Is Canadian multiculturalism changing .. where will it go if it is?

Jan 13th, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Whatever may or may not be the leading edge in Ottawa these days (to say nothing of Washington, DC), the first few weeks of 2007 have been notable elsewhere for fresh bubblings about Canadian multiculturalism in the news. Two new studies from the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy have helped turn the heat up a bit. But they can also be seen as responses to more grass-roots stirrings, on the airwaves and beyond. And even a few more narrow political events in Ottawa have quietly joined in. Note, e.g., the recent defections of Wajid Khan and Mark Persaud from the federal Liberals to the Conservatives, and Mr. Harper’s appointment of his ideological sidekick Jason Kenney as the new “Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity.” It is all enough to make you wonder just what is going on.

The two IRPP studies …

The most recent of the two studies from the Institute for Research on Public Policy has the sharper edge. It was undertaken by “Jeffrey Reitz, a University of Toronto sociologist, and Rupa Banerjee, a doctoral candidate.” And their “findings suggest that multiculturalism, Canada’s official policy on interethnic relations since 1971, is not working as well for newer immigrants or for their children, who hail largely from China, South Asia and the Caribbean.”

Put another way: “Visible-minority immigrants are slower to integrate into Canadian society than their white, European counterparts, and feel less Canadian, suggesting multiculturalism doesn’t work as well for non-whites.” Based on an analysis of 2002 Statistics Canada data, Reitz and Banerjee “found that the children of visible-minority immigrants exhibited a more profound sense of exclusion than their parents … Visible-minority newcomers, and their offspring, identify themselves less as Canadians, trust their fellow citizens less and are less likely to vote than white immigrants from Europe.”

Reitz and Banerjee’s study “is also a warning that Canada, long considered a model of integration, won’t be forever immune from the kind of social disruption that has plagued Europe, where marginalized immigrant communities have erupted in discontent, with riots in the Paris suburbs in the fall of 2005 … We need to address the racial divide,’ Prof. Reitz said. Otherwise there is a danger of social breakdown. The principle of multiculturalism was equal participation of minorities in mainstream institutions. That is no longer happening.'”

The second IRPP study, released a few weeks ago now, is the work of Stuart N. Soroka, Richard Johnston, and Keith Banting, and is entitled “Ties That Bind? Social Cohesion and Diversity in Canada.” Soroka, Johnston, and Banting come up with essentially the same empirical findings as Reitz and Banerjee, so to speak. But they add aboriginal peoples and francophone Quebecers to their roster of multicultural groups – and they find that these two native classes have an even weaker sense of Canadian identity today than visible minority immigrants and their children. More generally, Soroka, Johnston, and Banting take more of a glass-is-half-full view of the latest survey data as well.

All this is wrapped up tidily enough (and in only slightly academic or technical language) in the concluding paragraphs of the Soroka, Johnston, and Banting study: “We end … on a note of restrained optimism. For newcomers, we find little evidence of vast, enduring ethnic differences across a variety of social cohesion indicators. With the exception of trust and, for some visible minorities, belonging, commonalities outweigh differences. Recency of arrival certainly matters, but this is simply a question of time.

“These findings should not, however, be seen as sounding an all-clear. The remaining differences across newer ethnic groups underscore the continued importance of our multicultural strategies. Strengthening the sense of belonging among visible minority immigrants, for example, will undoubtedly be a big challenge. Moreover, the greater difficulty experienced by recent cohorts of immigrants in entering the labour force is worrisome, and it has the potential to blunt wider forms of social and political participation. The fact that integrative processes have worked in the past is no guarantee that they will work as well in the future.

“Nevertheless, our findings do forestall hyperbole about the problems we face. They also stand as a warning against importing evidence from Europe or the United States and assuming it applies equally well in Canada. In the case of immigrant minorities, our findings do not justify fears that they threaten social cohesion. On the field of identity, the fundamental divisions are not “new” Canadians versus “old” ones but within the ranks of the old. Quebec francophones and Aboriginal Canadians have a weaker sense of pride and belonging in Canada as a whole.

“These divisions are clearly not fading with time. They are as old as the country and deeply embedded in who we are as a people. It is not surprising that these founding peoples, who have come to see themselves as distinct peoples or nations within a multination state, do not exhibit as unqualified an identification or sense of belonging as others do. Indeed, it would be remarkable if Quebec francophones and Aboriginal people ever came to exhibit the degree of these orientations that new Canadians are likely to, for the latter have an affinity with Canada that is essentially elective. So far, at least, the country seems to be successfully facing the challenges of postmodernity. The bigger challenges stem from its premodern phase.”

