By Sean Graham
In October 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau delivered a statement in the House of Commons to announce that multiculturalism was now an official government policy. Based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which had been appointed in 1963, the intent of the policy was to both recognize the contributions of diverse ethnic groups while also protecting cultural freedom for all Canadians. In the fifty years since that announcement, the idea of multiculturalism and its meaning to Canada has continued to expand and change to reflect the country’s shifting demographics.
When thinking about the introduction of official multiculturalism, though, it’s important to remember that it didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of time for the government’s position on what constituted a ‘Canadian’ to change. The land that is now Canada has been home to diverse cultural groups from time immemorial, but the recognition of the nation’s diversity was a marked change in how the state officially viewed the population. Tracing the evolution of that position, in particular through the significant challenges presented by the interwar period, tells us a lot about what led to the Prime Minister’s 1971 announcement.
This is also the subject of Daniel R. Meister’s new book The Racial Mosaic: A Pre-History of Canadian Multiculturalism. In telling the story, Meister uses a historical biography approach to assess the changing conceptions of race, pluralism, and identity in the interwar period. Through the stories of Watson Kirkconnell, Robert England, and John Murray Gibbon, the book explores multiculturalism’s historical antecedents while also examining how race and racism have contributed to settler-colonialism in Canada.
In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Daniel about the book and history of multiculturalism. We discuss how he defines the pre-history of multiculturalism and pluralism, how these have contributed to colonialism, and the changing interpretation of race in the interwar years. We also chat about the rise of nationalism following the First World War, the utility of historical biography, and the key factors leading to 1971.
Sean Graham is a historian of Canadian broadcasting, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca