Multiculturalism Policy in Canada

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jan 12, 2010

Canada is an increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse nation. One of the key policy responses to this diversity has been official multiculturalism, first introduced in the early 1970s. While multiculturalism is nearly 40 years old in Canada, it nevertheless remains a highly controversial and debated issue. This article provides an introduction to multiculturalism in Canada at the federal level. This includes an overview of contemporary diversity in the Canadian population, a look at the history of federal policy towards ethnic groups, an examination of the values and structure of modern Canadian multicultural policy, and a summary of key debates on this topic.

Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Canada

Changing immigration and ethnic diversity in Canadian society

Ethnic & Cultural Minorities: A Brief History of Canadian Policy

From discrimination to equity and multiculturalism

Structure of Canadian Federal Multiculturalism

Values and legislative and judicial institutions of federal multiculturalism

Multicultural Policy Debates in Canada

Multiculturalism, national identity, biculturalism, and federalism

Sources and Links to More Information

List of article sources and links to more on this topic

Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Canada

Changing immigration and ethnic diversity in Canadian society

Changing Canadian Immigration Patterns

One of Canada’s defining characteristics, without question, is that it is a nation of immigrants. That said, it is important to note that Canada’s ethnic makeup has altered significantly over time due to changing immigration patterns. During its colonial period, the region was constituted by three main ethnic groups. Prior to any European settlement, what we know today as Canada was populated by Aboriginal or First Nations peoples. This ethnic group was far from homogeneous; instead it was (and continues to be) constituted by a wide array of different groups with their own social, economic, and political practices.

With colonialization and settlement, two key European ethnic groups joined the Aboriginal peoples in Canada: the British and the French. Initially, the British settled along the eastern coastline in what is today the Atlantic provinces and Ontario. The French settled primarily in what is today known as Quebec and Nova Scotia. While the British and French were both European, they were nevertheless culturally distinct. Not only did they have different languages, they also practiced different religions (the French were Catholic, while the British were protestant), political and legal traditions. Eventually, the British conquered the former French colonies, absorbing them into their North American territories. Nevertheless, the French culture has survived in modern Canadian history.

The early presence of these three main ethnic groups is significant in that it has given rise to a view of Canada as being constituted by three founding nations ― Aboriginal peoples, the British, and the French (the addition of Aboriginals to this founding nation perspective is much more recent). This common view of Canada is significant, not only because of its influence on the nation’s political and social institutions, but also because it often stands in conflict to newer conceptions of the country ― in particular, the notion of Canada as a multicultural nation. Whereas the founding nation view suggests that Aboriginal peoples, the French and the British are to be recognized as special cultures, the multicultural view holds that Canada is composed of a wide variety of equally significant cultures.

Following Aboriginal peoples, the French and the British, people from many other countries began to immigrate to Canada. By the time of Confederation in 1867, a large German population had arrived. Immigration to Canada particularly surged during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the opening of the Canadian west and the construction of the transnational railway. This immigration wave included large contingents from Britain, the United States, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. While immigration primarily reflected the ethnicity of the United States and Europe, there were also settlements by other groups, of non-European descent. In British Columbia, for example, thousands of Chinese workers were brought in to help with the construction of the railroad. Nova Scotia and Ontario also saw an influx of Afro-American immigrants, escaping slavery in the United States.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Canada experienced a radical shift in its immigration patterns. Between 1900 and 1965, Europe (in particular, Britain) was the primary source of immigrants to Canada. By the end of the century, however, Asia represented the largest region of origin for new Canadians. Other areas, including Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central America have also become important sources of contemporary immigration for Canada. This shift has been caused, in large part, to changes in Canada’s immigration policy. The country’s early immigration policy focused on bringing white, skilled peoples from Europe and the United States. Beginning in the 1960s, however, policy was relaxed to allow for better opportunities for immigrants from other areas.

Sources of Immigration to Canada (percent)





























Sources: Dyke, 2000; Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2008.
* This total includes both Britain and Europe.

