Sociology 211

September 27, 2004


C.  History of multiculturalism in Canada


1.  Developments within Canadian society


Canada’s adoption of multiculturalism as official policy is a result of a long series of historical developments.  During much of the nineteenth and through to the mid-twentieth century, Anglo dominance pervaded business and government, in that elites were of English ancestry.  This dominance was enforced on those of other ancestry and culture through the educational system, language practice in government, immigration laws, qne dominant cultural norms.  By the 1960s, it was becoming apparent that there was a need for change in many of the social structures and practices within Canada.  Some of the forces associated with this are as follows.


·        Diversity.   There has been long recognition of some forms of ethnic diversity in Canada.  Canada has always had the ‘two founding nations’ plus the original peoples.   From the early 20th century, immigrants came from many countries and regions, although these immigrants were primarily European.  However, this population diversity was often associated with inequitable treatment of some groups, and Anglo domination characterized much of the political, economic, and social system of Canada from 1800 through the 1950s, with dramatic changes only in the last few decades.

·        No Melting Pot.  Historians and sociologists have often argued that the melting pot model did not seem to explain what was occurring in Canada.  United States was a new nation with no distinctive culture at the time it was established.  It was an experiment in building a new nation.  As immigrants came to the United States, they were often described as quickly losing their original culture and assimilating or integrating into the new nation quickly.  This assimilation was not so much forced on immigrants but was part of a process by which they integrated into the new nation and by which the United States as a nation was built.  The melting pot could also refer to the actual fusion of people through inter-marriage. 

The integration process may not be all different in Canada, especially on the Prairies.  That is, there have been strong integrative or assimilative forces at work in Canada, leading to loss of much of the original culture of some immigrants and creating a Canadian culture and identity.    But the argument of some historical and social analysts is that Canada has always characterized by ethnic pluralism, with greater ethnic diversity and retention of original culture by immigrants, than in the United States.

·        End of Anglo Conformity?  Increasing recognition that Anglo-conformity/British dominance was no longer acceptable.  Developments from outside (decline of empire and colonialism) and inside Canada (new voices of non-British groups, or voices that were previously unheard, sometimes of the critical multiculturalism type).  This Anglo dominance was one of the means by which conformity and a common form of group life was enforced in earlier era.  Bibby (1990) notes that Canada was characterized by community and not by individualism.  Part of this may have been British influence and dominance – elites and culture.   The influence of the sociologist John Porter should not be forgotten here.  In his book The Vertical Mosaic, Porter conducted an encyclopedic study of elites in Canada, demonstrating how the economic, political, military, educational, and even trade union elite was heavily dominated by Anglo-Canadians.  Those of other ethnic backgrounds were generally excluded from being decision-makers in policy areas. 

·        Industrialization and Urbanization.  Earlier agrarian and rural society gave way to a more industrialized and urbanized society.  (Bibby, 1990, p. 37).  The former is characterized by community and similarity, with members of society generally holding common values; the latter is characterized by individualism, pluralism, and relativism, with members of society holding diverse values and practicing many different life styles.  Those familiar with Simmel and Durkheim, two founders of sociology as an academic discipline, will recognize the importance of this.  Simmel argued that, compared with a rural background, urban life is associated with greater diversity, fashion, and less extended and intensive interaction among individuals.  This both expanded the possibilities for minorities to participate and changed forms of community and group interaction. Similarly, Durkheim argued that as the division of labour develops, there is development of difference, and it is these differences and mutual needs of different members of society that creates a new form of social solidarity.  Kymlicka develops a similar argument when he notes how “as a culture becomes more liberal, the members are less and less likely to share the same substantive conception of the good life, and more and more likely to share basic values with people in other liberal cultures.”  (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 87).  That is, there is increased diversity within each society, and less diversity between them, at least with respect to the view of what is a good life.


