Sociology 211

September 29 and October 1, 2004



September 29, 2004 notes


D.  Meaning of multiculturalism


1.  Official multiculturalism   


Canadian Heritage web site states that the 1971 recommendations included:

·        preservation of human rights

·        development of Canadian identity

·        reinforcement of Canadian unity

·        improvement of citizen participation

·        enouragement of cultural diversification within a bilingual framework.


Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988.  This Act is addressed to all, quoting from the Constitution that “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination and that everyone has the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association and guarantees those rights and freedoms equally to male and female persons.”  It also cites the Official Languages Act, the Citizenship Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  That is, it is not addressed only to ethnic or national minorities, immigrant groups, or other minorities, but to all Canadians. 


a.  Policy.  See the September 24, 2004 handout “Principles of multiculturalism.”  These are primarily derived from section 3 of the Act, where the detailed aspects are to be the policy of the Government of Canada.   That is, they provide direction to what the policy of the federal government is to promote and encourage, and the principles that are to guide the federal government in its own activities. 


Since it is difficult to find statements concerning the specific meaning of multiculturalism in terms of what it means in guiding policy, practices of institutions, and social relationships among individuals and groups, I have used this as one standard for defining the meaning of multiculturalism.  The five principles deal with somewhat different aspects of multiculturalism – the first is partly statement of fact; the second through fourth are statements concerning goals or desired actions, practices, or social relationships; the final principle is how diversity might be used within Canada.







Missing elements? 

·        Says little about economic conditions and inequalities of resources available to individuals of different backgrounds. 

·        Insufficient attention to overcoming barriers, and perhaps nothing concrete to deal with these barriers, although some of this comes under programs, rather than policy.

·        Privileges the English and French languages.

·        Goals, not practices.


b.  Programs and mandate.  In section 5 of the Act, the responsibilities of the Minister are to

·        encourage and assist individuals and organizations to project multiculturalist reality in Canada and abroad.

·        undertake and assist research relating to multiculturalism and foster scholarship.

·        encourage and promote exchanges among diverse communities of Canada.

·        encourage and assist public institutions, businesses, labour organizations, and voluntary organization to ensure full participation, including the social and economic aspect for individuals of all origins and their communities

·        promote respect and appreciation for multiculturalism reality of Canada.

·        encourage preservation, enhancement, sharing and evolving expression of multiculturalism heritage of Canada.

·        facilitate acquisition, retention, and use of languages that contribute to multiculturalism heritage.

·        assist ethno-cultural communities to conduct activities with a view to overcoming any discriminatory barrier, in particular, discrimination on basis of race, national origin, or ethnic origin.

·        support to individuals, groups, organizations to preserve, enhance and promote multiculturalism.

·        undertake other projects or programs to promote multiculturalism policy of Canada.


October 1, 2004 notes


1.  Act to guide government departments.  Is not law for everyone, but is to be followed by federal government.  Is one standard for what multiculturalism as ideal or ideology might mean.


2.  Principles – maintenance of cultures but also deals with aspects of social justice, citizenship, and identity.  How good for dealing with problems?  May be more ideal than a description of Canadian society.


3.  Policy of multiculturalism has had an effect on Canadians, at least as evidenced by attitudes, especially the attitudes of young people.  When asked, many cannot say exactly what



2.  Multiculturalism as social practice


a.  Political and commercial (Fleras and Kunz, pp. 17-18).


Political.  Fleras and Kunz appear to support the view that “multiculturalism is first and foremost a political program to achieve political goals in a politically astute manner.”  (p. 17).  That is, it is not aimed at radical changes in the social, economic, or political structure, but more as a way to manage diversity and ensure that the dominant social structures are not challenged.  Where there are challenges, modifications to policies and programs can be made, but only at the cultural and symbolic level, rather than changing structures or changing who governs.  A cynic might say that the policy is primarily a means of gaining ethnic votes – multiculturalism has often been associated with the federal Liberal party, and some would say it has merely been a means of helping them to maintain political power.  However, it was during the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney that the Canadian Multiculturalism Act became law.  During the last federal election campaign (June 2004), the new Conservative Party declared that they do not support taxpayer funded multiculturalism. 


Commercial.  Canada’s multicultural diversity, official multiculturalism, and the way Canadian individuals and institutions have supported this policy, have led to multiculturalism being promoted as a Canadian commerical advantage.  Politicians, business leaders, and social scientist have all played a role in publicizing Canada as a society characterized by multiculturalism and one that could be a good model for other countries.  In a competitive, globalized world, this could give Canada an economic advantage in trade and finance.