Contemporary Canadian Ethno-cultural Diversity

These changing patterns in immigration have resulted in Canada becoming a highly diverse nation, in terms of both ethnicity and culture. While the largest ethnic groups were predominantly of European descent, and English or French in particular, the Canadian population has increasingly become constituted by other ethnicities, most notably Chinese and East Indian. It is important to note, however, that this diversity is not uniform across the country. The populations of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia contain greater diversity than other provinces. Canada’s large metropolitan areas, in particular Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, tend to be more diverse than its rural areas.

Top 15 Ethnic Origins of Canadians (2006)

Ethnic Origin

Total Responses*

Percent of Population






















North American Indian












East Indian












Sources: Statistics Canada, 2008
* Respondents were permitted to provide multiple responses to the question of their ethnic origin, as well as decline to respond.

This greater diversity in terms of country of origin has, in turn, led to other changes in the Canadian population. Of particular importance are increases in the nation’s visible minorities (segments of the population other than Caucasian). Again, this trend is particularly evident in Canada’s major metropolitan areas. In Toronto and Vancouver, for example, visible minorities constitute almost half the total population.

Visible Minorities in Canada and in main Metropolitan Areas (2006)


Percent of Population









Source: Brooks, 2009.

Not only has this diversity altered Canada’s racial makeup, it has also resulted in new cultural practices and traditions in the Canadian population. This includes greater diversity in the context of key cultural institutions, such as language, the family and religion, as well as attitudes towards societal issues, such as gender, sexuality, civility, and authority. As such, Canada is not a uniform nation, in that it is not solely grounded in the values and practices of European, Christian culture. It is, instead, a highly pluralistic society, whose population practices a diverse set of ethnic and religious traditions.

Religious Affiliation of the Canadian Population (Percentage)





No Affiliation
















Source: Brooks, 2009
*The “Other” category for 2001 includes other Christians (2.6%), Christian Orthodox (1.6%), Muslim (2%), Jewish (1.1%), Buddhist (1%), Hindu (1.1%), and Sikh (0.9%).

Ethno-cultural Minorities and Equality

An unfortunate fact of Canadian diversity is ethnic and cultural discrimination ― discrimination that, over the course of Canada’s history, has come in many different forms. Unfortunately, Canadian history is riddled with examples of legal discrimination, in which the state was used to assimilate or marginalize non-British, non-Christian, or non-Caucasian groups.

Another important form of discrimination may be referred to as social discrimination. This includes attitudes and practices within general society that humiliate and degrade minority groups, and act as barriers to equality. One of the most common forms of this social discrimination is racism, which involves prejudice and negative stereotypes of minorities based on their race. Racial discrimination often leads those in the mainstream society to be fearful and suspicious of the minority group and can cause minorities to be defensive and withdraw into their own group. Moreover, it can reinforce general inequality, as minorities find it difficult to fully participate in economic, social and political institutions.

Ethnic & Cultural Minorities: A Brief History of Canadian Policy

From discrimination to equity and multiculturalism

Early Canadian Policy to Ethic Minorities

It is important to note that early Canadian policy towards ethnic minorities must be understood along two different lines. On the one hand, there is national policy towards French Canadians. During colonial times, British authorities often imposed policies that were both discriminatory and assimilative in attempt to bring this ethnic group into the British fold. By the time of Confederation, however, French Canadians had gained substantial political and legal self-determination rights. This included some political autonomy through recognition of Quebec as a province, representation in political institutions of the nation (such as the Senate and Supreme Court of Canada), and constitutional language rights.

On the other hand, there are provincial and federal policies relating to Aboriginal peoples and new immigrants. Early Canadian policy towards these ethnic minorities involved a combination of neglect, discrimination, and assimilation. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Canadian authorities actively pursued new immigrants from eastern and northern Europe and Asia to settle the Canadian west. However, once these ethnic groups arrived, they were largely ignored by federal and provincial governments, with the expectation that they would assimilate into mainstream Canadian society. On some occasions, special privileges were extended to these groups. Mennonites and Hutterites, for example, were promised exemption from military service based on religious grounds.

