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.
But the term multiculturalism is not just used to describe the reality of a Canadian population of diverse origins. It has also come to define a positive public attitude towards that reality. By this meaning, multiculturalism refers to a social ideal, a value that regards the growing Canadian pluralism as not only a positive aspect of society worth preserving but also one that reflects positively on the Canadian way of life. Accordingly, a multicultural Canada is accepted as a country in which the norms of civic behaviour and the modes of social interaction are respectful, even supportive, of ethnocultural and ethno-racial pluralism. In this way, the idea of multiculturalism carries with it visions of a society characterized by inter-ethnic and inter-racial harmony, respect for cultural differences, and a belief that ethnic group cohesion and individual fulfilment are not mutually exclusive. Rather they can best be realized when individuals and communities are enabled to define their cultural identities in an atmosphere of respect for the right of others to do likewise.
Multiculturalism is also the name given to an umbrella of policy and program initiatives introduced at various levels of government in Canada since 1971, which have been designed to address the plurality of cultural expression found in Canadian society. These policies and programs are predicated on the notion that ethnic and racial pluralism is a legitimate and enduring expression of Canadian uniqueness, fully compatible with democratic values and the rights of the individual in society. Although many provincial and municipal governments have set their own multicultural policy goals, the federal government has pioneered in this area. The federal policy of multiculturalism, originally articulated in 1971, remains a barometer of the national response to ethnic and racial pluralism.
It must also be noted that the term “multiculturalism” is no longer unique to Canada. One finds it being applied to phenomena in other countries, including those of western Europe, Australia, and the United States. In recent years, for example, Americans have come to use the term to describe a particular social and political configuration of interest groups – including women, the physically and mentally challenged, homosexuals, and the economically disadvantaged, in addition to ethnic and racial communities – who in concert might hope to redress the power imbalance in the United States and thus share more fully in the resources of the state. While all these groups are also part of the Canadian social mosaic, in this country multiculturalism remains most closely associated with ethnic or racial phenomena.
To understand the ways in which multiculturalism has become part of the Canadian imagination and identity, it is essential to grasp the ways in which it, particularly, as a focus of public policy, entered public debate. This analysis in turn requires familiarity with the historical experience out of which multiculturalism has emerged.
The official Canadian policy of multiculturalism was announced on 8 October 1971. That morning Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau rose to address the House of Commons. He was greeted with a din of desk-thumping support from both sides of the House. Once the noise had subsided, he began reading a short but carefully crafted statement affirming the federal government’s recognition of and commitment to a so-called policy of multiculturalism. Members of Parliament knew that on those occasions when Trudeau read a prepared statement, he intended to leave no room for misinterpretation of his remarks or his government’s intent. In this case it did not work; the multicultural policy statement generated controversy at the time, and it has continued to do so ever since.
As articulated by the federal government, official multiculturalism offered a vision of Canadian identity based on cultural pluralism. It eschewed the formal recognition of any overriding cultural traditions. In so doing, it denied the then widely held assumption that the British and French elements were historically vested with special status in Canada. Although the multicultural policy statement affirmed English and French as the two official languages, it rejected biculturalism – a notion of the country as a product of the nation-building efforts of two charter groups, the British and the French, who retained a custodial right to set the boundaries of Canadian identity and preserve the primacy of their respective cultural heritages. The federal policy statement asserted, “There is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other. No citizen or group of citizens is other than Canadian, and all should be treated fairly.” The statement clearly articulated a respect for ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism as the true basis of Canadian identity.
