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Multiculturalism in Canada

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In a country as culturally diverse as Canada, the notion of multiculturalism is a significant element of Canadian identity – “fundamental to [the Canadian] belief that all citizens are equal.”

A nation based on immigration, Canada has a long history of being culturally diverse. The British North American Act that marked Canadian Confederation in 1867 recognized the three racial, religious, and linguistic collectivities of the time: the aboriginal people, the English, and the French. Since then, new Canadians have been arriving from ever more diverse areas of the world, creating an increasingly multicultural Canadian population. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister at the turn of the 20th century called for equal status for immigrants, no matter their length of history in Canada. “Let each of them honour the land of their fathers,” he said, “but let all of us work together to build the land of our children.”

Multiculturalism has been a hot topic of late, as several studies seek to understand its impacts in Western nations. Though results and reactions in the United Kingdom and the United States have cast a somewhat unflattering light on the notion, the fundamental perceptions of multiculturalism in Canada differ significantly from those in the U.S. and the U.K. As explained by Queen’s University philosopher Will Kymlicka, “Canadian values and pluralistic diversity are not a trade-off […] but rather one is the reason for the other.”

With about 250,000 new Permanent Residents arriving yearly and 18 per cent of Canadian citizens being foreign-born, Canada has the highest immigration rate of any G-8 country. The proportion of immigrants who become citizens is higher than in any other country. Among G-8 countries, the Canadian population is the most supportive of immigration and sees multiculturalism as an increasingly important element of their Canadian identity. The prevalence of multiculturalism studies and discussions in Canada attests to the important role that the notion plays in today’s society. This fall, for example, a commission is being headed in the province of Quebec to give immigrants, French-speaking Quebecers and English-speaking Quebecers a chance to come together and discuss perceptions about immigration in Quebec. The goal is to understand the different stakeholder perceptions in order to work towards easing the transition of newcomers into Quebec society. Another example is the focus on multiculturalism in the current Ontario provincial election campaign. A main issue is whether faith-based schools should be publicly-funded, thereby grouping students by religion, or whether the status quo should be maintained, in which students are exposed to multiple faiths in non-denominational schools. See David Cohen’s most recent blog for further discussion on this issue.

In 1971, Canada was the first Western country to officially adopt multiculturalism. It was added to the Constitution in 1982 in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging,” explains the Canadian government. It encourages Canadians to integrate into their society and take an active part in its social, cultural, economic and political affairs.

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