Multiculturalism in Canada #1

KEY TERMS:pluralism -- interculturalism -- race-based apartheid -- multiculturalism -- the Canadian identity -- the Quiet Revolution -- the two solitudes -- collective rights -- individual rights -- the vertical mosaic -- the Bicultural and Bilingual Act -- Native land claims -- the Civil Rights Revolution -- affirmative action -- cultural relativism

Canada has been applauded as the first immigrant country to become thoroughly pluralistic -- in guiding philosophy as well as the obvious fact of an ethnically diverse population. However">

Multiculturalism in Canada #1

KEY TERMS:pluralism -- interculturalism -- race-based apartheid -- multiculturalism -- the Canadian identity -- the Quiet Revolution -- the two solitudes -- collective rights -- individual rights -- the vertical mosaic -- the Bicultural and Bilingual Act -- Native land claims -- the Civil Rights Revolution -- affirmative action -- cultural relativism

Canada has been applauded as the first immigrant country to become thoroughly pluralistic -- in guiding philosophy as well as the obvious fact of an ethnically diverse population. However, I intend to argue that the actual situation is much more ambiguous and complex, and that the earlier vision driving the country has altered drastically and rapidly over the past several decades until, today, it seems to many Canadians that we have arrived at a place envisioned by very few and sought by no one. In the vague hope of achieving an intercultural society with room for all-comers, we appear to have been propelled from the dark vision of two non-communicating founding nations within one country through a failed attempt at an inclusive biculturalism. In the process, we have seen our long-time vision of equal opportunity for individuals within an integrated intercultural nation change drastically to what looks suspiciously like one of race-based apartheid in a mere geographical territory housing a multitude of isolated ethnic groupings. A look at the course of this revolution may prove enlightening.

Our story begins in the early 1960s. In 1961, when the historian W. L. Morton wrote his book on the subject, the overriding concern was the issue of "Canadian identity". It is significant that Morton felt justified in concluding that a transmutation was then underway for our country: one "...wrought when the two [heretofore separate] cultures [Francophone and Anglophone] are seen as variations on a common experience of the land and history of Canada, and of the common allegiance in law and spirit to the traditions and the Crown of the land".#2 However, social scientists were already talking about a new concern. Sociologists of education in particular were thinking in terms of something that they called "interculturalism" that is, teaching children from all of the country's subcultural groupings to understand (and respectfully consider) the contributions of each group to this developing and encompassing Anglophone/Francophone culture. The earliest official reference to the contrasting concept of "multiculturalism" can be found in the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The Commission was the response of the government of Pierre Trudeau to the "Quiet Revolution" in Quebec which had resulted in the beginnings of a demand for sovereignty. This demand owed as much to the general recognition by the Quebecois of the hopelessness of persuading the economically powerful Anglophones within the province to live and work in French as it did to the freeing of the Francophones themselves from the authoritarian power of the Church. The response of the federal government at that time was to emphasize the need for those changes deemed necessary to satisfy Francophone aspirations within a united Canada. The governing Liberals liked the idea of "biculturalism"-- a term first introduced by Graham Spry in 1929 in a speech referring to Canada's two-fold cultural character. The concept of the "two solitudes", popularized by the novelist Hugh McLennan, had subsequently made the Canadian public concerned about the threat to national unity posed by the existence of growing barriers separating Quebec Francophones and Canadians in the rest of the country.

Interestingly, the Commissioners referred to multiculturalism as it is defined today only in order to refute the premise on which it is based. "There are many reasons, the first moral, against considering ethnic differences, either by group or by origin, as a basic principle for shaping society," they said. "This would tend to create closed membership groups with newcomers condemned to remain outsiders; accidents of history would be emphasized and rigid barriers would divide people. Legislation based on ethnic group or ethnic origin would be a direct denial of the principle that all are created equal before the law... In a multi-ethnic country ... where inter-ethnic marriages are frequent and accepted, what could possibly justify legislation confining people within their so-called ethnic origin?"#3

It was in Book IV of the Report that the actual word was first used in a formal context. During their hearings across the country the commissioners had noted that "among those of non-British, non-French origin, some accept official bilingualism without hesitation but categorically reject biculturalism. They consider Canada to be a country that is officially bilingual but fundamentally multicultural. In reply to this objection we wish to repeat that in our view the term bicultural covers two main realities. The first is the state of each of the two cultures [of the founders of the confederation from 1791 to 1867] and the opportunity to exist and flourish. The second is the coexistence and collaboration of those two cultures: the basically bicultural nature of our country and the subsequent contributions made by other cultures. It is thus clear that we must not overlook Canadian cultural diversity keeping in mind that there are two dominant cultures, the French and the British."#4 Culture was defined in the Report solely in terms of a shared history and the language that conceptualized and expressed that history. The notion of bloodlines as a basis for cultural identity was firmly rejected by the Commissioners.