The statement went well beyond a simple or passive affirmation of the value of cultural diversity in a free society, however. The government pledged active support for multiculturalism “as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians.” Many took these words to mean that the government would offer financial support for the maintenance and development of cultural pluralism. Thus, rather than let a free cultural marketplace determine the fate of ethnic group continuity in Canadian society, the government seemed poised to support group continuity through subvention. Officially, the multicultural policy identified four priority initiatives: “First, resources permitting, the government will seek to assist all Canadian cultural groups that have demonstrated a desire and effort to continue to develop a capacity to grow and contribute to Canada, and a clear need for assistance, the small and weak groups no less than the strong and highly organized. Second, the government will assist members of all cultural groups to overcome cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society. Third, the government will promote creative encounters and interchange among all Canadian cultural groups in the interest of national unity. Fourth, the government will continue to assist immigrants to acquire at least one of Canada’s official languages in order to become full participants in Canadian society.”
Where did the federal government’s multicultural initiative come from? To begin with, it must be acknowledged that neither the government nor its multicultural policy created cultural pluralism. Official multiculturalism simply acknowledged and gave policy expression to what was already obvious. Indeed, by 1971 cultural pluralism was such a fact of life in Canada that, had there been no federal multicultural policy statement, it is doubtful that the ethnic and racial diversity reflected in the country today would be appreciably different.
But the fact of cultural pluralism does not in and of itself explain why the government introduced its multicultural policy. If such were the case, other countries also made up of peoples from a plurality of origins, racial groups, or heritages – countries such as the United States, South Africa, and Russia – might be expected to respond to their cultural and racial pluralism with similar policies. They have not. Thus multicultural policy is a particular Canadian response to Canadian conditions. To locate the sources and unravel the meaning of the policy, one must look to the gradual unfolding of Canadian political and social culture, particularly in this century. Most important, one must understand both the country’s immigration past and how newcomers and their children have influenced its ongoing effort to carve out a unique national identity in North America.
All Canadians, those born in this country and immigrants alike, share in a common national founding myth – a popular history that increasingly lays emphasis on a common immigration past. It is more and more accepted that, beginning with the aboriginal peoples and continuing down to the most recent of arrivals, all Canadians share in a tradition of migration that began well before the dawn of recorded history and endures to our day. If the lived history of Canada is bound up with the story of immigration, however, the popular emphasis on a shared experience is of relatively recent vintage. Previously, the dominant themes in the historical narrative explored the relationship of French and British streams in Canadian society, the economic and constitutional development of the state, and the problems of ensuring a distinct place on a continent dominated by the influence of the American colossus. Until relatively recently, the impact of immigration on the development of Canadian society was little recognized or celebrated.
Acknowledged or not, the history of Canada is one in which immigration is centrally important. Millennia before the coming of the first Europeans, the ancestors of Canada’s aboriginal peoples are thought to have migrated from Asia and gradually formed a rich tapestry of cultural and linguistic groupings across the continent. Approximately five hundred years ago the first permanent European settlers arrived in what is now Canada. The first were those who carried the banners of French imperial expansion into the vast expanse to the north of the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes system. The victory of British arms at Quebec in 1759, followed by their defeat in the American Revolution, brought a wave of settlers out of the recently proclaimed United States into the British territory to the north, in what would eventually become Canada.
During most of the next century and a half, authorities tried to balance the often competing interests of the British and French communities, lay down a governing structure, and ensure the economic viability of the Canadian enterprise. All the while, immigration continued. In the main, settlers came from England, Scotland, and Ireland. They hoped to build new lives for themselves and their heirs. Some were drawn by the promise of stability under the British crown; others escaped the poverty and starvation that came with agricultural dislocations and crop failures. Still others, including many Americans, were enticed to leave home by the exaggerated claims of Canadian land agents or labour recruiters, who often promised more than they had any intention of delivering. Some immigrants came alone, ready to take whatever job they might find. Others arrived in family units and with the resources necessary to begin life afresh in a new land. Some succeeded; others reaped only misery.
