The beginnings of Canadian multiculturalism


“When I would speak at the United Nations on anything that had to do with human rights or human security,” recalled one experienced Canadian diplomat, “I (always) got a very respectful hearing.” Why? The ambassador explained: “In terms of welcoming others and integrating them into society, nobody does it better than we do … and we get a lot of credit for that in the international community.”

Canadian multiculturalism, in other words, is something the world admires as perhaps the most recognized and celebrated characteristic of Canadian citizenship. The Aga Khan, the leader of the globe’s Ismaili Muslims, for one, has proclaimed that Canada has done a superlative job in bringing peoples of disparate race, ethnicity and religion together.

The celebrated urban thinker Richard Florida pronounced Canada’s multiculturalism, its “mosaic principle…one of the core enduring principles of our economy and society,” and the Globe and Mail‘s national columnist John Ibbitson called the country’s “robust multicultural identity” the key to “preventing the emergence of a race-based underclass” like that in the United States and Western Europe.

Certainly Canadians are proudly polite, generally tolerant and relatively uncomplaining, making Canada perhaps the best nation in which to make the difficult idea of multiculturalism work. There is much patting ourselves on the back here, of course, and it is worth recalling Montreal historian Desmond Morton’s comment that “In the Olympics of self-admiration, Canadians would compete eagerly – for their traditional bronze medal.”

But what is Canadian multiculturalism and where did it come from?

The major political and cultural issues of the 1960s in Canada centered on French-Canadian/English-Canadian relations, and the rapid rise of nationaliste/indépendantiste sentiment in Quebec led the federal government to establish a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963. The commission eventually produced a host of recommendations, some of which were adopted, but an unintended result was that other ethnic groups, notably Ukrainian-Canadians, began to fear that they were being left out as the two “founding peoples” tried to deal with their historic differences. Such pressure soon forced the Royal Commission to consider the contribution of other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada. The commission recommended the integration (not assimilation) into Canadian society of ethnic groups with full citizenship rights and equal participation in Canada’s institutional structure. In other words, Canada was not to be a melting pot like the United States where everyone blended down into Americans. Instead, Canada was to be a mosaic, like a tiled floor where the pieces were separate but joined into a whole.

The commission’s recommendations led to a policy on multiculturalism announced in October 1971. Its main aims were to assist ethnic groups to retain and foster their identity and to overcome the barriers to their full participation in Canadian society. At the same time, they could keep their right to identify with select elements of their cultural past if they so chose. In effect, multiculturalism policy aimed to integrate immigrants (and second and third generations) by offering them equal rights and opportunities; in return, they were expected to accept the ideas and rules that shaped and led Canadian society. The aim was that multiculturalism would help immigrants to integrate into Canadian culture and come to view their lives – and their children’s opportunities – as tied into a full range of Canadian social institutions, based on a common language (either English or French). Ottawa created a Department of Multiculturalism, allocated money to it and soon a variety of programs were up and running.

There was great need for this new idea of a multicultural Canada. Canadians were generally a tolerant people, but there had been terrible outbreaks of racism or acts of violence and hate against immigrants from certain parts of the world. Blacks had been treated shamefully, for example, and prejudice against Chinese, Japanese and Indian immigrants had been strong. Efforts to keep Asians out of Canada had been put into law, and during World War II Japanese-Canadians had been forcibly moved off the West Coast into the British Columbia interior to meet public demands.

Jews faced discrimination in Canada, and the government turned its back on refugees trying to escape Hitler’s Europe. Many Ukrainians had been interned during World War I because they came from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with which Canada was at war; that they did not support that Empire did not matter.

But that was all history now. Canada was setting out to change the way it thought and acted. There would be no more efforts to make immigrants to Canada into good Anglo- or Franco-Canadians. There was to be no melting pot, no attempt to assimilate newcomers. Now each immigrant could keep his or her culture and, what was more, the Canadian government would help in this task. It was a new idea for a changing nation. But would it work? Would “old” Canadians accept it? That was the key question.

Historian J.L. Granatstein is editor of “The Canadian Experience” and he writes on Canadian politics, foreign policy and defence.

Next Installment: Multiculturalism and its Problems

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.


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