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Official Multiculturalism

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

But even as the impact of the new immigration was gradually being felt, public attention was largely focused on the English-French debate, and in the early 1960s that polemic heated up. Hoping to shed new light on the issue, in 1963 the federal government appointed a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission was originally mandated to investigate and make recommendations to the federal government related to what was then thought of as the fundamental duality of Canadian society – “an equal partnership between two founding races,” British and French. Almost as an afterthought the government gave a nod in the direction of other Canadians. It charged the commission to take “into account the cultural contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.”

Neither the government nor the commission anticipated the response that its mandate would generate among Canada’s older and more established ethnic-European communities. Trumpeting their survival in spite of the efforts of a generation of Anglo-conformist gatekeepers, spokespersons for the country’s other peoples lined up to tell the commissioners that their communities could no longer sit by and allow others to monopolize the public debate. They wanted to be counted in. Images of illiterate Slavic peasants tilling the marginal lands of the Canadian west, Jews hunched over sewing machines in the factories of the garment industry, or southern European and Asian men swinging picks as they laid the foundation of Canada’s urban transportation networks may have been true in the past. But ethnic spokespersons protested that these images were now more in the realm of folk memory, which was eclipsed by a new reality. Commission members were reminded that immigrants and their parents had endured the Great Depression side by side with other Canadians, they had sacrificed sons and daughters to the national war effort, and they now reaped the benefits of Canada’s economic revival and their own hard work.

Articulate, politically astute, economically successful, increasingly middle-class, educated, and impassioned, the spokespersons for the other peoples declared their communities not one iota less Canadian or deserving than those of the British and French charter groups. They offered themselves as proof that Anglo-conformity had not worked, at least not in their case, and they argued that a new model of citizen participation in the larger society was overdue. And by stepping forward, these spokespersons served notice that those of non-British and non-French heritage in Canada intended to be full partners in the ongoing national debate, while at the same time, proudly proclaiming their ethnic background.

It cannot be denied that some ethnic leaders had a different agenda. For example, the commission repeatedly heard from spokespersons for eastern and central European groups suffering a sense of cultural dispossession in the face of the sovietization and russifiation of their homelands. For them, the survival of their ethnic heritage in Canada was not a familial or folk priority; it was a political and cultural imperative. Fearing the repression of their cultural heritage behind the Iron Curtain, they sought ways to ensure their culture’s survival in the new land. They were joined by other survivalist groups who wanted the assistance of the state in bolstering group maintenance against assimilationist pressures. As a key part of their respective strategies, these people wanted symbolic recognition of their legitimate place in the Canadian family, both as individual citizens and as members of ethnic communities.

In making their case, spokespersons for ethnic communities presented an alternative vision of Canada – a blueprint for national identity based on public acceptance and support of cultural pluralism. The point made again and again was that ethnicity and cultural pluralism were true reflections of a renewed Canadian identity. Of course, ethnicity spoke of cultural linkages that might be rooted in a pre-immigration cultural experience. But as a living cultural expression, it was a Canadian phenomenon, shaped and reshaped by experience in this country and far more resilient than the Anglo-conformist vision long promoted by gatekeepers and other missionaries of assimilation. Ethnicity, they argued, does not replace Canadian identity; it is Canadian identity. Accordingly, they insisted their ethno-cultural particularities should be officially recognized as legitimate expressions of the larger Canadian culture. In effect, they demanded public endorsement of ethnic diversity as the essence of Canadian identity – they demanded multiculturalism.

To the surprise of many, the commission seemed to agree. In volume 4 of its multi-volume report, something of an aside from the other volumes, which explored linguistic and cultural relations between English- and French-speaking polities within Canada, the commission presented the government with sweeping recommendations that would both acknowledge the centrality of cultural pluralism to the fabric of Canadian identity and encourage the country’s institutions to reflect this vision in their organization and programs. In 1971 the federal government took these recommendations into account when it announced its policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. English and French were affirmed as the two official languages of Canada; but ethnic pluralism was declared to be not only a distinct and positive feature of Canadian society but also a feature of public concern worthy of preservation and development.

Not all Canadians rejoiced in this multicultural vision of the country. Even among some advocating social and economic reform, multiculturalism seemed at best misguided. Rather than making Canada a society open to all, some feared that the policy represented a betrayal of liberal democratic values. Instead of lowering social boundaries and increasing opportunities for economic mobility, they felt multiculturalism threatened to reinforce barriers between people and redirect energy away from constructive social change and into unproductive and divisive ethnic politics. Canada may be a mosaic, but multiculturalism, as sociologist John Porter warned, could keep it a vertical mosaic.

