Is Canada’s multiculturalism an international model of excellence, or a crumbling pillar of Canadian identity? 

October 8th of this year marked the 50th anniversary of Canada’s official announcement of a federal multicultural policy. An unprecedented legislation when first presented, it signalled Canada’s broad commitment to validating and recognizing cultural diversity and inclusivity, while affirming its reputation as a cultural mosaic. Now, at its 50-year mark, the question of whether Canada’s multiculturalism still rings true today – not only as a policy objective but as a national identity – is one worth revisiting. 

Multiculturalism as a concept encompasses three distinct facets in Canada: sociological, ideological, and political. From a sociological perspective, multiculturalism connects to diverse backgrounds based on ethnicity and race. Ideologically, multiculturalism means celebrating Canada’s cultural diversity. Multiculturalism through a political lens builds policies at federal, provincial, and municipal levels to manage diversity; federally, this includes the Multicultural Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

First declared in 1971 as an element of federal policy by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, multiculturalism was institutionalized in Canada in 1988 with the Multiculturalism Act. The following decade saw a positive shift in Canadian attitudes and general acceptance towards immigration, along with a relatively unified Canadian approach for inclusion and diversity across party lines.

Today, the institutionalization of multiculturalism is further underpinned by the presence of diverse groups in Canada, notably immigrant populations and diaspora groups, who serve as crucial actors on informing policies at home and abroad.

After a decade of Conservative leadership under the Harper government, Justin Trudeau followed his father’s commitment to multiculturalism, boldly declaring that “Canada is back” in 2015 during his first term as Prime Minister. Under the Trudeau government, Canada’s domestic and foreign policy agendas appear to have shifted to emphasize inclusion for marginalized groups – a prime example of this being the introduction of Bill C-15 to implement the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian legislation. Although Canadian multicultural policy tends to be more symbolic than directly responsible for achieving the outcomes it sets out to accomplish, Canada is still recognized internationally as a model for pluralism and institutionalizing diversity. 

Currently, cracks in Canada’s multicultural identity and policy have become more pertinent; the tragic discovery of mass burial sites at former residential schools across the country this year has been and continues to be particularly shocking. The discourse regarding Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and claims of genocide present a stark challenge to Canada’s brand of diversity.

Fundamentally, this brings into question groups that are excluded in existing multicultural policies: while there is a large focus on immigrant minority rights and integration into Canada, the interests of Indigenous peoples are often omitted.

In contemporary times, the omission of these interests can be examined through Canada’s failure to fully implement the “Calls to Action” as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released in its entirety in 2015. A review by the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank, indicates key barriers to implementing the “Calls to Action”, one of which is that the “public interests” envisioned by policymakers generally excludes Indigenous peoples. This pushes Indigenous culture, history, and issues off to the side and stands in sharp contrast to the implementation of Bill C-15.

Another major crack in Canada’s multicultural identity can be found in the rise of anti-multiculturalism sentiments in politics. In 2006, Conservative voters tended to be more critical of immigration. More recently, the rise of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), a party that explicitly voices their stance against multiculturalism, is also significant. The PPC received 5% of votes in this year’s election, a notable increase from 1.6% in 2019. With anti-immigration rhetoric, interests in scrapping the Multiculturalism Act, and outright support of Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, the PPC provides a platform for extreme viewpoints that have the potential to harm part of Canada’s identity focused on diversity, multiculturalism, and cultural celebration and acceptance. 

From Pierre to Justin Trudeau, Canada’s identity as a multicultural nation has evolved to include more cultural minorities. Although Canada’s multiculturalism has failed to include Indigenous peoples and is challenged by rising right-wing politics, Canadians still tend to view multiculturalism as a piece of national identity. As such, the current government should recognize Indigenous peoples as distinct and imperative in Canada’s cultural mosaic while actively opposing politicized anti-multiculturalism. If Canada wants to uphold a national identity and an international model where “diversity is our strength”, we must do more than rely on a 50-year-old declaration of multiculturalism.

Emily Wesseling is an M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her B.A. in International Studies and French at the University of Idaho in 2020, and has particular research interests in Canadian affairs, diplomacy, and foreign policy. Her current experiences include a teaching assistantship at Carleton University and a research assistantship with the World Refugee & Migration Council.

Photo Credit: Saun Merritt (Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco Perilli)

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