Other policies towards minority ethnic groups were highly discriminatory. Canada’s early Immigration Act favoured white immigrants from Europe and the United States. During the Second World War, thousands of Japanese Canadians were interned in relocation camps, and later deported, on the assumption they represented a threat to national security. Moreover, during the early 1900s new immigrants faced legal barriers to their equal participation in political and social institutions, such as discrimination in voting rights and employment. In British Columbia, for example, in the early 1900s provincial labour laws prohibited the employment of Asians in order to preserve jobs for Caucasians.

Assimilative policies were also pursued in attempting to create a more homogeneous Canadian society, particularly in the context of Aboriginal peoples. Throughout early Canadian history, authorities attempted to “civilize” Aboriginal peoples by prohibiting traditional practices and imposing European ones. One of the most extreme examples of these assimilative policies was the residential school system, in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families to be educated in government- sponsored schools.

For more information on federal policy towards Aboriginals:

Movement to Greater Equity in Ethnic Policy

Beginning in the mid-1900s, Canadian policy towards new immigrant ethnic groups began to change significantly. This was due in part to shifting views about the treatment of ethnic minorities and concerns about equality. Moreover, the increase in the number of people of other ethnic origins meant that government policy on the issue could not be as easily ignored as before.

In 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was created. Initially, the Commission’s mandate was limited to making recommendations on federal policy towards the English and French languages and cultures. Due to pressure from other ethnic groups, and in particular the concerns of Ukrainian Canadians, the Commission’s focus was expanded to make recommendations concerning groups outside the English or French cultures. Subsequently, the Commission’s key recommendations included greater recognition of the contributions of other ethnic groups, and the need for greater government funding in certain areas.

Also during this period, many of the legal barriers faced by other ethnic groups were removed. In the 1960s, for example, the federal government significantly reformed the Immigration Act, removing the preference for a white, skilled labour from Europe and the United States. As a result, immigrants from other parts of the world were granted a much better chance of immigrating to Canada.

Introduction of Federal Multiculturalism Policy

One of the most important shifts in federal policy to other ethnic groups was the introduction of official multiculturalism in the early 1970s. Central to this policy was the official recognition of the diverse cultures in a plural society (albeit one characterized by two founding cultures ― English and French). Not only were these other ethnic and cultural groups to be assured some measure of equity, they were also to be encouraged to retain their linguistic heritages and ethnic cultures instead of being assimilated into mainstream society.

It is important to note that while the notion of multiculturalism theoretically includes Aboriginal peoples, the emphasis of multiculturalism has predominantly related to new immigrant groups. In the latter part of the twentieth century, federal and provincial policy towards Aboriginal peoples pursued a much different trajectory; of particular importance was the shift in viewing Aboriginal peoples as nations, with some entitlements to self-government. In this context, policies towards Aboriginal peoples share much with the policies towards French Canadians in Quebec

In support of official multiculturalism, the federal government established a number of new programs, providing public monies for cultural activities, projects, and advocacy groups. Also, the federal government created a position at the cabinet table for a minister responsible for multiculturalism, in addition to creating a multiculturalism directorate within the Department of the Secretary of State and a Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism (later renamed the Canadian Ethnocultural Council).

In the years that followed, the Government of Canada introduced other key initiatives to support its official multiculturalism policy. In 1978, the Canadian Human Rights Commission was created to address complaints of discrimination in the private sector, and to spearhead anti-discriminatory educational campaigns ― mirroring similar bodies already established by many of the provinces. In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was introduced as part of a larger constitutional reform. This constitutional document provides a number of key rights and freedoms critical to multicultural policy.

In 1988, the federal government passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which gave official multiculturalism a stronger legal basis by consolidating existing government policies and practices into legislation. In addition, the Act provided a more detailed policy statement on multiculturalism and established agencies in support of the policy, such as the Canadian Multicultural Advisory Committee.

It is important to note that while the focus here is on multiculturalism at the federal level, this is not to suggest that significant developments in this area have not occurred or been pursued at the provincial level. Many provinces have introduced legislation and established programs and agencies in support of their policy multiculturalism objectives.

For a summary of provincial multiculturalism policies:

Structure of Canadian Federal Multiculturalism

Values and legislative and judicial institutions of federal multiculturalism

Values of Canadian Multiculturalism

In understanding official multiculturalism in a broader context, it is necessary to first examine it basic values, and namely, what sort of society is multiculturalism attempting to promote? In this context, it’s useful to examine key clauses of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act; and in particular the official statement on multiculturalism policy found in section 3.