·        1960s – Quiet Revolution in Quebec.  As Quebec became more urbanized, there was also a more aggressive nationalism, one that has continued to this day.  Urbanization, industrialization, secularization and the decline of the influence of the Roman Catholic church in Quebec, and increasing levels of formal education.  This was a major social change, one that altered Quebec society forever. That is, there was very rapid social change in Quebec culture and ‘modernization and liberalization’ of Quebec society.  The term “quiet revolution” may refer more directly to the political, economic, and social changes that took place in the early 1960s in Quebec, and to the nationalism that led to questioning the place of Quebec in the Canadian federation.  Associated with this, at the federal level, was the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission (B and B) in 1963 – a commission that made its report in 1969.  This commission was established to deal with issues related to Quebec and the French language.

·        Self-determination.  From the United Nations and other parts of world, the influence of language and developments such as human rights, national self-determination, and end of colonialism also had an influence in Canada.  We have discussed these in the last few days, in connection with nations and national minorities.

·        Inequality.  In the 1960s, there was a rediscovery of poverty, inequality, and regional differences.  Various individuals and groups attempted to document these and determine what were some of the problems associated with Canadian society.  These were critical studies, that led some Canadians to question the social structure of Canadian society.  While there were not revolutionary changes in Canadian social structure, many of the issues of inequality began to be addressed – medicare, Canada Pension Plan, unemployment insurance, and other social welfare programs were established.  Other social policy changes, such as the development of an expanded system of post-secondary education and establishment of policies such as bilingualism and multiculturalism developed in this period.  Most of these have continued through present times and help define the Canadian identity, although there are always threats that these programs will be cut.


2.  Policy developments associated with “official multiculturalism”


The beginning of the development and adoption of multiculturalism as an official or policy level is usually considered to have begun with the appointment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963.   The aims of the Commission were:

·        To examine the dual issues of bilingualism and biculturalism and find ways to increase awareness of the cultural dualism of Canada.

·        To address bilingualism in the federal government, and find ways to promote better cultural relations between French and English.  How to increase bilingualism.

·        Reference to the two founding races later changed to the two founding peoples.

·        No mention of aboriginal people.

·        Other ethnic groups were not a focus but were mentioned and the Commission was to take into account their “contribution … to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.”  (Burnet and Palmer, p. 223).

The Commission heard reports from many immigrant and ethnic groups who reported that they also needed recognition, that is, Canada is not just composed of those of English and French ancestry, but includes many immigrants from other countries.  Critics of multiculturalism have often argued that these non-British, non-French groups were only used by English Canada as a means of countering the French.  But the representatives from these ethnic groups represented people who had integrated into Canadian society, gained some economic clout, but whose interests had often had been ignored in the past.  Of these groups, it was primarily German, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European groups, often from the Prairies, that had the greatest influence on the Commission and were most vocal.  They viewed themselves as a Third Force and argued that since they were close to one-third of the population they should also receive greater recognition. 


As a result of the report of the Commission, the federal government established a policy of bilingualism in Canada with formal equality for the English and French languages in Parliament and the federal civil service.  The Official Languages Act, setting out these principles, was passed into law in 1969, and revised in 1985.  See the web site


Book IV of the Report was devoted to issues raised by Third Force groups and outlined a “social policy concerning those Canadians, particularly such of them as wished to retain their ethnic identity and some of their cultural heritage.”  (Burnet and Palmer, p. 224).  The results included revision of  the immigration act with a more equitable points system (although there were many other influences on immigration policy), and an official policy of “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework” was proclaimed in 1971.  (Burnet and Palmer, p. 224).


Fleras and Kunz (p. 14), state four principles that underlined the actions of the federal government.  These are:

·        Equality of status – especially of cultures, so there is to be equality of cultures in Canada.

·        Diversity is an essential part of Canadian identity.

·        Personal choice – ability to choose lifestyle and cultural traits, and this is to be regarded positively.

·        Protection of individual rights and freedom from discrimination.

While Canada has obviously not met all of these goals in the last thirty years, these appear to be important principles guiding a multicultural approach.


In 1971, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the federal government policy would be to:

·        Assist all Canadian cultural groups that have demonstrated a desire and effort to continue to grow and contribute to Canada.

·        Assist members of all cultural groups to overcome cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society.  [Note though that this does not include economic equality. although it might imply equality of opportunity, while being associated with actual economic inequality].

