Canadian Multiculturalism


Originally published in 2008.

In the past on Perlocutionary we have had some discussions of Canadian multiculturalism (here) and have worried about the relationship between multiculturalism and faith based initiatives, some of which seem to be in conflict with the basic principles of our Canadian approach to a liberal democracy with its guarantees of individual freedom and human rights. Attempts to fund all religious schools with public money lost the Conservatives the recent election in Ontario even though public money is already being used there to sponsor Catholic and Jewish schools. To deny similar funding to Muslim schools seems discriminatory. Conservative Muslim groups came close to establishing “Sharia” law for family law disputes in Ontario. Since 9/11 there have been deep concerns about what is being taught in faith based schools.

How should we proceed in attempting to maximize individual freedom while protecting values of tolerance and equality?

Philosophy Professor Will Kymlicka has thought long and hard about these problems. He recently gave a lecture at UBC which is available for a short time on the CBC Ideas podcast page. It is an excellent review of our uniquely Canadian approach to multiculturalism and suggests that we will be able to cope with the new stresses without giving up on important values.

Since its adoption in 1971, multiculturalism policy in Canada has encouraged the self-organization and representation of ethno-cultural minorities. But this has changed over time, as issues of race and religion have emerged. In the 2008 UBC-Laurier Institution Multicultural Lecture, Will Kymlicka, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at Queen’s University, explores how multiculturalism has evolved.

R̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ ̶c̶l̶i̶c̶k̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶D̶o̶w̶n̶l̶o̶a̶d̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶ ̶T̶h̶r̶e̶e̶ ̶L̶i̶v̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶M̶u̶l̶t̶i̶c̶u̶l̶t̶u̶r̶a̶l̶i̶s̶m̶

Go here.

There are also several newsletters on topic available at Professor Kymlicka’s web site. Further resources:

Ethnic Relations
Political Theory
General Research

16 thoughts on “Canadian Multiculturalism

  1. A clear and thoughtful lecture on the Canadian approach to multiculturalism. A good review of the history except the professor seems to have left out any mention of gender problems and solutions.
    Status of Women Canada (SWC) which is a federal government organization that promotes the full participation of women in the economic, social and democratic life of Canada has also played a significant role in the development of our current multicultural society! “SWC works to advance equality for women and to remove the barriers to women’s participation in society, putting particular emphasis on increasing women’s economic security and eliminating violence against women.”
    So perhaps there should be a fourth strand:
    1. ethnic
    2. racial
    3. gender
    4. religion


  2. Good point, taersker. Coincidentally I have been listening to part five of Gary Christills’ “The People’s Music” and he talks movingly about the ways in which folk music has contributed to our multicultural country. You can listen to clips from CBC here. He tells a story about the Paul Robeson concert in 1952 when Robeson performed from the back of a pickup truck one foot inside the US border. He could not leave the US at the time and was blacklisted as part of the right wing McArthyism facist movement.


  3. In my mind multi-culturalism is the official policy to insert some qualifier followed by a hyphen followed by the almost meaningless word ‘Canadian’, making the nationality not only secondary but dependent on the qualifier. This I think is a significant problem. Yet I hear over and over how multi-culturalism allows people to celebrate their uniqueness but scratch their collective heads over the curious matter that ‘Canadian’ does not grant any particular identity other than a geographical one that just so happens to be stamped on tens of thousands of passports belonging to people who live, raise families, and work in Lebanon. It seems to me to be a nationality of certain conveniences I think with thanks due in large measure to this misguided notion of multi-culturalism.

    What I think is too often forgotten is that such an approach to make the members of one group distinct from another (even with the best of intentions) must be defined by how BOTH are different: by this I mean, for example, that just because one defines a quebecois as somehow different from those who live somewhere else in the rest-of-Canada does not grant the rest-of-Canada any distinct identity other than what it is not, namely quebecois. This means that multi-culturalism as a policy is really a negative identifier, which explains to me why so many hyphenated Canadians are satisfied to say that they are not Americans. It also explains why so many others think it strange that one’s national identity is explained by what it is not. I have yet to find someone from Portugal who explains the Portuguese national identity means that they are not Russian, not Zimbabwian, not Sri Lankan.