It is obvious that the Commissioners' intention was for incoming minorities to integrate into the bicultural texture of Canada. They referred to the enrichment thereby brought to one or both of the dominant cultures; and the way in which immigrant groups "continue to flourish and benefit through their integration with one of the two societies. Thus, streams enter a river and their waters mix and swell the river's flow... [But, just in case readers confuse integration with assimilation]] nothing should prevent those of other than British and French ethnic origin from keeping their attachment to their original culture once they have been integrated into Canadian life."#5 Thus, throughout the report integration was being recommended as the goal of any government policy. Indeed, the Commissioners ended Book IV by concluding that, in a multi-ethnic society such as Canada's, only an ongoing process of integration can ensure respect for "both the spirit of democracy and the most deep-seated human values [and] can engender healthy diversity within a harmonious and dynamic whole".#6

By the decade of the sixties the basic liberal principle of human rights for individuals was as firmly embedded in Canadian culture as it had long been in our philosophy of common law. It had been explicitly defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948, and accepted by Canada as a founding member. In 1960 the Canadian federal government led by John Diefenbaker had passed legislation establishing the Canadian Bill of Rights -- spelling out the fundamental right of a citizen not to be discriminated against by reason of race, national origin, skin color, religious belief or gender. In 1982 this was included in the new Constitution instituted by the Trudeau government.

The right of collectivities sharing a distinctive ethnic subculture to retain and enhance that culture within the encompassing Canadian setting was, however, recognized as quite a different matter. In fact, the Supreme Court of Canada has explicitly rejected the assertion that groups possess collective rights capable of overriding those of the individual. The "B and B Commission" seems to have been the first official forum to raise the issue of the possible existence of such cultural rights for constituent collectivities. However, the Report specifically restricted these rights to the two founding nations involved in the creation of the Confederation -- and to the matter of language as the crucial instrument for defining and carrying culture. The ambiguous situation in which this left the aboriginal peoples was of some concern to the Commissioners, but they deemed the matter to be beyond their terms of reference. They did note, nevertheless, that integration was, thus far, not being accomplished very successfully for aboriginals -- and that attempts at assimilation as an alternative seemed to have had a deleterious effect upon the indigenous culture.

Clearly, the overriding premise of the "B and B" Report was that the concept of cultural rights in Canada was to be restricted to the original building blocks of Canadian culture. Even here the expectation was that these founding subcultures would co-exist within a collaborative relationship. However, two weaknesses are apparent in the Commissioners' recommendations, and there is no doubt that these have contributed to our subsequent confusion over multiculturalism. Nowhere did they explicitly acknowledge the need to support and enhance a unifying Canadian culture as a living, evolving entity incorporating the best of the founding subcultures -- as well as of those ethnic groups who had immigrated in successive waves since Confederation. The other critical fault was the neglect of the matter of priorities whenever subcultural rights happened to conflict with the rights of the individual, or with the preservation and workability of Canadian culture as a whole.

A book by Canadian sociologist John Porter, published in 1965, was to have an influence almost as great as that of the "B and B" Commission. It was called The Vertical Mosaic. The idea of the "mosaic"(rather than the " melting pot") as an analogy for Canadian culture had already gained credence and had, in fact, been referred to in the preliminary report of the Commission in 1964. Porter's title popularized the idea and seemed (for those who had not read the book) to amount to a recommendation of it as a model. What Porter had actually done, however, was merely to analyze the ethnic backgrounds of the various elites within Canadian society. He concluded that there existed a hierarchical ordering of cultural groupings, with those of British origin monopolizing most of the higher positions in the various elites, and with the Francophone Canadians rapidly gaining a corresponding power -- at least in Quebec, and in relation to their numbers in the population at large.

The major problems of Canadian society identified at that time by John Porter were "1) a fragmented political structure, 2) a lack of upward mobility into its elites and higher occupations, and 3) the absence of a clearly articulated system of values."#7 Regarding the latter, he expressed some concern about the prevalent notion of the "mosaic"as our one distinctive Canadian value. He noted that this value had apparently stemmed from a promotion of collective rights at the price of a growing confusion regarding individual rights and Canadian nationhood. "It seems inescapable," he wrote (obviously with some foreboding), "that the strong emphasis on ethnic differentiation can result only in those continuing dual loyalties which prevent the emergence of any clear Canadian identity."#8 It is clear from these conclusions that, by the time of the publication of Porter's book, the idea that Canada was uniquely different from other immigrant societies in the degree to which it fostered and celebrated cultural diversity -- rather than the collective contribution to one enveloping and evolving culture -- was already becoming ensconced in the public mind.

In 1969 the Bicultural and Bilingual Act became law. In 1971, in response to widespread criticism from opposition parties and from immigrant minorities who felt that their interests and contributions had been overlooked, the federal government proclaimed a policy of multiculturalism. In 1972 this was made a matter of ministerial responsibility. In 1973 a Canadian Consultative Council of Multiculturalism was formed, as well as a Multiculturalism Directorate within the Department of the Secretary of State.#9 By the time that Brian Mulroney's Conservative government had replaced the Liberals in 1984, a virtual sea change had occurred in the general cultural climate, with the notion of multiculturalism having replaced that of biculturalism in the Canadian psyche.

