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What it means to be Canadian: Multiculturalism as a pillar of identity

By Alexandra Reucassel | Issue 24

“Ontario invites 1,186 PNP candidates from all Employer Job Offer Streams” (CIC News 2021); “Government Opens College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants” (The Star, 2021); “Newmarket welcomes Afghan family that fled Taliban and lived in Indonesian refugee camp” (The Star, 2021); “‘We want you to stay’: Canada opens door to permanent residence for 900,000 international graduates and temporary workers with one-time program” (The Star, 2021).

These are news articles boasting immigration and integration regimes within Canada. They can be seen to underline Canada’s positive position on newcomer resettlement and highlight multiculturalist values within Canadian society. 341,180 global citizens received permanent residence in Canada in 2019, standing at one of the highest acceptance rates in the world. The corresponding numbers and newsfeed paint a picture to the Canadian public and the world that Canada is a country of immigrants. This therefore highlights the humanitarian and multiculturalist values that are entrenched in Canadian discourse surrounding immigration, ultimately shaping Canada’s national identity. This rhetoric in Canadian society has allowed for multiculturalism to become a pillar of what it means to be Canadian. 

Canadian flag. Photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash.

Multiculturalism, as defined in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988, is to ‘recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedoms of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage’. Multicultural intentions have been fortified by policies that seek to prevent discrimination and preserve linguistic and cultural rights. This article will deconstruct and explore the reality of Canada’s multiculturalist stance.

Canada has historically had a comprehensive immigration system due to its settler origins. Despite this history, multiculturalism was not always an integral part of Canadian policy, practice or identity. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was only passed and put into practice in 1988. At this time the Canadian population mainly comprised both English and French settler populations as well as indigenous communities. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 was developed to counteract the marginalisation that citizens who identified neither as English nor French experienced. This act was written and passed with two distinct objectives: to validate citizens’ experiences who feel that their culture or race “ha[d] limited their role and acceptance in Canadian society” and secondly that all diversity in the Canadian population has “contributed to the nation’s history…and will be important to the continuing evolution of a distinct and dynamic nation” (Cab Doc 8-0368-87 MC (01), 1987 as cited in Uberoi). The objective of this act is to try to bridge the gaps between all parties to create a larger cohesive Canadian population, promoting a universal notion of “Canadian-ness” which could be directly tied to values of multiculturalism. 

Multiculturalism works in three realms: multicultural contact, multicultural practices and policies and multicultural ideology all melding together to create multicultural societal norms. In order to properly achieve these three factors for success, the Canadian government established the 1988 Multiculturalism Program which carries out community-oriented engagement with the objective of promoting multiculturalism within the Canadian community. The evolution of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and subsequent programming was the first time that multiculturalism, being Canadian and citizenship were connected. 

Although it has been documented that 82 per cent of Canadians identify with multiculturalism, we can see a disconnect between agreeing with the principles of multiculturalism but not the reality. This disconnect comes out of anxiety around the perceived unknown of minority groups and the deeply embedded prejudices within Canadian culture. The notions of Canadians’ commitment to multiculturalism have been challenged in the context of the 2020 global pandemic, with examples through the pandemic of members of the Canadian population being exclusionary and hostile towards members of their own population.

Asian-Canadians have reported higher levels of trauma and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic. This can be traced to the fact that the coronavirus is believed to have originated in China, then spreading to the rest of the world, leading to an increase of stigma surrounding Asian communities worldwide. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation conducted an in-depth report investigating the type and rate of marginalisation that Asian Canadians have experienced, finding that there has been a 73% increase in racially charged verbal harassment. The instances of discrimination and racially charged incidents towards the Asian-Canadian population were spurred on through misinformation and fear fed by the media. The unfolding of these actions can be rooted in Canada’s population feeling threatened by their Asian-Canadian neighbours. 

Ultimately, the Canadian public and governments’ actions towards populations of minority status reflect the superficial nature of multiculturalism in Canada. Multiculturalism has been a pillar of Canadian politics, image and identity worldwide. Although Canada possesses multicultural principles in theory and in law, it is not as societally entrenched as it is portrayed. Equipped with the knowledge of how multiculturalism is defined and supposed to manifest, as outlined in the act, it is clear that the foundational principle to be Canadian is to be multiculturalist is inaccurate. Canadian society needs to reassess the approach to multiculturalism in order to ensure minority communities can live in respect and free from discrimination. Canadian policies and rhetoric reflect two very different countries. Transparency and reflection are required to unify a nation which is deeply divided in outlook and behaviour. 

Alexandra Reucassel

I have a deep passion and interest in learning about migration and migrating populations. Equipped with a masters in migration, and working in the nonprofit sector, I am excited to be a part of the Routed team to help bridge the gap between the academic world and the public to continue to learn about issues faced by many around the world! 


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