    And what about those who claim mere citizenship and forego the hyphenated preamble? No special status here, no special accommodation, no special checkbox on the application form for being a ‘visible’ minority. But how can this be? Where’s the ethnicity? Must not have one, eh?. Where’s the race? Must be the generic kind. Where’s the gender? Must be hermaphroditic. Where’s the religious affiliation? Must mean one embraces immorality. Why, it’s almost as if one is so far in the background without these means of official checkbox identifications that one’s official status is somehow… less.

    What bothers me most about this kind of thinking offered by the good Kymlicka is that it personifies groupthink to an official policy. He makes it sound as if an Elmasry has been asked by both muslim constituents and officialdom to represent a legitimate group, yet when he says something completely out of line with respecting the most basic rights and freedoms of personhood by Canadian standards, muslims pop out of the woodwork exclaiming that he does not speak on their behalf. But no one says he shouldn’t receive substantial funding from the various levels of government as the head of the Canadian Islamic Congress under this hydra called multi-culturalism. That would be too… what… anti-multi-cultural?

    While Kymlicka is careful to always include human rights as a cornerstone of multi-culturalism, he is willing to overlook practices like female genital mutilation, honour killings, women as property, because certain ethnic groups are not attempting to make these anti-human rights practices legal. That doesn’t mean these despicable practices aren’t still practiced, aren’t still promoted, aren’t still tolerated by significant portions of people whose first – FIRST – allegiance isn’t to that qualifier called ‘Canadian’ in the hyphenated identity. It’s because the Canadian part is secondary and multi-culturalism makes it acceptably so. And that’s I think a source of significant problems that will continue to plague us all until we insist that one is a Canadian FIRST and FOREMOST and that means something specifically no matter what hyphenated qualifiers we want to add to our sense of identity.


  4. You are correct, tildeb, to raise the red flag about certain religious practices which are just wrong and should never be allowed in any culture. Those practices cannot and should not be tolerated. I am thinking specifically about practices at the settlement in Bountiful, BC, with multiple marriages, child forced marriages and the like. Those practices are being tolerated for some reason. Why? Just because of religion? Weird.

    First we need to be consistent. Consistency, e.g., would require that either all religious schools can feed at the public trough or none can. That the CCC be applied equally to all citizens, not just some.

    How do we maximize individual freedom while at the same time protecting basic human rights within a democratic society?


  5. I’m not sure if your question is rhetorical, Bob, but just in case it isn’t, here’s my opening answer: the law must be non-discriminatory as a starting point so that all citizens (and their shared individual freedoms) have an equal stake at age of majority. No special status, no ‘distinct’ societies, no favoured groups, no artificial promotion of ‘visible’ minorities, no quotas, no special considerations. One law of the people, by the people, for the people. Shared equality, shared rights, shared freedoms. Infringe upon any at one’s legal peril.

    (Let those who wish to work on behalf of the people – government and all its agencies – put aside their individualism and all that entails while at work and wear the assigned uniform for what it represents to the public rather than what it denies to the individual.)


  6. tildeb writes: “In my mind multi-culturalism is the official policy to insert some qualifier followed by a hyphen followed by the almost meaningless word ‘Canadian’, making the nationality not only secondary but dependent on the qualifier. This I think is a significant problem.”

    But only in your mind. 🙂

    But seriously, what is with the hyphenated worry? You mean the way the media always talks about Indo-Canadians or Anglo-Canadians? When has a hyphen ever actually caused you any suffering?

    Later he writes: “no ‘distinct’ societies” – if you mean that then you can say good bye to Canada. Vive le Québec libre!


  7. Those are tough questions, sob89. Hey, I know! How about you do a little research project and go interview a couple of thousand elderly Japanese-Canadians and ask them about that little innocuous hyphen? I’m sure you’ll also find that that misunderstanding was all the media’s fault.

    And I DO mean no ‘distinct’ societies (for the same reasons that Trudeau argued before the Charlottetown referendum). But unlike you (and your apparent faith in the long-term national benefits of multi-cultural appeasement), I don’t think we’ll say goodbye to Canada: one way or another we’ll say goodbye to pretentious and divisive sub-nationalism.


  8. I am sorry, tildeb; I had no idea you were Japanese-Canadian. But we went after you (or your ancestors) for reasons other than a hyphen. We restricted civil rights for the same reasons then as we are now!

    “Appeasement” “pretentious and divisive” – you are starting to sound like some conservative talk show dude! Do you host such a show?


  9. One of the things I liked about Philosophy Professor Will Kymlicka’s talk was his description of process. The policy has changed over the past 40 years as a result of discussion necessitated by “pressure” groups. Instead of merely a top-down decree from Ottawa there has been and I hope will continue to be a process of consultation. I don’t think consultation is the same as appeasment. Consistency would be good!


  10. My point, sob89, is that I understand that I have been harmed as a Canadian when other Canadians are subjected to a loss of equal civil rights (no matter what the intentions may be, no matter what the context under which this happens). I understand that an attack against one – because of membership in an identified group – is an attack against all. In tandem with this understanding is that a promotion of unequal rights that favours rather than harms other Canadians – because of membership in an identified group – is also an attack against all. That’s a point that seems to almost never be a factor in discussions of multi-culturalism. And it needs to be. But I can’t explain why and defend my position in just a short sniper burst. I need a few paragraphs. So, with your indulgence…

    We are so used to assigning identity based on membership in identified groups (what I call ‘groupthink’) that it doesn’t surprise me that you are attempting to do so with me here. The problem with assigning identity to group membership is that it is hollow in terms of legal equal rights. It is a focus on social context (real or imagined) rather than legal content. It’s easier to think this way, I’ll grant you, and often an acceptable way to transfer responsibility from the personal to the social, but it comes with a great legaldanger to the equality of all individuals under the law because it reduces us from the vibrant individuals we are to extensions of an some artificial group. That’s a problem because when we allow ourselves to be legally identified by association, then we too easily forget that our associations may not only be incorrect and/or imagined, but an illegal basis for favourable or unfavourable discrimination.

    For example, if I’m not Quebecois (a member of an official ‘distinct’ society, let us not forget), then I’m part of the Rest-Of-Canada (ROC). This necessarily means that a member from the ROC is distinct from a Quebecois. That is an association placed on me by someone who sees the Canadian identity in these terms. When the law recognizes this association as legally meaningful, we’ve got a problem. How so? Well, now along comes a First Nations person who tells me that if I am not First Nations (surely as ‘distinct’ a society as that which defines the ‘distinct-ness’ of a Quebecois), then I am part of the ROC, right alongside a Quebecois in THIS person’s mind, someone with whom I am already (supposedly) disassociated not just in social context but in a legal sense. The legal ramification that differentiates me as distinct in terms of one but the same in terms of another is antithetical. When our laws are antithetical regarding a single individual, then we have made a terrible mistake. Perhaps we need a calendar to define what legal status I am depending on which day of the week it is.

    As if this weren’t bad enough and cause for legal confusion about my legal rights as an individual, now we must consider my other group associations for my legal status, including my gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, language, and let’s throw religion into the mix to determine which group rights I may exercise and in what context. After all the various group associations are made to identify me as an individual based on these group associations, Lo and Behold!, the Charter says that I am not to be subject to discrimination based on these very group associations that define multi-culturalism as a policy and supposedly me as an individual! And as a policy, let us not forget that it was brought into being to eliminate discrimination! Under this banner of toleration and celebration of our differences, I am no longer the individual person I actually am but have become by association (with many people’s permission and active support, thinking that they do something for the benefit of the oppressed) something that I am not: a hyphenated Canadian, with hyphenated rights and a hyphenated legal identity. I for one do not wish to see our common rights nor our common national identity become a hollow term of social context of group affiliations and negative associations. More importantly, I do not wish to see my individual rights and freedoms in a legal sense disassociated from me as an individual necessary under the guise of respecting the ‘culture’ of others. That’s merely a cover for fascism.

    The policies of multi-culturalism in practice have proven to allow legal confusion and great inequalities to come into being (which is why I wrote about ‘even for the best of intentions’) and they have helped to promulgate certain legal rights that favour some over others into what I think of as a soft fascism – where shared and equal rights of all are suspended or removed based on the mothering notion that some political caucus and those granted power in the name of some its agencies know better than the collective of individuals (and the Charter rights shared by all) they supposedly serve. One needs to look no farther than what our human rights commissions have become – empowered by the state – to see the great danger that groupthink – identity by association – brings into legal play. Such state-sponsored and organized legal bullying is antithetical to those who support a secular liberal democracy but it should come as no surprise when one understands the very real danger that groupthink brings to our equal legal rights as individual citizens.

    The state is not our parent. Look at how well this parenting notion has historically worked on behalf of First Nations people. The state is our servant. Those who wish for it to become our parent (for the best of intentions) take all of us towards fascism (soft and hard) and away from liberalism – the very foundation of a secular liberal democracy upon which individual human rights are built. When people like Kymlicka pay only lip service to the importance of individual and equal human rights (and I have no doubt he thinks himself honest in his service) but suggest a path that leads all of us away from them, as is clearly the case with multi-culturalism, then no matter what political stripe one may be, no matter to what group by association one may think one belongs, no matter what help and peaceful accommodation one thinks one is promoting through supporting such a policy, one has a superior duty as citizen to all other citizens first: to remember the historical lessons we supposedly learned from Japanese-Canadians and other individuals from discriminated groups, and that lesson is to never lose sight or let down our guard that all of us are individuals first with shared legal rights and shared legal freedoms. Any and all other solutions must account for this legal supremacy first, and then work within its confines. For any government, any publicly funded agency, to subvert or suppress equality of rights of individuals is an attack against all. Those who attack this equality-under-the-law concept even with the softest and gentlest of compassionate gloves are still and shall always be a primary danger to all and one that opens the door to gross abuses of individual rights.


  11. Tildeb writes with sarcasm: “I’m sure you’ll also find that that misunderstanding was all the media’s fault.”

    Well, sir, in our discussion of today’s problems and the post being discussed I stand by my claim that much of the reactionary commentary comes about because of media. There is a big difference between perceptions and reality. The
    Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences here, [the Taylor-Bouchard Commission]found “insecurity was largely fuelled by a “crisis of perception,” stoked by distortions in media reports on individual cases of accommodation. Their proposal also says that:

    The province needs to define its secular nature to improve relations between the majority and ethnic minorities, said the commission.

    That includes greater measures, statutes and guidelines to counteract discrimination.

    But accommodation should not be overly legislated, the report notes. It’s up to individuals and community groups to work out how they will accommodate each other on a case-by-case basis, respecting provincial guidelines while drawing from collective experience from past situations requiring compromise.

    Quebec is entering a new phase in its history marked by a shift in selfhood, which is “no longer a French-Canadian identity,” Taylor said. “It has become a Quebec identity. But such identity must be an inclusive type of identity.”

    I think Bob posted on the Commission in May, pointing out that “the government is ready to make more demands on immigrants interested in living in Quebec, including a signed declaration that states their commitment to the province’s core values, including the importance of French.”

    I don’t see the Taylor-Bouchard Commission recommendations as “appeasement” or selling out, or wimpiness, but more in line with a rational and principled approach to dealing with facts


  12. I’m glad you mention the Taylor-Bouchard Commission and its recommendations, sob89. Let’s recall what was written over at butterfliesandwheels that I posted earlier to PII about identity (with a few bits boldfaced by me):

    Charles Taylor, for instance, suggests that the Canadian and Quebec governments should take steps to ensure the survival of the French language in Quebec ‘through indefinite future generations’.

    The demand that because a cultural practice has existed for a long time, so it should be preserved – or, in Charles Taylor’s version, the demand that because I am doing X so my descendants, through ‘indefinite future generations’, must also do X – is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that ought derives from is. For nineteenth century social Darwinists, morality – how we ought to behave – derived from the facts of nature – how humans are. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide. Today, virtually everyone recognises the falsity of this argument. Yet, when talking of culture rather than of nature, many multiculturalists continue to insist that is defines ought.

    Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society. A clear example is the attempt by the Quebecois authorities to protect French culture. The Quebec government has passed laws which forbid French speakers and immigrants to send their children to English-language schools; compel businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French; and ban English commercial signs. So, if your ancestors were French you, too, must by government fiat speak French whatever your personal wishes may be. Charles Taylor regards this as acceptable because the flourishing and survival of French culture is a good. ‘It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it’, he argues. Quebec is ‘making sure that there is a community of people here in the future that will want to avail itself of the opportunity to use the French language.’ Its policies ‘actively seek to create members of the community… assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers.’

    ‘It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group’, Joseph Raz has written. But what is to be fully integrated? If a Muslim woman rejects sharia law, is she demonstrating her lack of integration? What about a Jew who doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish State? Or a French Quebecois who speaks only English? Would Galileo have challenged the authority of the Church if he had been ‘fully integrated’ into his culture? Or Thomas Paine have supported the French Revolution? Or Salman Rushdie written The Satanic Verses? Cultures only change, societies only move forwards because many people, in Kwame Appiah’s words, ‘actively resist being fully integrated into a group’. To them ‘integration can sound like regulation, even restraint’. Far from giving voice to the voiceless, in other words, the politics of difference appears to undermine individual autonomy, reduce liberty and enforce conformity. You will speak French, you will act gay, don’t rock the cultural boat. The alternatives, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut suggests, are simple: ‘Either people have rights or they have uniforms; either they can legitimately free themselves from oppression… or else their culture has the last word.’

