One of the first people to publicly endorse “multiculturalism” was a man by the name of Walter Bossy. During the early 1960s he attempted to organize ethnic minority communities into a “third force” to counter what were then perceived as the dominant (French and English) communities. Although he was not successful, his story is nonetheless interesting because of what it tells us about changing attitudes toward Canadian identity in the postwar period.

Born in Yaslo, Galicia to a Ukrainian family in what was then part of the Austrian Empire, Bossy served as a machine-gunner in the Austrian army during the Great War. Within two years of his arrival in Canada, Bossy had become the editor of Ukrainian Canadian. He later worked for the Department of Colonization and Immigration because of his fluency in several languages. Bossy eventually settled down with his family in Montreal and became a language teacher for the Montreal Catholic School Board in 1931. Within the Ukrainian community, Bossy was best known for having founded the Canadian branch of the Ukrainian “Sitch” Organization in 1924. The Sitch Organization was a paramilitary movement that supported the Skoropadsky monarch-in-exile and advocated the establishment of a Ukrainian monarchy; it would later become the United Hetman Organization and was, for a brief period, an important force in the Ukrainian Canadian community.

Within the Montreal community, Bossy became an advocate for ethnic minority groups and helped new immigrants to integrate into Quebec society. In 1949, at the urging of the School Board, he formed the Bureau du Service Neo-Canadian (New Canadian Service Bureau), and set up an office on University Avenue. In addition to helping immigrants like himself familiarize themselves with their new surroundings, Bossy’s office also organized events, such as a “New Canadians celebration” in 1949 to celebrate Montreal’s ethnic diversity.

In October of 1963, the New Canadian Service Bureau folded and was replaced by the Institute of the Canadian Ethnic Mosaic Confederation. Representatives of seventeen ethnic groups met at the Insitute’s headquarters, Villa Semper Fidelis in Ile Bizard near Montreal, to form what was hoped would be an organization that would represent all ethnic minority communities in Canada.

Canadian Ethnic Mosaic

[Photo courtesy of the Walter J. Bossy papers, Library and Archives Canada]

To announce the new Institute, Bossy sent an open letter addressed to Andre Laurendeau on 28 August 1963. Laurendeau was the co-chair of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which was about to begin its work. Like many ethnic minority leaders, Bossy was concerned about the Commission’s use of the term “bilingualism and biculturalism” and the fact that its terms of reference referred to “two founding races.” In his letter to Laurendeau, Bossy noted that he had dedicated forty years of service “on behalf of the non-English and non-French Canadian ethnic groups.” In light of the recent discussion of a “third force” (composed of the ethnic minority groups other than the French and British) and in light of the need to organize ethnic minority communities, Bossy believed that his Institute might lead the “third force.” The groups that met at Villa Semper Fidelis “requested their former “New Canadian Service Bureau” to assume new dimensions and responsibilities, and in effect to become the rallying centre of representatives of all ethnic groups.” If ethnic groups were unable to rally around the Institute, its founders hoped at the very least to “provide the [Royal] Commission with the location and name of a body that the ethnic groups themselves have specifically designated to be their spokesman.”

The Institute asked Bossy to present a brief to the preliminary hearing of the Royal Commission. On November 8, 1963, Bossy told the commissioners that “statistically” the “other ethnic groups” constituted a force in Canadian society. He went on to say that the idea of a third force “does not mean that we are carrying the bombs behind, but it is a potential force.” Bossy concluded with two recommendations. First, he said that the Commission owed it to the other ethnic groups to explain the terms of reference of the Commission in ethnic language newspapers, as the terms could be interpreted as discriminatory. Second, Bossy said that any new constitution should have input from all of the ethnic groups living in Canada, as the “third group” deserved to have an equal say as “Fathers of Confederation.”

Despite Bossy’s best intentions, however, the Institute of the Canadian Ethnic Mosaic Confederation acted neither as a clearinghouse for information about ethnic groups, nor did it help to organize the multicultural movement. While there were some initial attempts to share information with other ethnic organizations, it became clear that there was no real demand for a pan-ethnic body of the kind that Bossy envisioned. Similarly, the Royal Commission never did explain its focus on “bilingualism and biculturalism” in ethnic language newspapers, nor did it see ethnic minority groups or the “third group” as “Fathers of Confederation.”

It would take another eight years before the Canadian Government would officially abandon “biculturalism” for “multiculturalism.” Nonetheless, Bossy’s submission to the Royal Commission on behalf of the Institute was one of the first open attacks on biculturalism by a coalition of ethnic minorities. It marks an important milestone in Canada’s development because it was an indication that ethnic minority communities were no longer content to be viewed as an afterthought to the “founding races.” Walter Bossy and the Institute of the Canadian Ethnic Mosaic Confederation were important builders of the notion of “multiculturalism” in Canada because they challenged long-held views about Canadian identity and ethnicity.

To hear an audio recording of Walter Bossy at the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism’s preliminary hearing, visit the CBC Digital Archives: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/language-culture/the-road-to-bilingualism/canada-is-actually-tricultural.html

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