Wajid Khan and Jason Kenney – “Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity” (and the continuing Canadian citizenship oath to the British monarchy)

The very first paragraph of the Soroka, Johnston, and Banting study also draws attention to a analytic or technical concept that may have had some intriguing recent echoes, at much more practical levels of the universe, in Canadian federal politics. “Growing ethnic diversity,” Soroka, Johnston, and Banting point out, “has generated two intersecting policy agendas in Western democracies …

“One agenda celebrates diversity. From this perspective, the most compelling challenges facing governments are to respect cultural differences, expand the room for minorities to express their distinctive cultures and construct new and more inclusive forms of citizenship. The second agenda focuses on social cohesion or social integration. From this perspective, the challenge before diverse societies is to reinforce the bonds of a common community. Here the need is to incorporate newcomers into the economic and social mainstream, to sustain a sense of mutual commitment or solidarity in times of need and to build a common national identity.”

At least something like these “two intersecting policy agendas in Western democracies” does seem to be reflected in Stephen Harper’s recent appointment of Jason Kenney as Canada’s new “Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity.” And this may be a little more interesting than usual, from the standpoint that, stereotypically at least, the left tends to push the diversity agenda, while the right pushes the social cohesion and integration agenda – with the political fortunes of each agenda varying according to the wider fortunes of right and left.

I.e., insofar as any of this makes practical sense down on the ground, Secretary Kenney’s new title does seem to signal some kind of new Canadian Conservative interest in trying to successfully straddle the centre between the diversity and integration agendas in the ongoing Canadian multiculturalism debate. The recent defection of the Toronto-area Liberal MP Wajid Khan to the Conservative benches in Ottawa lends extra weight to this speculation. (Even though its more immediately dramatic implication – especially alongside the resignation of Quebec Liberal MP Jean Lapierre – is to give the very strange right-left bedfellows of the Conservatives and New Democrats combined a bare majority in the federal House.)

The recent follow-up defection of the Liberal multicultural activist Mark Persaud to the Conservatives lends some extra momentum to the rolling stone here. Back in the whacky world of the Central Canadian media conspiracy, last week Steve Paikin’s Agenda on TV Ontario featured Jason Kenney for the Conservatives, Mark Holland for the Liberals, and Olivia Chow for the New Democrats, debating the question of where Canadian multicultural policy ought to be going at this point in time. And it was all very interesting – if still far from conclusive.

Meanwhile, the Soroka, Johnston, and Banting study makes another finer-grain distinction that offers further food for thought. It doesn’t just distinguish between “white” and several groups of “visible minority” residents. It divides “Canadians into eight categories: Aboriginal people; French; British and northern European (from Austria, Germany, the Benelux countries and Scandinavia); Eastern European; southern European; South Asian (plus Middle Eastern); East Asian; and Caribbean and African.” And “the British/northern European group stands as the reference category or comparison group … not because it is seen as more representative of Canada than any other component of the population but because it is the largest group.”

In fact, a look at the raw 2001 census data on self-reported ethnic origins in Canada today suggests a still more complex picture of how the grass-roots population increasingly sees itself nowadays, down on the ground. But there seems little doubt that much of the main thrust of the official and most established “common community” in Canada today still does look back to the old “British North America Act” of 1867 – which still forms the first major written part of the Constitution of Canada today (albeit under the new name of the Constitution Act 1867, ever since Pierre Trudeau’s new Constitution Act 1982).




Single Origins












Multiple Origins


All Canada


SOURCE: Statistics Canada.

Similarly, although many Canadians are no longer altogether clear on the point, the official Canadian head of state these days remains Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch of the United Kingdom – as well as the Queen of Canada and 14 other such so-called “Commonwealth realms” (including, e.g., Australia, Barbados, Jamaica, and New Zealand).

New Canadian citizens are still required to swear allegiance to the British monarchy, as a condition of their citizenship. And John Trent of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa has recently suggested that, whatever the intention of all this may be, it nonetheless “subtly suggests to Canadian citizens, however indirectly, that they live in a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant country which privileges British traditions and those who represent them, and which still accepts ideas of hierarchy and heredity instead of democracy and merit.”

For some reason this aspect of things still never quite seems to make it into policy debate on the “continued importance of our multicultural strategies” in Canada. And yet even Australia has changed its old oath to the Queen for new citizens to a more forward-looking pledge of commitment “to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.” Australia made this change as long ago as 1994. As an aspect of all of multicultural, aboriginal, and Quebecois strategies, and just generally growing up as a Canadian common community, it is certainly high time Canada did something similar too. That would be at least one practical step in some right new direction.

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