First, the Act asserts that all Canadians are entitled to “preserve, enhance, and share their cultural heritage.” Central to this notion is the rejection of other common approaches to ethnic and cultural policies. On the one hand, this tenet rejects earlier Canadian policies of assimilation, where the goal was to encourage minorities to discard their cultural heritage and adopt mainstream Canadian values and practices. Under the official policy of multiculturalism, however, citizens are encouraged to retain their cultural heritage while being recognized as part of Canadian society. Not only does this policy of multiculturalism reject early practices of assimilation, it also distinguishes itself from the “melting pot” approach typically found in the United States. Central to this strategy is the idea that the cultural values and practices of immigrants is best combined with those of mainstream society to form a new and single national culture. Under multiculturalism, however, ethnic groups in Canadian society are encouraged to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness, rather than  assimilated into an ever- changing national culture.

Second, the Act asserts that individuals and communities are to be assured full and equitable participation in all aspects of Canadian society and that any barriers to that participation will be eliminated. Central here is the idea of inclusion within the broader Canadian society. It should not be the case that an ethnic group is excluded from participating in key social, political, and economic institutions simply because they have chosen to maintain their traditional cultural customs and practices.

Third, the Act commits the Government of Canada to “promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins.” The idea here is that while different ethnic groups are able to preserve and enhance their cultural identities, they are nevertheless to be encouraged to interact with one another. In other words, Canada’s population should evolve into a series of cultural islands, but should have mechanisms of interaction to promote mutual understanding and creativity.

Finally, the Act places multiculturalism within the context of Canada’s dominant and traditional ethnic divide, between the English and French traditions. For example, the Act states that the Government of Canada is to “advance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada.” This proviso is significant in that multiculturalism is not meant to replace bilingualism and the special recognition of the French language.

Multiculturalism as a Legislative Institution

Also critical to understanding Canadian multiculturalism policy is its institutional structure. To begin, multiculturalism is a legislative institution in Canadian politics. In other words, it is not simply a statement of ideals, but actually has force and effect on federal laws and programs. This legislative influence stems from a number of sources, first of which is the Canadian Multiculturalism Act itself. Canada was the first country in the world to pass a multiculturalism law; under the Act, multiculturalism is recognized as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society, and is recognized for playing a key role in the decision-making process of the federal government.

Another key source of influence stems from federal (and provincial) human rights and employment equity legislation. The federal Canadian Human Rights Act, for example, prohibits discrimination in areas of federal jurisdiction, including both public and private institutions at the federal level. Moreover, the Act extends to discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, or religion.

A third key source of legislative influence is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As discussed in the previous section, the Charter provides constitutional of a number of key rights and freedoms relevant to multiculturalism policy. Section 15 of the Charter provides constitutional protection against discrimination by any level of Canadian government, while Section 2 provides for a number of key freedoms, such as freedom of religion, assembly, and conscience. In addition, a section was added to the Charter which required it to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians. All laws passed by any level of government are required to be consistent with the Charter’s rights and freedoms.

Multiculturalism as a Judicial Institution

Not only does multiculturalism in Canada have a legislative component, it also has judicial institutions that govern it. While there is no “multiculturalism court” per se, key legislative institutions of multiculturalism do have judicial structures. The Canadian Human Rights Act, for example, is enforced by the federal Human Rights Commission and Tribunal. This bodies have the authority to arbitrate and mediate claims of discrimination covered by the Act. In addition, the rights to equality and freedom under the Charter are interpreted and enforced by the Canadian judiciary ― in particular, the Supreme Court of Canada. Under the Charter, the courts may strike down or change government laws and practices if they find them to be contrary to citizens’ constitutional rights.

This judicial element is significant in that it allows for individual citizens and groups to make claims against private and public institutions and other individuals in support of their multicultural interests. Ethnic groups are not dependent upon the goodwill of governments, or their employers, or their community to respect their cultural heritage and practices. Instead, they may apply to the courts to force these entities to follow key multiculturalism tenets, such as non-discrimination and the freedom to practice one’s culture.