·        Promote creative encounters and interchange among all Canadian cultural groups in the interest of national unity.

·        Assist immigrants to acquire at least one of Canada’s official languages.

The federal government established a Multiculturalism Directorate within the Department of the Secretary of State in 1972. 


When discussing multiculturalism in Canada, there are a number of other legislative and policy changes that may be just as important as multiculturalism itself.  Some of these are as follows.


Canadian Citizenship Act of 1977, revised in 1985 (  The first Canadian Citizenship Act was in 1947, just after the end of the second world war.  Prior to this, Canadians (and Australians, New Zealanders, and others in British Commonwealth countries) were essentially British subjects, rather than citizens.  This led to confusion about the status of immigrants in Canada and even the status of some Canadian-born women, whose nationality was sometimes tied to that of her husband.  The Act of 1977 recognized the equality of women in terms of Canadian citizenship and clarified the terms of citizenship for immigrants.  Given the direction of multiculturalism policy in recent years (Fleras and Kunz, pp. 15-16), this Act has major implications for what it means to be a Canadian and what rights, privileges, and obligations are associated with this.  This is one means by which individuals are connected to Canada, and a means of defining Canadian identity. 


Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977, revised in 1985 (, following Human Rights Bill of 1960, during the John Diefenbaker era, and following the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights of 1947 (see Isajiw, p. 242).  The latest version of the federal Act defines prohibited grounds for discrimination, that is, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, or conviction of an offense for which a pardon has been granted.  We will return to this in the section on prejudice and discrimination.


In 1967, immigration laws and regulations were changed to signal that Canada would accept immigrants from a much larger variety of countries than in the past, and would follow a more equitable policy of admission to the country.  The Immigration Act was revised in 1978 and again more recently, setting different objectives and policies governing the admission of immigrants and refugees to Canada.  We will review the history of immigration and immigration policy when discussing Isajiw, chapter 3-4.  Currently the act is termed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (2001).


The Constitution Act of 1982, along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ( resulted in the patriation of the Canadian constitution, bringing it to Canada, although without the signing or agreement of Quebec.  While this deals with many aspects of the division of government powers within Canada, two parts are especially relevant to multiculturalism.  One is the statement of the rights of aboriginal peoples, and the definition of what “aboriginal peoples” means – the Indian, Inuit, and Metis people of Canada.  The other key aspect is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states the fundamental freedoms and rights of Canadians.  In addition, the Charter (section 27) calls for interpretation “in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”  (Canadian Heritage web site). 


In 1983, the House of Commons established a Special Committee on Visible Minorities in Canadian Society, which made its report in March , 1984.  The report Equality Now! called for removing all roadblocks to preventing full participation of all citizens in the cultural, social, economic and political life of the country.  (p. 1).


In 1986, an Employment Equity Act ( required federally regulated employers to provide improved access to employment opportunities for women, disabled, Aboriginal people and visible minorities. 


The Canadian Multiculturalism Act ( was passed in 1988 with the principles being:

·        Multiculturalism is a central feature of Canadian citizenship.

·        Every Canadian has the freedom to choose to enjoy, enhance or share his or her heritage.

·        The federal government has the responsibility to promote multiculturalism throughout its departments and agencies.

                Source: Multiculturalism … being Canadian, p. 19.


The Act outlines some areas in which multicultural policy will take effect and expands the list of 1971 to provide a little more detail.  These acts generally argued for equality of all, equal rights and benefits of the law without discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.

Some results of multiculturalism policy:

·        Encourage ethnocultural groups to develop a sense of belonging to Canada. At same time to encourage the general public to be aware of and accept these cultural differences and understand the contribution of the different groups.

·        Assistance to performance and visual arts – most of this has been eliminated.

·        To develop traditional culture through maintaining heritage languages.  Assistance to research and publication.  Regina Refugee Study is one example.

·        Educational materials.

·        Conferences on race relations.

·        Organizational support for groups like Immigrant Women of Saskatchewan.

·        Anti-racism activity.