In terms of the media and multiculturalism, Fleras and Kunz spend most of their book dealing with how media have often neglected the multicultural reality of Canada but have become somewhat more sensitive to it in recent years.  But there is still considerable systemic racism and discrimination.


b.  Minorities.   For minority groups, multiculturalism can be a resource in terms of ideas, programs, symbols, and attempting to eliminate barriers.  To the extent that Canadians generally adopt some of the principles of multiculturalism, this may assist newcomers to Canada and those who have been marginalized in helping gain a place in Canadian society.  While program dollars from the federal government to specific groups have been reduced, there are still some funds and programs that can be of assistance.  To the extent that multiculturalism is a political and commercial policy and activity, minority groups can use the political arena to press their own demands.  Minority groups can use the principles of multiculturalism, as stated in various pieces of legislation, to argue that they have been unfairly dealt with and that their rights and ability to participate have been compromised.  At the same time, some members of minority groups argue that multiculturalism is a trap – it diverts attention away from the real problems and diverts energies into cultural issues that do little to assist these minorities. 


E.  Problems of multiculturalism  


Multiculturalism has been attacked from many angles.  Some of the problems associated with multiculturalism have been outlined by Fleras and Elliott (2002, Chapter 4).  Some of the following notes come from this source.


1.  Divisive.  In Mosaic Madness, Reginald Bibby, of Lethbridge University, makes this argument, claiming that multiculturalism has helped preserve cultures and languages, but this has not had the effect of uniting Canadians or of bringing them together.  He argues that an emphasis on diversity means that there is limited group identity, no group vision, no national goals or dreams, nothing in the value system that marks it as Canadian (Bibby, p. 103).  Others have said that with the emphasis on multiculturalism and bilingualism, there is no Canadian identity, and people do not know what it means to be a Canadian.  Rather, it has helped keep people apart and has been one of the factors responsible for contributing to “cultural group solidarity at the expense of broader social participation” (Bibby from Charlton and Baker, p. 23). 


Fleras and Elliott (p. 99) give examples of this argument, stating that “national identity is almost impossible to construct when people are encouraged to pursue ethnic tribalism at the expense of their duties as citizens” (from Bissoondath) and “the proliferation of ethnically diverse groups fosters an inward-looking mentality that drives a wedge between Canadians” (from Gagnon)  


Some also argue that a policy of multiculturalism preserves some cultural aspects at the expense of letting the culture develop – it freezes the culture at a specific point in time.  At the same time, some of this may be inevitable in that immigrant groups come with some cultural traditions and may lose contact with the ongoing developments of the culture from which they come.  As a result, their memories of their original culture are memories of that culture at a specific time. 

This set of views f expression in interviews that came from the Regina Refugee Research Project.  One newcomer stated “activities may help but doesn’t help integration, but can help preserve culture,” and another said “I like it and hate it at the same time.  We can live in our culture but we are called minority groups.  Appears on job applications.  You are different.  Never be part of the total.”  


2.  Regressive and marginalizing.  Multiculturalism may help to maintain backward cultural practices, hinder participation, prevent equal education and opportunity, and maintain exploitation and inequality (Fleras in Charlton and Baker, pp. 26 and 30).  Among the practices of some immigrant groups that have been criticized are patriarchal family structures, the limited role for women in the traditional cultures, and the attempt to force children in the group to adopt the practices of parents.  That is, there may be severe inequalities by age, sex, and marital status within the original culture, religious practices may be forced on members, the attitudes and practices of members of these groups are contrary to those of a liberal, tolerant western society (sometimes claimed that this is true of Muslims, especially fundamentalists), and it may be difficult for members of such a group to leave the group (Hutterites).  By respecting the culture of these groups, the result is regressive, especially for women and children.


In terms of marginalization, the legitimate claims of minority ethnic groups may be ignored or sidetracked by those who claim that there is equality and harmony.  While the culture of minority groups may be respected, the real problems they face may not be addressed.  This can turn members of the minority group into “permanent outsiders” and “segregates” and “contains” them in ghettoes, allowing the dominant majority to “divide and rule.”  (Fleras and Elliott, pp. 100-101).  Multiculturalism as social policy can thus weaken minority groups, constrain their activities to the cultural field, and prevent them from challenging dominant cultural practices and governance.  Minority groups are thus rendered powerless, perhaps debating with each other or over issues that are not an essential to improving their place in society.


3.  Symbol and hoax.  A policy of multiculturalism is symbolic in expressing good ideas, but in practice such symbols may have little substance or effect and be very limited.  Resources devoted to multiculturalism may be largely devoted to symbolic aspects of culture, such as ethnic lifestyle, while ignoring the real problems of racism, discrimination, and inequality faced by people in minority cultures.   The posters of the Multiculturalism program of Canadian Heritage may be no more than that – they are just posters that have little effect on attitudes or social practices and relationships.  


The five principles expressed in the Act may be little more than symbols of what Canadians feel, but with little real meaning and limited application to social practice and social relations.  Again, if the real problems or some groups are racism and discrimination, along with limited economic and political opportunities, recognizing and appreciating the culture of these groups will do little to help them participate in society as equals or on an equitable basis. 