British and American settlers were soon joined by others. Continental Europeans were drawn to Canada by its economic promise, as an escape from religious or political threats, or because, in their minds, it was part of America, a land in which dreams might be realized. Blacks who fled northward from station to station along the “Underground Railroad” secretly crossed into Canada to escape slavery. On the Pacific coast many Chinese joined the rush of fortune-seekers who trekked into the British Columbia interior after the discovery of gold. Hundreds of thousands of American farmers moved northward into the Canadian prairies, the “last best west,” in search of good, cheap farmlands in the early years of this century.
Many central and eastern Europeans were also enticed to Canada by the promise of cheap farmland. In the years before the Great Depression of the 1930s, as the Canadian economy expanded, non–English-speaking immigrants filled the labour needs of burgeoning lumber, mining, railway, and manufacturing sectors of the economy, and many came not so much to settle as to work. They saw themselves less as new Canadians than as satellites of the village and family economy at home. Money earned in this country helped to sustain those who remained behind. But whatever the motive for coming to Canada or whether hopes were realized, each individual was part of the unfolding narrative. Thus, well before World War II, Canada was already a country made up of a diversity of cultural heritages.
Not all newcomers were equally welcome. Until recently, Canadian immigration policy was as racially selective as it was economically self-serving. Shaped during the 1920s, it reflected the widely held belief that the world’s peoples were arranged in a racially drawn hierarchy. Western Europeans, particularly those from the British Isles, were at the top and the rest of humankind was represented in descending order, with east-central and southern Europeans slotted above Jews, Gypsies, Asians, and finally blacks, who were at the bottom. What, many worried, would become of Canada if unchecked immigration of undesirable foreigners continued.
But if Canadians of that day worried about the negative impact of “foreign” immigration, why were so many of these “foreigners” allowed into the country? The reason is simple: immigration brought labour to capital. The new arrivals filled the demand for cheap labour required by an expanding Canadian economy. For many, however, the influx of strange peoples speaking unfamiliar languages – people so recently subject to tsars and kaisers, and who prayed to alien gods – raised fears that these immigrants never could or would assimilate into Canadian society. Of course, there were other Canadians who responded to “foreign” immigrants with dignified tolerance. They recognized that these individuals were here to stay and that their labour and skills were necessary, their living conditions subject to improvement, and their presence needed to enrich Canadian life. But in the years between the two world wars, others feared social blight and racial decay. If many in English-speaking Canada regarded immigrants as a threat to the very fabric of Protestant Anglo-Canadian society, others in French Canada also feared newcomers who settled in Quebec as purveyors of alien ways and destined to tip the province’s political and social balance in favour of English speakers, with whom immigrants were seen to ally.
Hostility to immigrants was pronounced in urban areas, where they were employed in expanding the urban infrastructure or became part of a new industrial workforce – laying trolley-car tracks, labouring in the expanding textile factories, or tunnelling the sewer systems. But it was particularly strong against immigrants who did not “know their place.” When these immigrants successfully competed with non-immigrant workers, tradesmen, and small businessmen, or when their children leapfrogged assumptions about their racial inferiority by excelling in the public educational system and demanding access to the political arena, universities, and the professions, anti-immigrant sentiment grew.
As hostility spread, so did public demand that the government implement immigration regulations restricting admission to Canada along ethnic or racial lines. Such thinking soon formed the backbone of immigration law and regulation. By the mid-1920s Canadian laws and regulations were tightened. Existing restrictions against Asian immigration were made more stringent, the admission of eastern Europeans was more tightly controlled, and the door was closed to virtually all southern Europeans and Jews.
Following the economic collapse of 1929, spreading unemployment and a decline in farm income eliminated any tolerance for additional “job hungry” newcomers. Immigration ground to a halt as still more restrictive regulations were put in place, and immigration officials became Canada’s front-line troops guarding against any breach in the wall. So difficult was it to enter the country that Canada would have arguably the worst record of all democratic receiving states in the admission of refugees from Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
Canada’s doors remained closed to the outside during World War II. But like other Canadians, those of the first generation who had immigrated to this country and their children were caught up by the crisis. The case of the Japanese is well known. Their loyalty in question, they were removed from their homes and interned, their civil rights suspended, and their property confiscated. In the immediate aftermath of the war, efforts were made to “repatriate” the Japanese, including Canadian-born individuals, back to the homeland.