The emphasis of federal multiculturalism has shifted considerably since it was originally established in 1971.  In particular, over time there has been less support for direct financial assistance to ethnic minority groups and organizations, and greater emphasis on educational programs, research and conferences, and publicity around anti-racism activities.  Fleras and Kunz (pp. 13-16) divide official multiculturalism into three overlapping stages.  The key defining characteristics of each period continue into the succeeding periods, but with a shift of emphasis.


1.  Ethnicity multiculturalism (from 1971).  The initial focus of federal multiculturalism policy is that outlined by Trudeau in 1971.  The focus appears to have initially been on those of minority cultures, other than English and French.  There appears to have been little emphasis on aboriginal culture – it was more different ethnic or immigrant group cultures that occupied the policy.  This meant it was primarily focussed on different cultures of European origin, since there were few Canadians from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia.   While multiculturalism has shifted an emphasis toward visible minorities in recent years, it does not appear that the situation or relationships with visible minorities was the initial focus or intent of federal multiculturalism policy.  Some recent discussions of multiculturalism are misplaced in this sense, in that this focus on visible minorities came later – it is not clear whether a focus on multiculturalism was even anticipated in 1971.  Certainly the initial emphasis was on protecting “the distinct ethnic identities that immigrants brought with them while expanding the mainstream mindset through removal of cultural prejudice and discriminatory practices” (Fleras and Kunz, p. 14), but these were mainly immigrant ethnic groups of European origin.


2.  Equity multiculturalism (1981 on).  With the growing influx of new immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean in the 1970s, the emphasis of multiculturalism shifted somewhat.  The barriers faced by these new immigrants were more related to race and racial prejudice and discrimination than to language and culture.  Fleras and Kunz argue that more attention was paid to “equity, social justice, and institutional inclusiveness through removal of discriminatory barriers at structural levels” (pp. 14-15).  Fewer funds went to ethnic groups for cultural and language programs and more funds went to assist settlement of new Canadians, public education, and anti-racism activities.  After 1982, focus shifted a little more toward race relations, with conferences and research dealing with racism and issues related to visible minorities, including support to groups to attempt to combat racism. 


3.  Civic multiculturalism (1991 on).  More recently, the emphasis has shifted again, with the emphasis being on citizenship, inclusiveness, and participation. 


In 1995, the federal Department of Canadian Heritage launched a review of its programs, with the result of the review being a redesigned Multiculturalism Policy.  The new goals of this policy are outlined in the Canadian Heritage document “The Context for Renewal.”  The three essential goals outlined in this new policy are listed in the 2002-3 Annual Reprot on the Canadian Heritage web site as “The Multiculturalism Program.”

·        Identity.   Fostering a society that recognizes, respects and reflects a diversity of culture such that people of all background feel a sense of belonging and attachment to Canada.


·        Civic Participation.  Developing, among Canada’s diverse people, active citizens with both the opportunity and the capacity to participate in shaping the future of their communities and their country.


·        Social Justice.  Building a society that ensures fair and equitable treatment and that respects the dignity of people of all origins.

It is not clear whether these goals are in addition to the original goals of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act or exactly how they are to mesh with the earlier goals.  The Act remains unchanged, but the focus of programs appears to be aimed more at addressing problems of racism and discrimination, reducing or eliminating these, and encouraging equitable treatment of people of all backgrounds.  However, the program has only a small budget and does not appear to be a federal policy that receives all that much emphasis. 




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

Burnet Jean R. and Howard Palmer.  1988.  “Coming Canadians”  An Introduction to a History of Canada’s Peoples, Ottawa, Ministry of Supply and Services.

Canada, Department of the Secretary of State of Canada.  1987. Multiculturalism … being Canadian.  Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services Canada.  

Canada.  1983.  Parliament, House of Commons, Special Committee on Participation of Visible Minorities in Canadian Society.  Equality now!  Report of the Special Committee on Visible Minorities in Canadian Society.  CA1..XC…2 83V351

Kymlicka, Will.  1995.  Multicultural Citizenship, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Porter, John.  1965.  The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.



Last edited October 1, 2004