The Beginnings of Official Multiculturalism in Canada

canada-flag_mosaicMulticulturalism Series, Part 2 of 4

The term “multiculturalism” has been used to define various federal initiatives at the policy and program level designed to address Canada’s ethno-cultural plurality. The development and adoption of this multiculturalism ideal is generally agreed to have begun with the appointment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the “B and B” Commission) in 1963.

The B and B Commission

By the 1960s, the English-French debate, spurred by the Quiet Revolution, had heated up and the federal government appointed the B and B Commission to “inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races.”

Also noted in its report, the Commission was to take into account “the contribution made by other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.” Although it was not the main focus of the Commission’s mandate, the terms of reference make clear that the importance of Canada’s multicultural identity was gaining increasing recognition at this time.

Defining Ethnicity

In the first volume of its report, the Commission revealed an acute sensitivity to the ethno-cultural pluralism of the nation. The Commission was careful to define all terms used in the report that might be controversial. “Founding races,” for instance, was not intended to indicate a “hereditary aristocracy…and a lower order of other ethnic groups, forever excluded from sphere of influence” but rather to recognize the undisputed role played by French and British Canadians in the development of the nation.

Nor was “ethnic” intended to be a derogatory term: “It is common practice in Canada to restrict the term ‘ethnic’ to groups which are neither British nor French. Ethnicity then appears as a strange, possibly distasteful phenomenon: ‘ethnic’ seems to be given a sense something like ‘foreigner.’ We object in the strongest terms to this practice.” Ethnicity, rather, was meant to reflect those Canadians who remained attached to their original language and culture as opposed to being integrated into English- or French-speaking society. According to the Commission, these Canadians enriched the nation’s culture through their knowledge, skills and traditions: “Cultural diversity has widened our horizons.”

Volume IV of the Commission’s report, released in 1969, transformed these powerful statements into sweeping recommendations that recognized the importance of Canada’s cultural pluralism and encouraged the country’s institutions to reflect this vision in their organization and programs.

Multiculturalism within a Bilingual Framework

The federal government first acted on the B and B Commission’s recommendations in 1969 with the introduction of the Official Languages Act and then in 1971 with the announcement of a federal Multiculturalism Policy within a Bilingual Framework. These and later policies and legislation that were to follow indicate the government’s recognition that ethnic and racial pluralism is a valid expression of Canadian uniqueness.

In particular, the official Canadian policy of multiculturalism announced on 8 October 1971 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, suggested that Canadian identity was based on ethno-cultural pluralism, not biculturalism: “…there cannot be one cultural policy for Canadians of British and French origin, another for the original peoples and yet a third for all others. For although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other. No citizen or group of citizens is other than Canadian, and all should be treated fairly.”

It is worth noting Trudeau’s reference to original peoples here, as the B and B Commission had not included First Nations, Métis or Inuit groups in its analysis, indicating that the complexity of the issues for these groups required and deserved more specific study. Trudeau, however, boldly claimed that all peoples in the nation are Canadians and all Canadians are equal.

According to Trudeau, the goal of the Multiculturalism Policy within a Bilingual Framework was to assure the cultural freedom of all Canadians, while also helping to break down discrimination. The policy’s implementation plan emphasized human rights, national unity and identity, the removal of cultural barriers, and full participation in Canadian society for all cultural groups. Clearly, Canada had come a long way from the Anglo-conformity and harsh immigration practices earlier in the century.

See also: Immigration and Multiculturalism Policy in Canada, Canadian Multiculturalism Policy: Challenges and New Research, and Multiculturalism in Canadian Broadcasting


Canada. Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Report. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1967.

Multiculturalism as a Social Ideal and as Public Policy.” Multicultural Canada.

Trudeau, Pierre Elliott. “Speech to the House of Commons” from the Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. 1971.

© 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.

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