The result was that there was little or no questioning of Cabinet's decision to confirm the principle in law, and the "Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada" was readily passed in Parliament on July 7, 1988. The fact that the legislation was riddled with ambiguity and logical contradictions seemed to alarm very few. It was declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada thenceforth to promote multiculturalism (defined loosely as the protection and retention of incoming cultures and their languages) while at the same time ensuring equality of opportunity for all to participate in all aspects of Canadian society, and while strengthening the use of the two official languages of the country as well.

The Multiculturalism Act was augmented in 1991 by the Department of Multiculturalism and Citizenship Act spelling out the Minister's responsibilities in encouraging the participation of all citizens in the sociocultural, political and economic institutions of Canada, and in promoting greater awareness of our multicultural heritage. A startling omission in these landmark documents, however, is any clear expression of the importance of national unity, and of the need for minority subcultures to integrate into the larger society and to identify with an enveloping and evolving Canadian culture. Furthermore, although there is a recurring emphasis on "cultural retention" for all of the diverse communities within the whole, there is no corresponding emphasis on the need to build, protect and transmit a distinctively Canadian culture! So much for Canadian identity!

It is one of the ironies of our history that, although multiculturalism was originally proposed in the form of an enhancement of biculturalism as a means of unifying Canada, it rapidly metamorphasized into a movement proposing a contrasting vision of the country. The new vision was perhaps best described by former Prime Minister Joe Clark as a "community of communities" -- with the connection among them seemingly rendered tenuous at best. In fact, sometime during the 1970s, multiculturalism had begun to be seen as an alternative to biculturalism, rather than a complementary political objective. Also, by that time, the idea of multiculturalism had been transplanted, in a variety of mutations, to the United States and to destinations as far way as Australia. What had happened?

To understand all this it is necessary to trace the story of multiculturalism in Canada to its sources and manifestations in four revolutions: two inside the country and two without. As already noted, its Canadian roots were indirectly in "The Quiet Revolution" occurring in Quebec in the decades following World War II. They can also be identified in the first stirrings of what was to become the movement for aboriginal rights and Native Land Claims -- particularly in those Western Canadian provinces where there had either been no treaties signed, or where new circumstances had arisen which put older agreements into question. The first outside source was an explosion in worldwide migrations: movements of people from less-advantaged countries to destinations such as Canada. The second was the "Civil Rights Revolution" in the United States beginning in the early sixties.

The conclusion eventually arrived at by the advocates of multiculturalism was that battle was required on two fronts. The first step was to demand the equality of opportunity that would in time -- according to the premise of the essential equality of cultures -- provide minorities with "proportional representation" in the board rooms and universities and governments of the nation, and until this goal was achieved, race- or ethnicity-based affirmative action programs would be necessary. Secondly, these same minorities would seek the right to the type of governmental support that would enable them to retain their cultures intact and free from alteration from without.

The evolution of multiculturalism provides us with a fascinating study of the transformation of an idea for social reform based on the premise of equality of opportunity for individuals regardless of biological inheritance or ancestral history into its precise opposite: the idea of equality of results for ethnic groups, at the price of sacrificing hard-won individual rights. I have traced this transformation in the longer version of this paper, which is to appear as a chapter of an upcoming book called Essays on Multiculturalism. The process, as it occurred in the United States during the past three decades, is followed in detail by the social critic Dinesh d'Souza, the sociologist Nathan Glazer, and the humanities professor John M. Ellis.#10 Their analyses, along with those of Neil Bissoondath and others in Canada,#11 offer a way for us to understand the backlash against multiculturalism now being experienced in Canada. My thesis is that the story begins to make sense only when we view it terms of multiculturalism not merely as a goal and program but as an ideology traceable to the philosophy of cultural relativism.


1. Paper presented by Pat Duffy Hutcheon at the World Congress of the International Sociological Association in Montreal in July, 1998.

2. Morton, W. L. The Canadian Identity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961, p.112.

3.  Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1967. Six Volumes.

4.  Ibid. Book IV, p.12-13.

5.  Ibid. p.12.

6.  Ibid. p.14.

7.  Porter, John. The Vertical Mosaic, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965, p.558.

8.  Ibid.

9. The Canadian Encyclopaedia The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Volume II. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1985, p.1174.

10. See Glazer, Nathan, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) for an argument --somewhat laced with misgivings -- for continuing commitment on the part of Americans for race-based compensatory discrimination, and D'Souza, Dinesh, The End of Racism (New York: The Free Press, 1995) for an enlightening analysis and criticism of the ideology of multiculturalism. Other valuable sources are Bromwich, David, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1992) and Ellis, John M., Literature Lost : Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1997). See also Hutcheon, Pat Duffy, "A Culture of Pluralism or a Culture of Tribalism?" in Building Character and Culture (Praeger Press, 1999).

11. For a distinctively Canadian critical analysis see Bissoondath, Neil, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1994) and If You Love This Country: Fifteen Voices for a Unified Canada (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1995.