Other groups threw themselves into the common war effort. Immigrants and their children enlisted in the Canadian military in disproportionate numbers. But just because they rallied to the flag, it should not be supposed that their cultures or traditions were accepted. Indeed, in the decades between the turn of the century and World War II, there was precious little praise for cultural diversity as a building block of Canadian identity. The very notion would likely have been dismissed as preposterous. In English-speaking Canada, where most immigrants settled, “foreigners,” together with their cultural baggage and their Canadian-born children, represented social and cultural problems to be solved through assimilation, not cultural treasures to be preserved in any celebration of diversity. Schools, churches, and social-service agencies rallied behind the Canadianizing effort.
What was the nature of the Canadian identity in the decades leading up to World War II? This was an era of enormous economic and social change, but old themes persisted. In Quebec, still a French-speaking and passionately Roman Catholic island in a vast English-speaking and Protestant North American sea, the sense that French-Canadian peoplehood and cultural cohesion were besieged remained deeply felt. For much of French Canada, identity remained narrowly defined – distinct and tied to lineage, not to citizenship as a civil right. Immigrants were outsiders best guarded against.
In English-speaking Canada the institutions of the civic culture required little or no discussion of what constituted Canadian identity. In its public face, it proclaimed itself to be a stalwart outpost of British institutions and civility in North America. Anglo-Canadians were in North America, but were not Americans; they were British subjects resident in Canada. To the degree that a myth of national identity was officially presented, it was fixed on Canada making its own way in the world but, at the same time, remaining integrally linked to the larger destiny of the British people, in alliance with the other white dominions. By this vision, English Canada proclaimed itself to be a rock of British imperial certainty in the New World, while it drew a line separating itself culturally and emotionally from the American experiment to the south.
There was no room in the vision for any positive role for cultural pluralism in shaping Canadian identity. Until the end of World War II, the ideology underlying the integrative process for immigrants, including those in Quebec, has been described as Anglo-conformity, a process by which it was intended that immigrants and their children would assimilate to British-Canadian ways. In the Anglo-conformist scheme of things, ethnic identification was at best a transitional stage, a way station on the road from immigrant to true Canadian. Ethnicity should have no permanent role and certainly not for the children of immigrants. As far as Canada’s gatekeepers were concerned, the sooner that newcomers voluntarily cast their ethnic identity aside, the better for Canada and the better for them and their children.
But in the decades after the war, this Anglo-conformist concept would eventually give way to what is now called multiculturalism, and it was the tumultuous events of the post-war era that provided the catalyst and shifted Canada from Anglo-conformity towards a multicultural policy. The highly charged English-French debate that built slowly after the war’s end was particularly important in this regard. During these years a new pattern of political and social relationships gradually projected itself on the national canvas. The English-French debate erupted not just out of the upheaval in Quebec that came to be called the Quiet Revolution but also out of an awkward identity malaise that took hold in English Canada. As the British imperial dream in the world and Canada’s place in that vision lost all relevance in the post-war era, the myths associated with English Canada as bulwark of British values in North America first frayed and then snapped. Cut loose from its moorings in British identity, English Canada seemed adrift, and the search began for a meaningful and bonding vision made in Canada. One can find the markers of this search for identity scattered throughout the postwar decades – the formal introduction of Canadian citizenship in 1947, the Massey Commission (a federal royal commission into the state of the arts, letters, and science in Canada which gave rise to the Canada Council), the campaign to place Canadian studies in school curricula, the great flag debate. The list goes on.
