Canadian Multiculturalism Policy: Challenges and New Research

Multiculturalism Series, Part 3 of 4canada-flag_mosaic

The Multiculturalism Policy within a Bilingual Framework implemented by Pierre Trudeau’s government in the early 1970s paved the way for subsequent study and legislation. The result was the passage of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988, which marked a clear transition to full social and economic participation by racial minorities.

The Act was intended to outline a policy on multiculturalism, identify the guidelines for implementation of the policy, and provide a system of parliamentary accountability. Key themes of the Act, as set out in Section 3, echo the original 1971 multiculturalism policy and incorporate elements of earlier legislation: the value of cultural and racial diversity; freedom to preserve, enhance and share cultural heritage; removal of cultural barriers; and full inclusivity and equal rights for all Canadians.

While the goals set out in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act are still relevant today, starting in the 1990s the focus of multiculturalism policy eventually shifted from equity to shared citizenship. The Foreword in the 2007 – 2008 Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act by the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, highlights this emphasis on inclusivity: “For our government, that is what it means to be inclusive. Not just to welcome new Canadians and to celebrate the heritage they bring with them. But also to include them in the Canadian story. To invite them to write the next chapter.” All peoples from all cultural groups in the country are recognized as Canadians and as contributing to the national identity.

Objections to Multiculturalism Policy

Although multicultural legislation in Canada appears to have developed naturally and somewhat effortlessly, simply reflecting the country’s ethno-cultural plurality in response to a supportive Canadian public and government, multiculturalism has been controversial from the outset. Starting with Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, spokespersons from various cultural groups demanded equal status to that of the “two founding races”; the concern was not with the concept of multiculturalism, but with how it would be applied and whether Canada’s ethnic and racial groups would be relegated to “third-class citizens.”

On the other hand, Quebec premier at the time, Robert Bourassa, criticized the concept itself: “‘I want to underline that for the French-Canadian community, the new multiculturalism policy represents an immense step backward which, I believe, has not yet been grasped by the French-Canadians’” (quoted in Lorna Roth’s “The Delicate Act of Colour Balancing”). Other representatives of French-speaking Canada shared this fear, accusing the federal government of introducing multiculturalism as a way to erode support for French-Canadian nationalism.

There were also fears in English Canada that multiculturalism was an attack on the nation’s deep-rooted heritage of British or Anglo-Canadian values. Regardless of the source, concerns appeared to focus on human rights: the rights of ethno-cultural groups to be recognized as Canadians; the rights of English- and French-speaking Canadians to be recognized as founding peoples; and the rights of all Canadians to national unity and shared citizenship.

Even the Trudeau government’s Multiculturalism Policy within a Bilingual Framework received a mixed reception. The policy was criticized for suggesting that the preservation of cultural and ethnic identity was a voluntary matter. As Lorna Roth notes, scholars argued that this promoted ethno-exotica by “placing ethnic groups in a position of contributing quaint customs and primordial identities to the Canadian mosaic, while simultaneously denying them access to political and economic opportunities.” Although some of the concerns with ethno-exotica have since been addressed in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, the Act itself has been criticized for not explicitly addressing the racism that causes structural inequalities.

The Future of Multiculturalism: Current Research

The federal government has not ignored the criticisms raised regarding multiculturalism policy, and recent research suggests an interest in closing the gap between the positive rhetoric of the policy and the success of the policy in practice. Multicultural Canada in the 21st Century: Harnessing Opportunities and Managing Pressures, was a research initiative started by the government in 2008 to address issues of exclusion and inequality that persist despite Canada’s multiculturalism legislation.

Interestingly, the Policy Research Initiative website indicates that although support for ethno-cultural diversity and immigration is higher in Canada than in other countries, many are in favour of returning to an assimilation approach. For example, in a 2005 survey, “70% of Canadians indicated that adapting to the Canadian way of life should be the priority for new immigrants.” In light of these developments, the project aimed to determine the policies Canada might wish to adopt regarding ethno-cultural diversity resulting from immigration.

“Results of Regional Roundtables,” the first report published as part of the project, provides a summary of key issues to be addressed when considering multiculturalism in Canada. For example, many participants in the roundtable discussions suggested that the concept of multiculturalism needs to be better communicated to Canadians: “…there is not a single conception of multiculturalism shared by all. This has led to social divisions, false associations, and the policy’s lack of relevance to youth.”

The final report of the initiative, titled Understanding Canada’s “3M” (Multicultural, Multi-linguistic and Multi-religious) Reality in the 21st Century, presents some intriguing findings. The report suggests that while multiculturalism “provides both a vision and a concrete framework for intercultural relations in a cohesive society,” the process for addressing multicultural diversity needs to adapt to social realities. One of these social realities is that “multiculturalism has become a focus for ethnic- or religious-based tensions,” particularly in relation to “unease about religious diversity” in Canada. In sum, future policy needs to be developed in the context of these changes in the cultural landscape if Canada is to maintain an effective multicultural framework.

See also: Immigration and Multiculturalism Policy in CanadaThe Beginnings of Official Multiculturalism in Canada and Canadian Multiculturalism in Broadcasting


Canadian Multiculturalism Act. 1988.

Government of Canada. Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 2007-2008.

Kunz, John Lock and Stuart Sykes. “Results of Regional Roundtables.” Multicultural Canada in the 21st Century: Harnessing Opportunities and Managing Pressures. December 2007.

Government of Canda. Understanding Canada’s “3M” (Multicultural, Multi-linguistic and Multi-religious) Reality in the 21st Century: Final Report. June 2009.

Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act: A Guide for Canadians. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1990.

Official Multiculturalism.” Multicultural Canada.

Policy Research Initiative. Multicultural Canada in the 21st Century: Harnessing Opportunities and Managing Pressures.

Roth, Lorna. “The Delicate Act of ‘Colour Balancing’: Multiculturalism and Canadian Television Broadcasting Policies and Practices.” Canadian Journal of Communication (Vol 23, No 4).

© 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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