Resources

Multiculturalism

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Multiculturalism/Harold Troper

The term “multiculturalism” has been used by Canadians to refer to several different, but related, phenomena: the demographic reality of a Canadian population made up of peoples and groups representing a plurality of ethnocultural traditions and racial origins; a social ideal or value that accepts cultural pluralism as a positive and distinctive feature of Canadian society; and government policy initiatives designed to recognize, support, and – some might argue – manage cultural and racial pluralism at federal, provincial, and municipal levels.

There is no denying that Canada is today a pluralist society. Almost 40 percent of the population is of a non-British or non-French heritage. But just how diverse are Canadians, and how is the present different from the past? It might be argued that Canada has always been a pluralist society. Even before the arrival of European settlers in North America, the aboriginal peoples constituted an intricate pattern of cultural and linguistic differences. During much of the past two hundred years, relations between those of French and British heritage in Canada have been a central focus of the country’s history. The reality today is something else again. Individuals of neither French nor British heritage now constitute the largest segment of Canadian society. Indeed, in all provinces and territories from Ontario westward the majority of the population, including the native peoples, are of non-British and non-French origin.

According to the 1991 census, 16 percent of all citizens are first-generation Canadians born outside the country. If we focus on individuals of the first generation as a rough indicator of the plurality of origins in Canadian society, we soon see that ethnic and racial diversity, while statistically dramatic, is not uniformly distributed from coast to coast. Rural areas, small towns, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada are home to fewer foreign-born than the rest of the country. In rural Quebec, for example, as much as 95 percent of the population were born in Canada but so were their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. By contrast, approximately 90 percent of the foreign-born are today living in Canada’s fifteen largest urban centres. But even here the distribution of the foreign-born is unequal. Some centres, particularly in the Maritime provinces and Quebec outside Montreal, have relatively fewer individuals born outside the country. Other regions have far more. Among the more remarkable examples of urban pluralism are greater Vancouver, where approximately 30 percent of all residents are foreign-born, and Toronto, where 38 percent – or more than one million people – were born outside Canada.

Because of its size and remarkable degree of diversity, it is worth focusing on Toronto. Canada’s largest city stands testament to the country’s day-to-day multicultural reality, what might be called the multiculturalism of the street, and the rapidity with which that reality has taken hold. At the end of the World War II, Toronto was a city of about 650,000 persons, most of whom could trace their roots back to Britain. Of course, there were other residents as well – a sprinkling of Jews, Italians, and other southern and eastern Europeans immigrants and their children. But the dominant community was so overwhelmingly of British heritage that Toronto was sometimes described as the “Ulster of the north,” a quiet backwash of Anglo-Protestant values and traditions.

After the end of the war, renewed immigration gradually reshaped Toronto into the city that it is today, and it became a magnet for newcomers. If we could take a snapshot of the metropolis as it entered the mid-1990s, we would be looking at a city of approximately three million people that is recognized as the hub of Canada’s financial, communications, and English-language cultural life. The “Ulster of the north” is long gone, however. Largely as a consequence of immigration, Toronto has become a city of ethnic and racial minorities. Those born outside Canada and their children constitute a majority of the population. Toronto now has more people of Roman Catholic heritage than of any other religious tradition. Over ninety different languages are commonly spoken in the city today, and tens of thousands of the children entering public schools each year do not speak English as a mother tongue.

Nor can this pluralism be neatly categorized as a class-stratified or inner-city versus suburban phenomenon. Diversity crosses lines of wealth, neighbourhood, education, and individual aspirations. A recent study of first-year students at the University of Toronto notes that more than half identified themselves as non-white by race; approximately 40 percent were Asian. Only about one-third came from homes where English was the only spoken language.

One fact stands out above all others. Since the early 1970s, the vast majority of immigrants who settled in Toronto have come from what used to be called “nontraditional” sources – that is, the developing world or other areas of non-ethno-European population. Included in the Toronto multi-ethnic mix of the mid-1990s were approximately 335,000 Chinese, 330,000 South Asians, and 275,000 African Canadians, the largest component of whom were of Caribbean background (although a separate and distinct infusion of Somalis, Ethiopians, and other Africans was taking place). There is also a large Jewish community and large populations which trace their roots to Italy, Greece, Portugal, Poland and other Slavic countries, Vietnam, Korea, and Hispanic America, to name but a few. And this diversity shows no sign of lessening; indeed, compared with the Toronto of tomorrow, the city of the mid-1990s may be recalled as one of relative cultural homogeneity. As the twentieth century draws to a close, Toronto stands out as the most culturally and racially diverse city in Canada, if only by degree. Other cities and regions also reflect a plurality of origins and cultural traditions that is understood as multiculturalism in the country today.