But if the heightened self-awareness of Quebec and the identity struggle in English Canada dominated the debate, other factors also coloured it. Among these were changes in the Canadian economy. The country’s soldiers had left an economically stagnant Canada when they marched off to war, but they returned to a major urban industrial power. Anticipation of further economic growth and social change was almost palpable. Again, immigration was very much at the heart of this change. Several points must be noted. The surprisingly strong post-war economy resulted in shortages of labour, and to meet the demand, immigration restrictions enforced since the early 1920s were pushed aside. In short order, tens of thousands of “displaced persons” and eastern and southern European immigrants, who previously would have been regarded as undesirable, were admitted into Canada. Most eventually built new homes and put their talents and muscle to the service of the increasingly high-skilled and industrialized sectors of the Canadian economy.
Although immigration numbers would fluctuate with each twist and turn in the economy during the post-war decades, this European influx changed not only the economic face of the nation but the social and political profile of the larger civic culture as well. In part as a result of political pressure from a liberal coalition that included Canada’s newly politicized ethnic communities, the wall of legally sanctioned prejudice and ethnically or racially based discrimination began to crumble, although not as quickly or easily as many hoped. The change came slowly and only after much lobbying. But this effort was now supported by the results of new scientific research in biology and genetics and the conclusions of those in the social sciences, all of which combined to debunk the pseudo-scientific racial assumptions that had helped to shape Canadian immigration legislation in an earlier era.
Nor were immigrant and ethnic lobbies alone in decrying racial and ethnic prejudice in Canada. The larger public proved increasingly receptive to an anti-discrimination message. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and in the shadow of a black civil-rights movement in the United States, Canadians attacked obvious manifestations of racism in their own society. Certainly, ethnic communities found both the political climate and the judicial systems more amenable to the elimination of noxious and racially motivated social practices than had been the case earlier. In 1947 Saskatchewan’s social democratic government became the first to enact a bill of rights. The legislation went beyond guaranteeing freedom of expression, association, and religion. It declared discrimination on the basis of race, colour, creed, or ethnic or national origins illegal. The following year Canada signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acted as yet another incentive to further human-rights legislation in Canada. Before long, other provinces joined Saskatchewan in enacting legislation that barred ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination, and in 1960 the Canadian Bill of Rights, in the end more symbolic than legally effective, was passed by Parliament.
Perhaps nowhere was this new spirit more telling than in the area of immigration law. Over a period of almost twenty years beginning in 1948, regulations that had discriminated against or precluded the immigration of would-be settlers because of race, religion, or national origin were gradually loosened. In 1967 the last racially discriminatory barriers to immigration were finally expunged. What followed was dramatic: arrivals shifted away from persons of European origin towards those from previously non-traditional areas, particularly Asia and the Caribbean. Before 1967, the black and Asian communities in Canada were small. Today, as immigrants from the developing world and other non-ethno-European sources continue to outnumber ethno-Europeans, visible minorities have quickly become an important part of the national fabric.
Furthermore, while the racial composition of the regular immigration stream was changing, Canada was also responding to the tragic plight of refugees, those adjudged to have a well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands. As a result of resettlement programs beginning in 1956, this country became home to many thousands of refugees – Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks, Tibetans, Ugandan Asians, Chileans, other Latin Americans, and those from the Horn of Africa and South and Southeast Asia. Admittedly, the decision to allow refugees into Canada was sometimes more than a humanitarian gesture. In some cases authorities were careful to skim the cream of the refugee crop, and thus they succeeded in doing well while doing good. But the entry of so many young, educated, energetic, and, as time passed, more and more non-white newcomers made it all the more obvious that the issues of racial, and not just cultural, pluralism would soon need to be addressed.
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.
Has the multiculturalism policy delivered on its promises? Could it, in fact, deliver? The answers are unclear. In spite of its detractors, the federal multiculturalism statement of 1971 initially struck a resonant chord among many Canadians. During the policy’s first decade there remained those who argued, with some justification, that when translated from promises into programs, it was tilted more towards support of group cultural celebration than such issues as fighting discrimination. But for many Canadians the question of which programs the policy funded was less important than the fact of the policy itself. Just by articulating its policy of multiculturalism, the federal government, many Canadians seemed to feel, was reflecting current Canadian values. They supported the idea of equal participation in society irrespective of cultural differences and the notion that one need not discard one’s cultural heritage as a price for that participation. So long as Canadians believed that this was what multiculturalism was all about, they favoured it.
