Canadian Multiculturalism

By Pierre Anctil

Historical imbalances have shifted in light of diverse and dynamic new realities

A specifically Canadian variety of multiculturalism appeared in the late 1960s, in a very precise fashion, which tended to reflect the linguistic and cultural sensibilities of the country. For most of the twentieth century up until then, and certainly even more in the years that followed the signing of Confederation in 1867, Canada saw itself as an integral part of the British Empire; that is, a land where the Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition of government was, and ought to be, predominant.

Along with the other so-called White Dominions, notably Australia and New Zealand, Canada attempted to embody the values and perceptions of the Anglophone world, enthusiastically volunteering to defend the mother country in both world wars. Indeed, although Canada was also the home of an important French-speaking and Catholic minority, representing a third of the entire population, until well after the end of World War II, the dominant language in business, trade and the media remained overwhelmingly English and the culture British.

Two factors then combined to modify profoundly the political equilibrium of the Canadian political scene, the first being the resurgence of French-speaking Canada and particularly Québec, a province where Francophones made up 80% of the population. Embarking on a policy of modernization and cultural empowerment, the Québec government succeeded in the ’60s and ’70s in creating state institutions that re-established the French language as a significant force in the economy and in the cultural sphere. These changes had lasting influence everywhere in Canada and especially in the delivery of government services.  

Thus, in 1968, a language law was passed in the Ottawa Parliament, which effectively proclaimed the country to be officially bilingual and bicultural. At the same time, in 1971, at the insistence of a lobby composed largely of non-Francophone and non-Anglophone Canadians, a declaration was issued stating that Canada was to be considered a multicultural land where all cultures rooted in Canadian history were to be welcomed and cherished. This position was reaffirmed and constitutionalized in the 1988 Multiculturalism Act.

Except for First Nations, all of Canada’s inhabitants today are descended from colonists that established themselves when France or England was the dominant power in North America, or came as immigrants in the twentieth century from a great variety of countries in Europe. Since the 1960s though, the government of Canada modified immigration laws designed to raise barriers against the inflow of persons of colour, or people not originating from Great Britain, and a large number of new citizens arrived mostly from Asia, South America and Africa, roughly 250,000 persons every year. Today Canadian cities like Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver comprise a very large percentage of newcomers whose roots are complex and extremely varied. All in all, Canada is no longer at the moment a country where, depending on the regions, French or British models are dominant, but a dynamic society whose use of French or English as a language of public communication takes place within a very diverse cultural environment.

In this sense multiculturalism is increasingly viewed as a reflection of the current situation in Canadian life, and not as an ideologically motivated discourse that one needs to accept because politicians or lobby groups demand it. In Québec, where the French language predominates, a somewhat different version of this approach appeared. Called interculturalism, it seeks to achieve the same end as multiculturalism, while paying special attention to attracting immigrants to Francophone institutions and culture.

Pierre Anctil is the Director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa.