Recognizing distinctiveness and accepting our differences – CRRF

By Canadian Race Relations Foundation


The demographic changes experienced by Canada since the introduction of the first Multiculturalism Policy in 1971, have been very significant. The population has increased from approximately 21 million (in 1971) to over 35 million in 2011.

The growth during that period, largely fuelled by immigration, has changed the face of Canada. In 1971, the foreign-born population of Canada was about 10%. By 2011 that percentage had more than doubled. While historically, most immigrants came from the United Kingdom or from Europe, by 2011, Asia (including the Middle East) had become the main continent of origin for new Canadians. More than 200 different ethnic groups were reflected in the 2011 National Household Survey, along with increasing diversity in languages spoken and religious practice.

While it is often stated that the diversity of our population is one of Canada’s greatest strengths, the benefit did not come automatically. As a Canadian historian once noted, the history of our country is based on “challenge and survival.” The influx of newcomers – with different backgrounds from those who came earlier – could have had a destabilizing effect on the country. That it has been minimal, is due in part to the policy that was created through a series of measures including the original Multiculturalism Policy, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 , containing the updated Multiculturalism Policy of Canada, the various Human Rights Statutes, hate crime laws, and the evolution of the public square’s attitude towards the “other” that was stimulated by passage and implementation of these documents. Reflecting changing attitudes and changing demographics, the Multiculturalism Act that was created in 1988 was more directly concerned with “the equitable participation of Canadians of all origins” than was its predecessor, which grew from the work done by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the course of its hearings, research and report, and was focused more narrowly on recognition and preservation of culture and heritage of ethnocultural communities and their members.
It’s fair to say that both the 1971 and 1988 Multiculturalism Policies set a direction not only for the acceptance and co-existence of various cultural groups, speaking different languages, but also for a greater understanding of human diversity.

Previously, it was expected that individuals would suppress (or at least subordinate) their differences in order to fit into the majority culture. One writer recalls requesting a religious accommodation from his university in the mid-1970s, only to be told that “his quaint religious practices were of no concern to the Registrar’s office.” Such attitudes carried into the corporate world, where employees were expected to create their own accommodations within the confines of the organizational structure. Indeed, the original Multiculturalism Policy, while encouraging tolerance and accommodations did not mandate them as obligatory. Rather there was a corresponding encouragement to minorities to adapt to the communities in which they found themselves, in either French or English or both.

While the 1986 Employment Equity Act encouraged federally-regulated employers to examine not only their hiring practices but systemic barriers to retention, it was not until the early 1990s that change agents within corporations and the wider society began to adopt the language of diversity and greater use of Human Rights Codes. Beyond a growing body of case law that articulated the principle of accommodation, it became common to speak of the value that could be derived from the different perspectives of a diverse population, workforce, or electorate. In the corporate world, it became common (as it is today) for employers to speak of the value of employees “bringing their whole selves to work.”

There was a value in being a hyphenated employee and a hyphenated Canadian.

In October 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while being interviewed by the New York Times, said that Canada could be the “first post-national state”. He added: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” While some will welcome – or decry – this view, it could be argued the idea of a post-national state could not even be articulated but for the groundwork laid by the Multiculturalism Act in combination with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Human Rights Codes.

That said, Mr. Trudeau’s comment was well rooted in the thoughts of another Canadian. As Charles Foran noted in a Globe and Mail opinion piece: “A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan made a typically playful and elusive observation about his homeland. ‘Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,’ he said. What Mr. McLuhan meant was far from clear to most people at the time, but he did want it known that the condition wasn’t a negative.”

The American novelist, Gertrude Stein, was reputed to have said of her Oakland, California childhood home that, “there is no there, there.” The Prime Minister’s observation may raise similar vertiginous feelings, but we need not feel unmoored. Those who search for universally accepted Canadian values may well find the greatest acceptance when those values are framed as human, rather than national, in character: the need for peace and security; the hope that our children will enjoy good lives; the desire for respect from our fellow citizens and the willingness to reciprocate in kind; and a recognition that inclusion leads to greater social capital and mutual enrichment. These are values that span race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and many more. Our embrace of these – perhaps difficult at first yet then with warmth and sincerity – is what holds this country together.

While it is the mandate of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation to focus on matters relating to racism and hatred, and race relations through education, dialogue and research, we recognize that this work takes place within the context of growing understanding of – and sensitivity to – the intersectionality of identities that characterize the day-to-day reality of many Canadians. While the goal of the CRRF remains the elimination of racism from Canada, we recognize that the there is work that has been left undone and there is still much work to be done. The greatest current challenges are found in dealing with hate speech in balance with freedom of expression, carrying out an open and positive dialogue on the place of religion in the public sphere or the experience of visible minorities like Black experience in society, in a less charged atmosphere, and similarly dealing with reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples on the level of personal daily interaction while negotiations carry on concerning the meaning of nation to nation relationships with governments into the future.

Canada’s Multiculturalism Act has encouraged Canadians to think of multiculturalism and diversity as synonyms for each other. While this may create a potential challenge – as competing voices seek to be heard and competing rights vie for primacy – we believe that recognition of distinctiveness can lead to a greater appreciation of the distinctiveness of others, and the strengthening of a society where difference is accepted, and inclusion is a foregone conclusion.

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation is Canada's leading agency dedicated to the elimination of racism and all forms of racial discrimination in Canadian society.

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