But one may speculate as to other reasons why, in its first decade, multiculturalism and the rhetoric of cultural pluralism struck such a responsive chord. The concept may have appealed to some because, in its emphasis on the public expression of culturally diverse traditions, it seemed to offer a counterbalance no matter how slight to the homogenizing and monochromatic vision of the man in the grey flannel suit, of an unease with the notion that all of North America was becoming little more than a loose federation of shopping malls. Multiculturalism offered colour. It seemed to say that, while enjoying the material and cultural offerings of the civic society, one could still be unique, be different, and do so in a non-threatening way.
It might also be true that in the unsettled era of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, many Canadians found that the rhetoric surrounding multiculturalism afforded a comfort zone of distance from the United States, its unpopular war in Southeast Asia, and the domestic havoc that that conflict brought to Canada’s southern neighbour. Indeed, in the first decade of multiculturalism, it quickly became something of a Canadian cliché, if not an article of faith, for many to distinguish between American and Canadian societies in multicultural terms. The United States was characterized as a “melting pot” and Canada as a multicultural “mosaic.” This obvious oversimplification suggested that the United States offered an environment in which ethnic and racial particularities must inevitably give way in favour of a singular and unifying American identity. That is, as a matter of American public policy, ethnic particularities were regarded as incompatible with the building of a unified civic society. In Canada, on the other hand, citizens were supposedly encouraged to maintain their distinct ethno-cultural identities to whatever degree they might wish. In the process, it was said that Canadians developed a tolerance, if not appreciation, for the cultural uniqueness of others. In this idyllic vision, the country as a whole reaped a rich harvest of social peace, harmony, and loyalty to its democratic institutions while encouraging the widest possible range of cultural expression.
As the mosaic versus melting pot cliché took hold, it also had an impact on the popular understanding of Canadian history. It was commonly assumed that this distinction was true of an earlier era as well. In a quick reworking of Canadian historical fact, the multicultural policy was retrospectively read into the past to declare that Canada had always cherished multicultural values and as a result had always been a more welcoming, more open, and more tolerant society than the United States. However false, this invention of a multicultural past helped solidify support behind the policy.
In the real world, if one wished to distinguish Canada from the United States, this alleged difference with respect to ethnocultural pluralism may not represent a distinction at all. It has been convincingly argued that Canada is no less a “melting pot” than the United States, and the United States no less a “mosaic” than Canada. National rhetoric and images were different, and one dare not negate the power of popular concepts in nation-building. Multiculturalism and the clichéd ways in which its images were expressed seemed to offer enough of a difference from the received version of American social development to appeal to many, particularly urban English-speaking Canadians. Rather than a problem to be overcome, multiculturalism was increasingly pointed to as a keystone of Canada’s strength – of “unity in diversity.”
But was it anything more than rhetoric? Did multiculturalism involve a public commitment beyond words and a few judiciously placed financial grants, and what was the thrust of multicultural programming? A comparatively small federal public-service unit was organized under a cabinet minister responsible for multiculturalism. Assistance, most often in the form of modest grants, trickled down to ethnic organizations to strengthen cultural programming, especially for organizational development and educational, linguistic, and cultural maintenance. Steps were also taken to introduce all federal and provincial government departments and agencies to the new policy thrust. Liaison with several provinces was begun with an eye towards the introduction of multicultural initiatives in provincial areas of jurisdiction. In addition, efforts were made to reinforce public support for the positive value of ethnic pluralism. Public servants initiated outreach campaigns and sensitization programs for professional, community, and special-interest groups. Grants were also offered to support a scholarly ethnic histories project, and money was made available to individuals researching aspects of ethnicity in Canada.