Others had different fears. Some in French Canada accused the federal government of cynically introducing and using multicultural policy to erode support for French-Canadian nationalism by dismissing Québécois aspirations as only one of many expressions of ethnic particularism within the larger Canadian community. They rejected any equation of their struggle with what they saw as a nostalgic and ultimately doomed attempt by ethnic leaders to hold back an inevitable assimilationist North American tide. This argument proved very persuasive in the political climate of the day, and the government of Quebec refused to be involved in the federal multicultural program, grounded as it was in promoting Canadian identity. Nevertheless, the province, especially greater Montreal, increasingly reflected a growing plurality of origins, and it was not long before the government of Quebec initiated its own policies and programs which roughly parallel those of the federal government but are designed to affirm the place of ethnic communities within Quebec.

Multiculturalism, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Some in English-speaking Canada, probably unsympathetic to French-Canadian nationalism, also protested the multicultural policy. In part as a ringing endorsement of the old Anglo-conformity, they attacked multiculturalism as an assault on English Canada’s deep-rooted heritage of British or Anglo-Canadian values. These values, they claimed, were the core of English-speaking Canada’s civic culture. In their eyes, the policy of multiculturalism could well lead to an eradication of British traditions and institutions in Canada, including the monarchy. It was, some argued, little more than a thinly veiled attempt to relegate these traditions and institutions to the ash heap of history, and in the end, they warned, it could turn English-speaking Canada into a tower of Babel and guarantee the succession of Quebec.

In retrospect, these fears seem exaggerated. For example, there is little evidence that the federal government expected or intended that its multicultural policy would derail or redefine the ongoing English-French debate. What limited money was allocated to fund the policy was not directed into any well-considered campaign to delegitimize the nationalist cause in Quebec. Nevertheless, this fact did not prevent nationalists in the province from attacking multiculturalism as a threat to their cause.

But one item of the federal government agenda cannot be denied. The ruling Liberal Party of the day was hoping that its advocacy of multiculturalism would reap it a rich reward in votes from the more than 30 percent of Canadians of non-British and non-French descent. When provincial governments, regardless of political stripe initiated their own multicultural policies, they too hoped to be rewarded with the votes of a so-called ethnic “third force.”

Did this political manoeuvring work? To the degree that it may have succeeded, it certainly did not do so as well as politicians had hoped or those opposed to multiculturalism feared. Individuals of non-British or non-French descent do not vote as a single bloc. Furthermore, ethnic voters have not allowed themselves to be sleepwalked to the polls by spokespersons for their own groups, bought off by ethno-specific election promises, or seduced by the blandishments of politicians currying favour and promising patronage, any more than have other Canadian voters. Like all Canadians, those of non-British and non-French heritage continued to vote in conformity with their own interests. Unfortunately, the accusation of easily manipulated ethnic voting lingers on, as do the efforts of politicians to prove the accusations right.

Oddly, while politicians and detractors of multiculturalism tried to make political hay of the policy, the prime minister who introduced it, Pierre Trudeau, was himself at best ambivalent about the policy. Did he think that it could hold back the tide of ethnic slippage where it had taken hold? Probably not. Did he particularly care about ethnic survival in Canada? Also probably not. If anything, given his chilly response to other issues brought to his attention by ethnic spokespersons – reparations for Japanese-Canadian internment during World War II, the issue of Nazi war criminals in Canada, or the threat to minority cultures within the Soviet Union – he can be judged to have had little personal sympathy for particularist ethnic causes.

On the other hand, if it is true that Trudeau was not convinced of the value of multiculturalism, he did believe in the importance of the meritocracy, and he certainly had no tolerance for racial or ethnic discrimination. As a result, during his tenure as prime minister, restrictive barriers of tradition and practice in federal appointments or to mobility in the public service and within the political process tumbled. This change established a precedent increasingly followed at other levels of government and in the private sector. And it is here that Trudeau may have found multiculturalism most compatible with his own views. In contradiction to John Porter’s warnings, multiculturalism promised that government would use its power to assure that ethnic heritage would not be a barrier to the full and equal participation of each individual in Canadian society. This is a goal yet to be achieved, and how the policy can balance ethnic group interests with concern for the individual remains an issue.