s British and monarchical character, much taken with the idea of northernness, and, as a westerner, face to face on a daily basis with the fact of ethnic diversity, Morton managed a definition of the country that merged these three elements in a striking and cohesive way. His handling of monarchy’s role was peculiarly deft: hitherto associated with the “British” view of Canada, it became in his interpretation the principal emblem and guarantor of pluralism and diversity. As the capstone of a society based on allegiance, it demanded loyalty from the several groups, communities, and cultures over whose affairs it presided, but not the sort of conformity that came as the price of life in an egalitarian and republican jurisdiction.

By the end of the 1960s Ramsay Cook could coin the term “limited identities” as the most fitting description of national life. Fellow historian J.M.S. Careless elaborated the idea in what became an argument of seminal importance, and other commentators took up the task of showing how Canada’s various diversities and pluralisms made it something that had to be understood in terms quite at odds with those deployed in discussing “normal” nationality. There were, or course, dissenters. John Porter challenged the sunny, accepting view by pointing to the fact that, although Canada might be a “mosaic,” it was a “vertical” one in which different groups were situated in a relation to each other that could only be described as hierarchical and discriminatory. In responding to this argument with the claim that the placing of some groups in a position inferior to others could only be remedied if all were recognized and treated as full members of the larger society, friends of the pluralist idea managed nevertheless to maintain their claim that Canada was a society of groups, all of which needed place and recognition.

Particularly anxious to make that argument an enduring one were representatives of the “non-charter” ethnic groups themselves. They were under no illusion that the status accorded them by the mosaic concept had, in practice, been more than minimal, and they therefore sought to use their numbers, the educational resources and access to communications that they had acquired, and their communities’ lobbying power to work towards securing the substantial measure of recognition to which they felt both the pluralist idea and their own positions entitled them. They were especially exercised by the exclusivity of the debate in the 1960s over the place of Quebec in Canada, since the focus on bilingualism and biculturalism seemed to pre-empt discussion of, much less recognition of, their own place in the country’s life. The groups first pressed for membership on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, then succeeded in having the commission broaden its vision to accommodate the multicultural idea, and finally secured the embodiment of that important change in legislation passed in 1971 which proclaimed Canada a multicultural, as well as a bilingual, society.

This victory was, of course, not theirs alone. It owed much to the sense of the nation that had been evolving for a century, and it could not have been managed without the sympathy and support of a prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who had explicitly linked his thinking to the Actonian idea that a state at the service of one part of the community over which it presided would inevitably become the oppressor of other elements in that society. What had happened was nonetheless related in an important way to the fact that a construct which had once been the property of the charter elites – and had often put into play by them faute de mieux – was now being deployed by a broad coalition of groups anxious for the kind of recognition that the entrenchment of this concept would confer.