This was hardly government spending on a grand scale, and any ethnic leaders who might at first have anticipated that the federal multicultural program would shower them with the resources necessary to build and sustain community organizations were disappointed. The federal budget for the program has always been small compared to that of other government initiatives. In 1994 it hovered at about one dollar per Canadian. Beyond the symbolic recognition that the multicultural policy afforded ethnic communities, and the very limited support available through the multicultural grants program, these communities were left to rely on their own resources and the support of their community members if they hoped to survive, let alone thrive as organized entities.
Where the multicultural policy may have had its greatest impact during its first decade or so was in helping to crystallize public thinking about the place of ethnicity and ethnic communities in the larger Canadian society. By continuing to focus public attention on the positive value of cultural pluralism, the policy may have deepened respect for difference. What is more, as other federal departments and government at other levels also introduced multiculturalism into their respective areas of jurisdiction, public recognition of the policy grew.
Even as government and the larger civic culture was attempting to come to grips with the Canadian pluralist reality, that reality was itself shifting. When the policy was announced in 1971, the Canadian ethnic spectrum was still very much dominated by ethnic Europeans, and the multiculturalism policy was initially designed to address their needs and aspirations. It offered them symbolic recognition of their legitimate partnership in the Canadian family and limited support for their social and cultural activities.
It was not long before the multiculturalism policy faced a new challenge. Older ethno-Europeans had come to regard the policy as their own; after all, they had worked for it. Even if it did not offer them the kind of financial support that they would have hoped to receive, they still felt a proprietorial pride in the policy. But the multiculturalism program was more and more being called upon to address the needs of a new constituency – visible minorities. The elimination of racial barriers in Canadian immigration in the late 1960s and an active refugee program after 1978 brought a rapid increase in visible-minority communities in Canada. Coincidentally, 1971, the year in which the multicultural policy was announced, was also the first year that a majority of immigrants entering Canada were of non-European heritage. People were now coming to Canada from areas as diverse as Morocco, Hong Kong, Jamaica, India, the Philippines, Haiti, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Guyana – locations from which Canada had received little or no previous immigration and, in some cases, areas from which entry had formerly been prohibited. In addition, as a result of provisions for the admission of refugees in a new Immigration Act, Canada eventually accepted many arrivals from Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, and states in Latin America.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this demographic shift. Small and long-established Chinese communities in centres such as Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto have been revitalized by recent arrivals. Entirely new groups, with languages and religious traditions previously unknown in Canada, are now putting down roots and building institutional structures. It is obviously difficult to know how large these new communities will become, but growth is certain. The more recent arrivals are generally younger and in earlier stages of their childbearing cycle than other Canadians.
Adding to the impact of these newer visible-minority groups has been a continuing rural-to-urban flow among Canada’s aboriginal peoples: status, non-status, and Metis. In large measure, the native peoples constitute very different legal, institutional, and traditional structures than recent immigrants. This fact makes comparisons difficult. Nevertheless, inasmuch as they also comprise a visible minority in much of urban Canada and confront many of the same problems, it is important to acknowledge their impact.
In the past, Jews and southern and eastern Europeans were the prime targets of racial prejudice and discrimination in Canada. While they still experience the pain of racism, it is the more recently arrived visible-minority communities that feel most threatened today. Of course, it is important not to generalize about the institutional structure, economic and social status, educational level, aspirations, or problems confronting visible minorities. They differ greatly from group to group and even within groups. Nevertheless, many of the newer immigrant communities endure a heavy burden of economic and social insecurity, aggravated by the debilitating impact of racial rejection. As a result, their concerns are different – removed from the concerns about cultural status, legitimization, group survival, and symbolic recognition that still preoccupy many Canadians of continental European background.