4.  Impractical and top-down.  From the left, the argument is often that social class is the central feature of our society, and multicultural policy or practice cannot deal with the inequalities that result from a capitalist social structure.  In fact, these policies could become policies of containing or limiting the demands of minority groups, rather than expressing their rights.  Peter Lamborn Wilson argues that multiculturalism should proceed from individuals and groups, not from the top down.  (See “Against Multiculturalism:  Let n flowers bloom,”  Instead of government sponsored multiculturalism, Wilson calls for local action and “a non-hierarchic, de-centred web of cultures, each one singular, but not alienated from other cultures.”  He calls this cross-culturalism but argues that “‘multiculturalism’ must be destroyed.”  While Wilson writes about the United States experience, some of his comments could apply to multiculturalism in Canada.


5.  Essentializes or stereotypes.  By focussing on group culture, members of the group may be considered to lack much diversity among themselves.  That is, those outside the group develop an idea of what the group culture might be and attribute this culture to all members of the group.  In fact, each member of the group is an individual and there can be great diversity within the group.  Such stereotypes may easily be spread through media, by presenting certain images of group members.   The argument here is presumably that multiculturalism, by emphasizing cultural practices, and their maintenance and encouragement, labels individuals with these cultural practices. 


6.  No challenge to social order.  This charge is specifically against government operated or official multiculturalism.  The problem here may be that multiculturalism was a program established to help government manage the social order, ensuring that challenges to the dominant groups and elites would not occur.  This is implicit in some of the earlier problems, but is a charge that governments have deliberately adopted a policy of multiculturalism to weaken minority groups, ensure social order is maintained, and keep conflicts limited and harmless to rule by dominant elites. 


7.  Multiple meanings – Peter Li, of the Department of Sociology, University of Saskatchewan, argues that the meaning of multiculturalism has never been very clear, because of the shifting emphases of the program.  For minority, immigrant groups, multiculturalism may have little meaning because of limited resources to promote their culture or language.  And the majority languages are the languages of the school system and official life.  Li and Bolaria argue “the irony of multiculturalism is that it furnishes Canadian society with a great hope without having to change the fundamental structures of society.  Multiculturalism is the failure of an illusion, not of a policy.”  (Li, 1988, p. 9).


8.  Multiculturalism as fantasy of unity.   The University of Toronto political scientist Richard Day argues that multiculturalism as policy may not indicate all that much of a break with earlier policies of assimilation of immigrants, limiting entry of certain types of immigrants, or genocide of original peoples.  Day argues that there has always been an attempt by the state to govern diversity in Canada, and this has been addressed at the policy and public level.  He states

the problem of Canadian diversity has always been public, it has always involved state sponsored attempts to define, know, and structure the actions of a field of problematic Others (Savages, Quebecois, Half-breeds, Immigrants) who have been distinguished from unproblematic Selves (French, British, British-Canadian, European) through a variety of means (civilization, humanity, race, culture, ethnicity, ethnocultural origin).  (Day, 2000, p. 5). 

The current emphasis on increased diversity, with more immigrants from non-traditional sources (Asia and Caribbean), demonstrates this language and view continues.  In the current context, multiculturalism as policy attempts to produce an idea of Canadian or national unity, or at least national unity in English speaking Canada.  For Day this unity is a fantasy and it would be best to abandon “the dream of unity.” (p. 12).  He argues more along the lines of what Fleras and Kunz claim is critical multiculturalism, to say that unity and full identity is not possible.  Day argues for “negotiation of all universal horizons, including that of the nation-state.”  (p 12).  That is, the attempt to produce national identity and national unity, or even the multi-nation state, should give way to a “goal of mutual and equal recognition amongst all who have chanced to find themselves within its borders.” (p. 12). 


While it is a little difficult to understand what Day’s recommendations for action might be, they are certainly critical of multiculturalism as official state policy.  They might lead to restructing many aspects of social relations and would be associated with many radical political changes that challenge the dominant political and economic structures and attempt to create new forms of equality among all.







Bibby, Reginald.  1990.  Mosaic Madness:  Pluralism Without a Cause, Toronto, Stoddart.

Bissoondath, Neil.  1994.  Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Penguin Books, Toronto.

Charlton, Mark and Paul Barker, editors.  1994.  Contemporary Political Issues, Nelson Canada, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, pp. 20-24.

Day, Richard J. F.  2000.  Multiculturalism and the History of Canadian Diversity, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliott.  2002 Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada, Nelson Thomson, Toronto.

Li, Peter. 1988.  Ethnic Inequality in a Class Society, Wall and Thompson, Toronto.

Canadian Heritage web site:


Last edited October 1, 2004.