“What is multiculturalism?” This is a question that is often asked of me when I tell people that I study the history of multiculturalism policy in Canada. While it seems like a pretty straightforward question, even so-called “experts” in the field tend to answer the question in ways that are confusing or even wrong. My go-to proxy answer (or some might say cop-out) for lay people, students, and colleagues is to refer people to an article published in the Journal of Canadian Studies by Evelyn Kallen in 1982 entitled “Multiculturalism: Ideology, Policy and Reality.” Without getting into the details of Kallen’s piece, here is the gist of the article: When we discuss “multiculturalism” in Canada we are usually referring to one of three notions – multiculturalism as an ideology, multiculturalism as a policy, or multiculturalism as a reality.

The ideology of multiculturalism is usually said to have begun in the 1960s as a response to the hearings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1971). Ethnic minority groups protested that Canada was not, as the government claimed in naming the Commission, “bicultural,” but was instead “multicultural.” This gave birth to a movement and a way of thinking about Canada that broke from the previous British-centric and bicultural (English and French) models. Other scholars and writers have said that the ideology of multiculturalism began in the 1920s or 1930s and grew out of the idea of Canada as a “mosaic.” Kate Foster’s Our Canadian Mosaic (1926) and John Murray Gibbon’s Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation (1938) are seen as germinal works in this regard. Finally, some people claim that Canadians have always lived in a multicultural society. In his book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008), John Ralston Saul claims that the idea of multiculturalism began among the Indigenous Peoples, long before Europeans settled in the geographical area now known as Canada.

When we speak of multiculturalism policy, the waters are, once again, murky. Usually multiculturalism policy is said to have begun on October 8, 1971, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced his government’s policy of “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.” Since that point, various Federal departments have managed that portfolio (often assigned to a junior minister). For example, Jason Kenney is Canada’s current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. But multiculturalism as “policy” also refers to the provisions regarding multiculturalism in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the Multiculturalism Act (1988). Section 27 of the Charter reads: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Multiculturalism Act simply gave legislative backing to PM Trudeau’s 1971 policy.

Kallen’s third pillar, multiculturalism as “reality,” refers to the fact that Canada is an ethnically and culturally diverse country. Its population is composed of people from all over the globe, as well as Indigenous Peoples. Again, one might think that this point was irrefutable, but scholars and pundits still disagree over when Canada became multicultural in a demographic sense. Most agree that the Indigenous Peoples were polyglot and diverse, and that this diversity was expanded with successive waves of immigrants from France, Britain, China, etc. But often this is confused with the ideology of multiculturalism. Some claim that Canada was, for most of its history “bicultural” or even “British.” To be clear: these are political standpoints, and are not defensible given what we know about immigration. True, Canada’s leaders often viewed the country as a “British nation” during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, and as a “bicultural” (French and English) nation at various points (especially the early 1960s), but Canada’s population has never been uniformly “British” or anything else. Many French-Canadians have First Nations ancestry. Jewish merchants, German mercenaries, and Portuguese navigators were often part of early expeditions to Canada and helped to found towns and cities like Halifax, Quebec, and Montreal. In other words, it is irrefutable that Canada’s population – in a demographic sense – has always been ethnically diverse.

So the answer to the question “What is multiculturalism?” is: “Multiculturalism is a complex phenomenon that can refer to the ideology or idea of multiculturalism, legislation and policy, or the demographic makeup of Canada.”

Keep in mind that “multiculturalism” means very different things in other countries. In Germany, “multikulti” refers to policies designed to integrate immigrants into German society. In the United States, which does not have a policy, “multiculturalism” often refers to anti-racist or inclusive practices in the primary or secondary school classroom. When we talk about multiculturalism in Canada, we can refer to the policy, the ethnic composition of the country, or the public ideology of multiculturalism. Sometimes we get these things confused. Quite often, immigration is seen as synonymous with multiculturalism, though there has historically been little correlation between immigration law and multiculturalism policy/law. It doesn’t help that these portfolios are often grouped together (though, of course, it does make some sense!)

On a final note, I would add a fourth pillar to Kallen’s model: multiculturalism as practice. The way in which private organizations and citizens attempt to address and grapple with ethnic diversity, linguistic diversity, and immigrants is, I think, another way of talking about multiculturalism. In fact, much of the real work on the ground has been done by private organizations. As Franca Iacovetta points out in her book, Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Postwar Canada (2006), organizations like the International Institute of Metropolitan Toronto and C.O.S.T.I. helped to integrate immigrants and encourage a spirit of openness and acceptance among “charter” Canadians toward both immigrants and Canadian-born ethnic minorities.


One thought on “What is multiculturalism?

  1. Great overview. But even with this well-rounded overview, there’s much more than can be said. Is multiculturalism more about “inclusion” or “respect for difference”? I have opinions, but it’s not a settled matter.

    And, I would argue that the “cultural” component of “multiculturalism” has been interpreted in many (often conflicting ways) over the years. We’ve had multiculturalism as anti-separatism, as anti-Americanism, as secularism, as multi-faith-ism, as multilingualism, as Dutch-style pillarization, as a court-enforced “rights revolution”, as territorial federalism, as “colourblind”ism, as “affirmative action”, and probably others I’m not even aware of.

    And we’ve seen it in many different domains, from education policy to partisan coalition-building to media representation. Plus these policy debates interact with other ideologies like religion, nationalism, liberalism, and so on.

    Anyway, please keep up the blog.

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