For many of the newer arrivals, maintaining cultural identity is far less important than accessing the promise that Canada represents. When one faces prejudice and discrimination in the workplace, in housing, or in school, it is easy to become contemptuous of the gulf between the rhetoric of state-sponsored multiculturalism and the realities of day-to-day life. Members of visible minorities demanded that priority be given, not to support of cultural enrichment, but to the elimination of prejudice and discrimination – to ensure equal access to jobs, housing, and education.
Of course, the needs of newer visible minorities are not totally antithetical to those of the more established ethno-cultural communities. In many areas, interests overlap – support for heritage language training, sensitization of school boards to pluralism in society, and aid to ethnic social-service and self-help agencies. But there is no denying that in other respects the needs of newer visible minorities are in many ways different from those of the older communities.
Government has not turned its back on the kind of culturally based programming that dominated the early years of the multicultural program, but it has shifted its priorities to address the equity issues critical to the newer groups. In 1981 federal multiculturalism officials established a unit devoted to issues of race relations in Canada, and this approach was later expanded to make race relations a primary focus of the multicultural program. Most provinces and many larger municipalities have also followed suit within their own areas of jurisdiction, particularly with regard to education, police functions, social services, and the protection of human rights. In Quebec, which rejects the multiculturalism label, the provincial government has also developed programs in response to the new reality of ethnic and racial pluralism which prove little different from those of the other provinces.
The multicultural policy thrust has been reinforced in two other areas. In 1982 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became part of the constitution. Section 27 specifies that the charter “shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” If the legal implication of this section has yet to be fully tested in the courts, its potential importance should not be ignored. Also, in 1988 Parliament gave the multicultural policy new life by passing a Multiculturalism Act. The legislation, the first of its kind in the world, affirmed multiculturalism as a defining characteristic of Canadian society. The act further validated the freedom of every Canadian to retain an ethnic association and to do so without threat to full and equal participation in the larger Canadian society. In effect, it attempted to balance guarantees of cultural expression with a commitment to justice and social equity of the individual through the removal of barriers based on racial or ethnic prejudice and discrimination. Among the first initiatives under the act was a directive to all government departments and agencies to take positive and appropriate account of Canada’s multi-ethnic and multiracial reality in their administration, planning, and hiring.
Yet one should not take the government’s commitment to multiculturalism for granted. In the rush to privatization and government disengagement from cultural and social spheres that characterized the 1990s and, equally telling, with the increasing reluctance of governments to commit funding to these areas, the future of multicultural programs is far from clear. The public acceptance of multiculturalism may be further compromised by a rising uneasiness over immigration in the wake of a severe economic slowdown in the early 1990s. And one dare not deny that in some quarters fears over the direction and pace of social change in Canada has an anti-multicultural tone to it. Multiculturalism, so recently a symbol of Canada’s commitment to tolerance and openness, is finding itself the symbolic target of convenience for those who fear that the country they live in is becoming less and less the Canada that they expected to inherit or want to pass on to their children.
It cannot be denied that in the 1990s issues of immigration and refugees have become problematic in the public mind. One also cannot know how divisive ethnic and racial questions may become or what impact any divisiveness might have on the government’s ongoing commitment to multiculturalism. Some regard the election of a strong Reform Party bloc in the 1993 federal election as a tangible sign of this unease, and although the government has not turned its back on its multiculturalism policy, in 1993 it closed the multiculturalism department created under the 1988 act and shifted the programs into a new, broadly based Department of Canadian Heritage. Recognizing that so long as ethnic identification or race remains a barrier to full participation in Canadian society, those adversely affected will look to the multicultural policy to offer more than symbolic recognition of cultural continuity, Canadian Heritage has increasingly emphasized the core values inherent in multiculturalism policy – participation, equal citizenship, and institutional access. As a result, the blend of idealism, pride in cultural pluralism, and Canadian uniqueness that gave rise to multiculturalism in the 1970s is being repositioned to respond to the needs of the 1990s and beyond.