    I do not think the problems inherent with multi-culturalism are media-induced. Problems like honour killings really do exist independently of the media’s reporting of them. Language and sign laws really do exist independently of the media’s reporting of their ludicrous enforcements. What is stifled are the voices within these communities raised in legitimate criticism of them. But too often, these voices of dissent are silenced by multi-culturalist apologists through false accusations of promoting hate against a culture rather than revealing legitimate problems of individual rights versus state sponsored oppression in the name of accommodation or toleration or promoting diversity or what have you. When push comes to shove as it must inevitably do under multi-culturalism and group identity/group rights, it is the shared rights of the individual that is actually threatened, suppressed, bullied, and lessened. When this is done in the name of multi-culturalism, I call it what it is: an appeasement. It is a shortsighted short-term brutish policy of political convenience that yields a temporary benefit at the expense of attacking the very root of our secular liberal democracy: individual rights. There is no middle ground, compromise, or consensus possible between multi-culturalism and individual rights. As much as either of us might wish it were not so, that IS the fact.


  13. Just a brief comment: Taylor’s recommendation is not for multiculturalism.
    I believe that what you are quoting above is a media report (which is an interpretation); not the commission report.


  14. Here’s an interesting argument presented to the T-B Commission:

    In addition to their spiritual role, religions constitute social, cultural, and civic institutions intrinsic to the need of any society. Rather than being a source of societal unrest, they embody a culture of tolerance, co-existence and cooperation among different backgrounds inherent to any society. As such, restricting religious and cultural expression is a disservice to the total welfare of society.
    Exclusionist secularism bans religion on the grounds that it causes rifts and disharmony in society. Such a conception has led others in the past to ban religion from public life. This practice, however, assumes the same role for which it criticizes religion. The solution is to allow a plurality of associations and belief systems in an environment of diversity, respect, and tolerance.
    Indeed, under the claim of exclusionist secularism, history provides examples where conformity led to the oppression of different religious minorities. For example, based on exclusionist conceptions of secularism, communist regimes banned religion from public places only to prove in later decades their durability and importance.
    Frustrating the integration of religious minorities into mainstream society will disenfranchise various religious and cultural groups and will as a result harm Quebec. Denying the reasonable accommodation of minorities’ needs such as prayer spaces will marginalize these minorities by creating disincentives to participate fully and equally in the function of important institutions such as universities. Reasonable accommodation will make minorities feel included and at equal footing with others and will contribute to the peace, productivity, and welfare of the entire society. By using the argument of secularism to deprive minorities of their religious and cultural rights will have the opposite effect.
    submitted by:
    Muslim Student Association of McGill University


  15. Re: 13. Quite true, Bob. I was pointing out the basis of Taylor’s cultural philosophy – as one of the authors of the report – starts with a significant bias, namely that identity derives from an inherited culture and because this identity is under threat by dominant cultures we need to do a better job accomodating minority cultural expressions in a reasonable manner. I know that Taylor recommends a hybrid policy called interculturalism.

    I think that what people do is what culture is.


  16. From the report:

    B. Facts and perceptions
    During the time of turmoil, many cases or affairs led a significant number of
    Quebecers to adopt a very negative perception of reasonable accommodation.
    These cases or affairs focused usually on accommodation or adjustments
    perceived as being illegitimate or a form of threat to Québec society’s values.
    In order to clarify the situation, the Commission mandated two researchers
    who devoted over four months to reconstructing as rigorously as possible the
    facts based on a sampling of 21 cases among those that received the broadest
    media coverage and that fuelled most extensively the controversy. The
    researchers questioned the interveners and witnesses and relied on the
    documentation available.
    Our research reveals that in 6 of the 21 cases studied, there was no apparent
    distortion between the facts reconstructed and the public’s general perception
    of these cases. However, we noted striking distortions in the other 15 cases.
    Thus, the negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the
    public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the
    field. Here are five examples that illustrate the extent of these media distortions.
    The full report contains an analysis of the other cases. See pages 18 ff in the abridged report…


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