Who Killed the History of Canadian Multiculturalism?

Street crowd reflecting in the polyhedral mirrors of Tokyu Plaza Omotesando, Harajuku station, Tokyo, Japan, Wikimedia Commons.

Daniel R. Meister

In a recent op-ed, Stephen Marche claims “the foundation of Canadian multiculturalism rests on a basic piece of common sense: Leave your shoes at the door.” Picking up on this thread, Jack Granatstein countered that multiculturalism as a policy actually consists of encouraging immigrants to leave those shoes on—and march right into a polling booth. Multiculturalism is about buying votes, he suggests, and there is little effort being made to “turn immigrant communities into Canadians.” But a brief examination of the policy’s history and impact suggests quite the opposite on both counts.

Multiculturalism as a concept emerged during the debates about national identity that marked the 1960s. In response to the Quiet Revolution and the rise of separatism in Quebec, in 1963 the federal government acceded to requests for a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, both bi’s referring to English and French. This conception of Canada was unacceptable to Canadians who were from backgrounds other than English or French. Canada was not bicultural, they argued, it was “multi-cultural.”

These protests led the Commissioners to draft an additional volume of their final report. Released in 1969, Book IV on the “other ethnic groups” rejected the idea of multiculturalism. Playing it safe, the Commissioners stuck with bilingualism and biculturalism, the concepts they had been tasked with investigating. However, the civil servants charged with crafting a response to the volume proposed a compromise between the two concepts: multiculturalism, but within an English-French bilingual framework.[1]

It was this new policy that Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced on 8 October 1971. Multiculturalism within a bilingual framework, he explained, meant that “although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other.” The speech went on to explain that the government would support the policy in four main ways:

First, resources permitting, the government will seek to assist all Canadian cultural groups that have demonstrated a desire and effort to continue to develop a capacity to grow and contribute to Canada, and a clear need for assistance, the small and weak groups no less than the strong and highly organized.

Second, the government will assist members of all cultural groups to overcome cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society.

Third, the government will promote creative encounters and interchange among all Canadian cultural groups in the interest of national unity.

Fourth, the government will continue to assist immigrants to acquire at least one of Canada’s official languages in order to become full participants in Canadian society.

Multiculturalism was therefore less about buying votes and more about acknowledging that, as critics had pointed out, declaring Canada to be officially bicultural made little sense when fully one-third of Canadians in 1971 were of different ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the grants program, only one part of the multiculturalism policy, was incredibly small compared to funding that the state provided to other programs like bilingualism. Frankly, the grants may well have generated more accusations of tokenism than votes for the party that introduced them.[2]

Consisting of three-quarters of the core elements of the policy, integration has clearly been an outsized part of official multiculturalism from the outset. And comparative studies have repeatedly shown that multiculturalism has been successful in encouraging integration. As Will Kymlicka, the leading scholar of official multiculturalism, has pointed out, some 93% of immigrants identify strongly or very strongly with Canada, a rate that is much higher than in other countries. Compared with other countries, immigrants to Canada are “more likely to become citizens, to vote, and to run for office, and more likely to be elected to office.” He continues: “If we ask immigrants themselves, it appears that they value multicultural nationalism because it enables them to feel at home in Canadian society and to participate in Canadian politics.”[3]

Equating successful integration with a lack of interest in one’s country of origin is overly simplistic. But even taking this argument at face value, the examples of what has been called diaspora politics that Marche and Granatstein have provided are hardly exclusive to Canada. A Canadian Sikh leader was recently murdered, but the same agents also intended to kill numerous activists in America. Canada is rocked by protests over the Israel-Hamas war, but these protests are global in their scope. “Geopolitical nightmares always seem to have a way of intruding on our populace,” Granatstein writes, but in what country is this not true? Marche and Granatstein provide no evidence that multiculturalism exacerbates this tendency.

This is not to say that multiculturalism is a panacea or that it needs no adjustments. The policy was – like its antecedents – designed primarily for Canadians of non-British, non-French, European descent. As such, it was aimed at addressing “cultural barriers,” not necessarily discrimination on the basis of “race” or religion (or, for that matter, gender and sexuality). Numerous scholars have suggested that officials subsequently layered on anti-racist programming (in the 1980s) and programming targeting Islamophobia (in the 2000s).[4] However, as I’ve argued elsewhere, such periodizations overlook how bitterly some of these changes were contested – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these shifts have not been sufficient to address these problems.[5] There is also the intractable issue that multiculturalism at present is really “colonial multiculturalism,” because it “insufficiently recognize[s] the sui generis or inherent rights of [Indigenous] peoples which existed before colonization and continue still.”[6]

In short, official multiculturalism has its share of shortcomings. There are plenty of grounds on which the policy can be fairly critiqued. But when it comes to the integration of newcomers, the evidence shows that multiculturalism is helping, not harming.

Daniel R. Meister is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of The Racial Mosaic (MQUP 2021).


[1] The best work on the Royal Commission remains Eve Haque, Multiculturalism Within a Bilingual Framework: Language, Race, and Belonging in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012). The detailed history of the official policy of multiculturalism remains largely told in unpublished theses and dissertations. However, for a helpful published overview, see Kenneth McRoberts, Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), chap. 5.

[2] The obvious counter here is that whatever its intentions, the policy has been used by politicians to try to buy votes. But of what policy is this not true? Certainly not military procurement: as one expert put it, “despite the relatively small impact to the overall economy, the dominance of domestic economic and political considerations in Canadian defence spending, to the relative neglect of security or strategic and military factors, is the normal defence climate in Canada.” Quoted in Aaron Plamondon, The Politics of Procurement: Military Acquisition in Canada and the Sea King Helicopter (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 194. Pundits have been pithier, in one case accusing the federal government of being “more interested in buying votes than buying ships.”

[3] Kymlicka’s work on multiculturalism began in the vein of political philosophy. However, he has subsequently undertaken numerous social scientific studies of the effects of the official policy (such as through the Multiculturalism Policy Index). Early examples of this work include Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka, “Canadian Multiculturalism: Global Anxieties and Local Debates,” British Journal of Canadian Studies 23, no. 1 (2010): 43-72; Kymlicka, “Multiculturalism in Normative Theory and in Social Science,” Ethnicities 11, no. 1 (2011): 5-31; and Kymlicka and Banting, “Is There Really a Retreat from Multiculturalism Policies? New Evidence from the Multiculturalism Policy Index,” Comparative European Politics 11, no. 5 (2013): 577-98.

[4] The most consistently cited periodization is provided by sociologist Augie Fleras. See for instance The Politics of Multiculturalism: Multicultural Governance in Comparative Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 69–70 (tables 3.1 and 3.2). For an alternate model, see Will Kymlicka, “The Three Lives of Multiculturalism,” in Revisiting Multiculturalism in Canada: Theories, Policies, and Debates, ed. Shibao Guo and Lloyd Wong (Rotterdam: Sense, 2015), 17-35.

[5] For one examination, see Augie Fleras, Racisms in a Multicultural Canada: Paradoxes, Politics, and Resistance (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014).

[6] David Bruce MacDonald, “Reforming Multiculturalism in a Bi-National Society: Aboriginal Peoples and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Sociology 39, no. 1 (2014): 65-86, quote at 67.

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