Multiculturalism and Canada

Canada became officially multicultural in 1971, although it can be argued that the country has never been monocultural, or even bicultural. (Burnet) The native Canadians who lived on the land originally were diverse linguistically and culturally. The addition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of various European cultures only served to enhance the original diversity.

While a variety of cultures has always existed in Canada, it is possible to say that two were clearly dominant for the better part of three hundred years: the English Protestant, and the French Catholic. In particular, despite the regular election of French Catholic prime ministers, the English Protestant culture overshadowed most others for the majority of that time.

The Canadian Multicultural Act of 1971 sought to change the English Protestant assimilative nature of the country into one that took into consideration the diversity of the nation. Thirty years later, is it possibly to say that this act has met with success? In the following pages, I will outline the policies on multiculturalism in Canada and then discuss the issues that have come up since the act’s inception in an attempt to answer that question.

What are the basic principles of multiculturalism policies in Canada?

While the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1971, Revised 1985, Amended 1993) contains several sections, it can be summarized as a policy that (1) ensures equality of status, (2) defines the essence of the Canadian identity as pluralistic, (3) offers citizens a choice of lifestyles, and (4) protects civil and human rights. (McLeod)

Ensuring equality of status involves breaking down the English Protestant assimilative tendencies of the nation and agreeing that no one culture should dominate in any arena. This is a particularly important policy for education, for example, in that it requires textbooks and other teaching materials be free of the WASP bias. It also seeks to eradicate discrimination in the workforce, although it has not been entirely successful on that front. (Swidinsky)

The emphasis on defining Canada as a pluralistic society is extremely important. Canada, as a young nation, is often described by its own citizens as a “nation without a culture”. One major Canadian journalist has said, “There is no Canadian story”, in reference to the fact that it is not possible to pigeonhole Canada into a nice, neat chronicle of a nation. (Cruickshank) This perceived lack of identity or national character distresses many Canadians – but they need look no further than the Multiculturalism Act of 1971 to realize that Canadian identity is irretrievably interwoven with pluralism. Section 3B of the act states that “multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future”. This, more than anything else, defines Canada, in my opinion.

The accent on offering citizens a choice of lifestyles may seem like an unusual point to stress, but it is an important step in eradicating stereotypes. The multiculturalism policy seeks to allow people to choose the amount of interaction they have with their heritage. Just because a person is Japanese or Japanese-Canadian doesn’t mean that they have to like natto, do tea ceremony, or practice a martial art. This is especially important in an immigrant society, where the children of the immigrants do not necessarily feel a strong tie to their parents’ heritage.

The final caveat regarding civil and human rights is essential to ensure that travesties of justice, such as the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, do not find a place in Canadian history again. Various human rights laws and commissions have been strengthened by this part of the multiculturalism act.

What are the problems with multiculturalism policies in Canada?

While few dispute the necessity of the Multiculturalism Act, there are still some areas that need improvement. I would like to discuss four areas of that concern me: (1) discrimination and hate crime, (2) Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver vs. the rest of Canada, (3) hyphenated Canadians, (4) and fantasy vs. reality.

Canada’s policies are as open as they can be regarding people of racial and religious minorities, but that doesn’t mean that there is no discrimination or hate crime. Torczyner did a study in 1997 which found that Black workers earned an average of 15% less than the average Canadian worker and that more than 30% of Blacks lived below the poverty line. Through studies involving the comparison of wages of people with equal qualifications but differing races, Swidinsky concluded that “individual minority groups have to contend with significant wage and occupational discrimination in their labour market activities”. Furthermore, approximately 60,000 hate crimes are committed annually (Roberts) in Canada’s nine major urban centres. Sixty-one percent (61%) of those crimes were committed against racial minorities and twenty-three percent (23%) against religious minorities. Canada is, of course, better off having a multicultural approach, but it could go further in its power to erase discrimination and crimes of hate.

My second point concerns the very big difference between life in major urban areas such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver and the rest of Canada. Eight-six percent (86%) of the visible minorities in Canada live in eight major cities, with forty-one percent (41%) living in Toronto alone. The fact that one is living in a multicultural country is extremely self-evident if you live in one of these major centres. If you drive even one hour outside of these cities, however, you will find it very difficult to believe that you are not living in a country of WASPs, or if not actually Anglo Saxon or Protestant, at least very European and very white. Multicultural programs seem out-of-place in these suburban and rural communities, even though these communities stand to benefit from multicultural ideals as much as their urban counterparts.

My third area of interest involves hyphenated Canadians – Japanese-Canadians, Russian-Canadians, African-Canadians, etc. While I, and most Canadians, embrace the idea that you can be “anything-Canadian” and that it doesn’t detract from being Canadian (Berry), I do think there is a need for Canadians to accept that it is okay to be “just Canadian”. I was born in Canada, my parents were born in Canada, their parents were born in Canada, and their parents were born in Canada (and I think their parents might have been too). And yet, I am still obliged to say that I am Scottish when asked for my heritage. Only when I left Canada, and particularly when I visited Scotland, did I become aware of the fact that hyphenated Canadians only exist in Canada. (In Scotland, I felt foolish saying that I was Scottish-Canadian.) While I fully support the right of every single Canadian to choose her own way of identifying with her heritage, I do think that our multiculturalist tendencies do, paradoxically, stand in the way of a proper Canadian nationalism, that is to say, a traditional nationalism. This hyphenation is, ironically, both the major cause of Canada’s identity crisis and the very answer to that crisis.

I recently read a very interesting article by a Chinese woman who moved to Canada for her studies in 1995. (Sin) Her description of life at a Canadian high school outlines my fourth point regarding fantasy and reality perfectly:

[…] I wasn’t prepared for my new senior high. The stark divide between Asians and Canadians took me off guard, particularly after I discovered my friends were predetermined. Every time I mentioned I was from Hong Kong, people assumed I was part of the “Honger” crowd. But that changed as soon as I started spewing fluent English. Now I was a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese).

This is the reality of multicultural Canada. Yes, we have an open-door policy on immigration. Yes, there are opportunities for people of all colours and creeds. Yes, we give people the right to be what they want to be. But all the well-meaning government policies in the world can’t make one group of people want to hang out with another group. Thirty years after the inception of the Act, progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.

So is it a success, or isn’t it?

Multiculturalism is clearly the right policy for Canada. Forty-four percent (44%) of Canada’s population in 1996 reported origins other than British, French, or Canadian. Eleven percent (11%) of the population identify themselves as being part of a visible minority. Seventeen percent (17%) of the population are immigrants (non-citizens). It is ridiculous to suggest that any other policy is even conceivable.

But that is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement. As outlined above, Canadians are still discriminated against and still fall prey to hate crimes. Canadians who don’t live in big cities are often surrounded by the formerly dominant WASP culture, and are therefore slower to embrace multiculturalism. The Canadian identity is still under debate – a debate which will likely continue ad infinitum. And the government is still powerless to change the habits of the average person.

Thirty years is too short a time to proclaim Canadian multiculturalism a success or failure, and it is particularly difficult for me to judge as I was born in 1971 and have therefore never experienced the alternative. As an interesting side note, Canada officially “went metric” in 1970, one year before it “went multicultural”. Overnight, signs on the highways magically changed from miles to kilometres and weather reports were given in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit. However, thirty years later, Canadians still refer to their weight in pounds and their height in feet and inches. Why? Because what people do on their own private time can’t – and shouldn’t – be regulated by the government. This is the most serious drawback of the Multiculturalism Act – it can’t make the White kids hang out with the Chinese kids. Only education can do that. And while education policies have become less biased and more ethnically open, we will need at least another thirty years to know whether these policies will have the intended effect of creating a truly multicultural Canada.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics in this report are from “Multicultural Canada: A Demographic Overview”.

Berry, John and Kalin, Rudolf
“Some Psychological and Cultural Implications of Multiculturalism: A Social Cost Benefit Analysis from the Perspective of a Larger Society,” report presented to the Economic Council of Canada, 1990.

Burnet, Jean
“Myths and Multiculturalism” in Multiculturalism in Canada: Social and Educational Perspectives. Allyn and Bacon, 1984.

Canadian Multiculturalism Act

Cruickshank, John
Canada’s Search for Identity (no longer available)

McLeod, Keith A.
Multiculturalism and Multicultural Education: Policy and Practice in Multiculturalism in Canada: Social and Educational Perspectives. Allyn and Bacon, 1984.

Multicultural Canada: Demographic Overview

Roberts, Julian V.
“Disproportionate Harm: Hate Crime in Canada”, Department of Criminology University of Ottawa, Department of Justice Canada, Working Document 1995-11e, 1995.

Sin, Lena
Life as an Astronaut – Maclean’s Oct 14, 2002

Swidinsky, Robert
“White-Visible Minority Earnings Differentials: A Comparison of Immigrant and Native Born Canadians,” presented to Canadian Research Employment Forum (CERF) 1997, Richmond, B.C.

Torczyner, James L.
“Diversity, Mobility and Change: The Dynamics of Black Communities in Canada,” McGill Consortium for Ethnicity and Strategic Planning, executive summary for Multiculturalism Branch, Department of Canadian Heritage, Ottawa, 1997.