Multicultural Policy Debates in Canada

Multiculturalism, national identity, biculturalism, and federalism

Multiculturalism and the Issue of Divisiveness

An immediate debate on multiculturalism centres on its very basic values. As discussed above, multiculturalism, at its base, holds that ethnic groups are entitled to retain and enhance their cultural heritage. Some critics of multiculturalism, however, argue that this approach is divisive. Central here is the assumption that a stable society requires a common identity and points of inter-group attachments. Citizens need to view themselves as simply Canadian and, in so doing, find common bonds and attitudes among one another. Multiculturalism, however, creates divisiveness insofar as it allows citizens to remain within their traditional cultural communities. As such, citizens will view themselves not as Canadians, but as French, English, Ukrainian, Chinese, or East Indian.

Supporters of multiculturalism often argue that the multiculturalism approach has stabilizing rather than divisive effects. Central here is the assumption that granting equal respect to all ethnic groups will lead to lower levels of racial and ethnic tension. Further to this, there’s the notion, that the very idea and practice of multiculturalism itself will enhance national identity and attachments to the Canadian nation-state. The Canadian national identity is rooted in the idea that citizens are able to retain their cultural heritage rather than be assimilated or combined into a single culture. Further to this is the notion that all ethnic groups will value their membership in the Canadian nation-state precisely because of this fact.

Tension between Biculturalism and Multiculturalism

Another important debate concerns the tension between the ideals of multiculturalism and biculturalism, at both the theoretical and practical levels. Theoretically speaking, multiculturalism holds that all ethnic groups are entitled to equal respect, as well as the ability to preserve and enhance cultural heritage. Biculturalism, on the other hand, holds that Canada is made up of two founding nations or cultures ― the English and the French. As such, the bicultural view contends that these two cultural entities are to be recognized as special within the Canadian polity. In this context, Quebec has never accepted the shift to multiculturalism to the same extent as the rest of Canada.

At a practical level, this tension has manifested in concerns that multicultural policy may be injurious to the French-Canadian position as one the two main cultural communities in Canada. This is particularly evident when the Government of Quebec seeks to grow its provincial population through high levels of immigration, yet attempts to protect and enhance the French language in the province. While the issue of language and culture are distinct, they can nevertheless become intertwined. In Quebec, the French language is viewed as an integral part of the French culture, and its promotion is thus important to maintaining Quebecers as a distinct cultural group.

That said, it is important to note that key elements of multiculturalism, such as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act, only have force in areas of federal jurisdiction. Other components, however, such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, do carry authority at the provincial level. One interesting example of this tension can be found in a legal case, the 1988 case of Ford v. Quebec (A.G.). In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down provincial laws in Quebec which required commercial signs to be displayed in French only. According to the Court, the law violated the Charter insomuch as it prohibited individuals from engaging in commercial speech in the language of their own choice.

Multiculturalism in Canadian Federalism

Another key issue pertaining to multiculturalism centres on the structure of multiculturalism in Canada and its ability to actually accomplish its ends. Of particular concern is the actual practice of multiculturalism within a political system characterized by federalism, where there are different levels of government with their own areas of jurisdiction. While the federal government has adopted multiculturalism as official policy, it nevertheless does not have unfettered jurisdiction to fully pursue this policy. The federal government can ensure the equal treatment of ethnic groups within areas of its jurisdiction through federal human rights laws. Moreover, it can also provide direct funding to ethnic groups to promote the protection and enhancement of their cultural heritage. However, many of the key social services required to fully implement a multicultural vision of Canada fall under provincial domain. Of particular note here are the provincial education and human rights systems.

This is not to suggest that the provinces have no or little concern for multiculturalism; most provincial governments, in fact, have official policies on the issue and key legislative institutions, such as multicultural and human rights legislation. Nevertheless, the presence of different levels of government means that Canadian multiculturalism tends to be pursued in a highly fragmented manner, with different governments pursuing different priorities and programs. Hence, while there may be an official federal multicultural policy, it’s fair to say that a true national multicultural strategy does not exist.

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