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December 2010 - Nr. 12

In 2009, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney announced the end of the nation’s heritage languages programme. He told a journalist that “I think it’s neat that a fifth-generation Ukrainian Canadian can speak Ukrainian — but pay for it yourself.”

A Liberal Member of Parliament, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, responded by accusing Kenney of “fundamentally disagree(ing) with the intent of the (multiculturalism) legislation that supports his portfolio.” In other words, as Ottawa columnist Andrew Cohen put it, “Championing a more integrated country is often called intolerant, even racist, as if the conversation were taboo.”

Multiculturalism, in other words, is a hot issue.

Those who created Canada’s 1971 multiculturalism policy had thought in terms of language and culture. But as immigration patterns shifted, as more visible minorities came to Canada, new concerns such as obtaining employment, housing and education and fighting discrimination, forced a shift in policy thinking. Equality through the removal of racial barriers became the main focus of multicultural programs and race relations policies and programs were put in place to combat racial discrimination.

Then in 1982, Canada changed its constitution, put the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in it, and stated that “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” Multiculturalism, therefore, was now as permanent as the Constitution, and the Constitution is very hard to change. The melting pot now was officially dead and gone.

At the same time, the Charter also declared that “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.” Discrimination was against the law.

Parliament soon passed the Multiculturalism Act in 1988. The act acknowledged multiculturalism as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society that was to assist in the preservation of culture and language, to reduce discrimination, to enhance cultural awareness and understanding and to promote culturally sensitive change at the federal level. Thus the act sought to increase minority participation in Canada’s major institutions by bringing diversity into them as natural and normal. All this was good and proper.

But what the act meant in practice was the establishment of quotas, preferences in hiring and active recruitment schemes for visible minorities and recent immigrants. This change took place at the same time as women were receiving special treatment in hiring and after years of preferential hiring for francophones. It is fair to say that there was and remains resentment in the segments of the population that felt themselves newly discriminated against by government. Whites of British origin especially were unhappy, but French-speaking Canadians also worried that immigrants might change their culture.

What worried these unhappy Canadians was the fear that government was not only not watching as the nation changed, but that it was favouring the newcomers with its preferences and policies. White Canada, both English-and French-speaking, saw Canada’s population altering with great speed, and it worried for the future of its way of life. Would the new immigrants from Guangdong and Manila, from Jamaica and the Punjab, be able to integrate into Canadian life? Would those who choose to settle in Quebec learn French? Would new immigrants understand the history and accept the democratic ideas that have shaped Canada’s political life? How much would older Canadians need to change? That such questions can still be asked suggests widespread concern about the multiculturalism goals of 1988.

Change is always difficult, and the fear of change is understandable. It will, of course, become even more difficult for all Canadians, immigrants and the established alike, to deal with and accept if the economic recession of 2009-10 is long-lasting. What is clear to everyone is that Canada wants and needs immigrants and, while the nation has its share of racists, very few Canadians want to close the door to newcomers on grounds of race or religion.

So, who are we now? It is impossible to doubt that Canadians today are a multicultural nation, increasingly so, and especially in the three largest cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. But do they believe in multiculturalism? To a substantial extent they do believe, though very uneasily. Beyond Toronto and Vancouver, many English-speaking Canadians worry that multiculturalism weakens their already shaky sense of nationality, and outside Montreal, most French-speaking Canadians seem to fear that it threatens their hard-won francophone language and culture. For their part, most new Canadians simply want to be accepted not as Somali-Canadians or Filipino-Canadians, but as Canadians.

What is clear is that Canadians, new and old, still want to believe that they can make Canada work. The country’s reputation for tolerance matters to most Canadians, and there is a willingness to try to maintain it. But it won’t be easy, and there will be many bumps in the road as Canada moves deeper into the 21st Century.

Historian J.L. Granatstein is editor of The Canadian Experience. He writes in Canadian politics, foreign policy and defence.

Next Instalment: Confederation

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

The Canadian Experience communicates to us about the many facets of Canada, the people, the Charter, brings us reality and creates understanding.

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