Immigration and Multiculturalism Policy in Canada

canada-flag_mosaicMulticulturalism Series, Part 1 of 4

The history of immigration in Canada is key to understanding the development of multiculturalism policy at the national level.

In Canada, “multiculturalism” has been used in three particular contexts: to describe the country’s ethno-cultural plurality; to refer to the positive social ideal or value of ethno-cultural pluralism in Canada; and to define the various government policy initiatives designed to recognize, support, and manage cultural and racial pluralism in Canada.

Early Immigration Policy

The extent of ethno-cultural plurality in Canada referred to in the definition of “multiculturalism” may be surprising given the early history of federal immigration policy. Prior to the First World War, Canadian immigration policy was racially selective (based on a hierarchy with Western Europeans at the top and other groups categorized in descending order), but it was also driven by Canada’s economic needs. The 1920s in particular were characterized by Anglo- and French-Canadian hostility towards “foreigners,” but allowing immigration to continue was essential to fill the demand for cheap labour in a growing economy.

Despite this economic driver, hostility towards those immigrants from the “bottom” levels of the hierarchy increased and the public put pressure on the government to develop a tighter immigration policy based on ethnicity or race. The Depression in the 1930s served to reinforce this hostility, as Anglo- and French-Canadians sought to keep newcomers away from what little work was available, and immigration policy remained strict throughout the Second World War.

In fact, Canada’s immigration regulations were so strict that the country had the worst record of all democratic receiving states in the admission of refugees from Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Those “foreigners” who had been admitted to Canada prior to the tightening of federal immigration policy were expected to conform or assimilate. Clearly, the development of a multiculturalism policy celebrating Canada’s ethno-cultural pluralism was not on the public or the government’s agenda.

Immigration in the Post-War Era

Following the Second World War, however, a number of significant developments occurred which helped to steer Canada towards a recognition of the country’s ethno-cultural plurality and the value of this multiculturalism. The first of these developments was the Anglo- and French-Canadian struggle for identity that began after the war and escalated in the ensuing decades.

British cultural domination declined gradually and resulted in a quest to define a national identity, evident in various initiatives, such as the introduction of Canadian citizenship in 1947, the Massey Commission in 1949, and the campaign to place Canadian studies in school curricula, among others. By the 1960s, the so-called Quiet Revolution in Quebec, which was characterized by a growing recognition of social and national inequities, had brought the debate regarding Canadian identity to a climax.

Meanwhile, Canada had become a major urban industrial power following the war and labour shortages meant a slackening of immigration regulations to admit previously undesirable “foreigners” to fill the jobs. Although assimilation was still desirable—in a 1947 speech, Prime Minister Mackenzie King suggested that Canadians “do not wish to make a fundamental alteration in the character of their population through mass migration” (quoted in Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference)—the influx of newcomers changed the social and political fabric of the country.

A liberal coalition that included some of Canada’s growing ethnic communities began to put pressure on the government for change, while the findings of new research helped to disprove the pseudo-scientific racial assumptions that had influenced early Canadian immigration legislation. The public at large was also increasingly supportive of an anti-discrimination message in the aftermath of the Holocaust and in the shadow of the black civil-rights movement in the U.S.

Federal legislation gradually followed, with the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. These and other social and political developments opened the door for Canada’s first official policy on multiculturalism.

See also:The Beginnings of Official Multiculturalism in Canada, Canadian Multiculturalism Policy: Challenge and New Reasearch, and Multiculturalism in Canadian Broadcasting


Mackey, Eva. The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Multiculturalism.” Multicultural Canada.

Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity.” Multicultural Canada.

The Place of Immigration.” Multicultural Canada.

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s