From Colonialism to Multiculturalism – Clarke

By Anne C.D.Clarke



It is inconceivable to visualise that I have been in Canada so long that I can recall various significant milestones in the history of Canada, such as our multiculturalism policy, immigration and refugee policy, the repatriation of the Constitution and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the inclusion of Section (15) equality rights, employment equity legislation, laws against the dissemination of hate literature and other non-discriminatory policies. This is part of living in a democratic society that is intent on protecting the rights of individuals and groups to live in safety, peace and security and the ability to celebrate culture without fear, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political or any other status.

The Evolution of Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy:

Despite being an autonomous nation dating back to 1867, Canada did not gain her independence from Britain until December 11, 1931. Canada remains a part of the British Empire because we have not chosen to become a republic. It is an empire that left an indelible mark on World history as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade through its enslavement of people from the African continent. The unpaid labour of men, women, children and grandparents, helped to build many of the economies of what was then considered the new World. Canada’s slave trade was concentrated in the province of Quebec and Lower Canada.

Segregation of non-whites, which included Canada’s Indigenous people, was a normal part of social and economic life. It is a piece of history, although it continued for nearly two (2) centuries, few Canadians were familiar with until the 1960s. Beginning in the late 1950s, as labour market needs expanded, the colour bar on immigration laws relaxed, to allow non-white immigration from the former colonies, such as the Caribbean, Africa and India.

Coming to Canada:

As Canadian society evolved, leaders such as the late Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliot Trudeau were in the forefront of human rights, peace and reconciliation issues. Five months after arriving in Canada as an immigrant from England, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Leader of the Government and Prime Minister of Canada at the time, rose in Parliament and announced on October 8, 1971 the country’s multiculturalism policy.

In embracing the policy, the Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Robert Stanfield said: “The emphasis we have given to multiculturalism, in no way constitutes an attack on the basic duality of our country. What we want is justice for all Canadians, and recognition of the cultural diversity of this country.” The policy was a direct result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which amongst other issues, dealt with the cultural and economic contributions of other ethnic groups, ostensibly numbering over thirty-two (32) at the time.

Building a bilingual, diverse and Inclusive Society:

The original Multiculturalism policy was created within an equity and bilingual framework of inclusion. It was an exciting time for me to be part of such a phase in the growth of a relatively new nation. It was the beginning of what, today is called diversity. While only a government directive, official multiculturalism sent a powerful message to immigrants with origins in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and other post-colonial countries, Canada was our home and native land. We are a part of the fabric of Canadian society and entitled to equitable treatment, cultural, social, economic and political inclusion. At the same time, having the ability to celebrate, preserve and develop our cultures and traditions without fear of reprisals. From that day forward no effort would be spared to reduce or eliminate barriers to inclusion.

Nonetheless, while Canada has an apparent affinity to create far reaching and innovative public policies it is important to question whether there is intrinsic altruism, marked by an unselfish concern for the welfare of others, not just at the time of its development, or is there on the part of policy makers, a lack of far-sightedness regarding its long term impact and significance? Those policies, in the 21st century now have a much deeper meaning, as recently arrived newcomers to Canada, have in the last decade begun to demand that Canadian institutions become more inclusive, that real efforts be undertaken to eradicate anti-Black racism and that authentic discussion take place about the value of inclusion, equity and diversity. The reality is, now more than ever, a mounting urgency to pay attention to what our own statistics have been telling us for over forty years that the majority of new comers will continue to come from non-white countries.

Community Advocacy: Multiculturalism and the Constitution:

It is well documented that democracy could be messy as citizens’ advocate for their rights. Consequently as Canada continued to grow in global stature, bringing the Constitution home from Britain was an important part of that growth. It was no surprise that community advocates felt it was important to have multiculturalism enshrined in the Constitution. They were therefore elated when Section 1 (27) regarding the preservation and enhancement of Canada’s multicultural heritage was included in the repatriated 1982 Canadian Constitution. Seventeen (17) years later, the policy became law with the enactment of The Canadian Multiculturalism Act and received Royal Assent on July 21st 1988. As previously mentioned, was there altruism in the 1971 announcement and later legal codification? One could argue, there was both altruism and genuine concern for the value of equity within Canadian society amongst leaders of the day. Nevertheless, like the building of the Canadian Railway and even Ottawa’s present Light Rail System, there are always starts and stops, especially when things are quiet and all appears to be well. Was it though? Or did political leaders ignore the underlying currents?

Canadian Statistics: A Catalyst for Change:

Research in the early 1970s began to indicate that Canada was a rapidly aging population and without immigration our labour force would falter. Governments would be hard-pressed to maintain the social and economic standards being created without the labour market means to sustain that life. Further, (Samuel et al, 2006) using Statistics Canada’s projections, concluded that the visible minority (racialised) population in Canada would exceed those of other groups by the year 2036. Also, research conducted in 2011 with the inclusion of work carried out in the 1980s, began to document changes, especially as fertility rates continued to not reach replacement value.

The UN opens Canada’s Festering Boil:

One hundred and fifty years is not a lot in nation building. So we must give Canada its due because a lot has been accomplished since December 11, 1931. We are self-governing, there is the rule of law, violence against women and children have drastically reduced, there is a right to an oral hearing for refugee claimants who seek Canada’s protection from civil strife in their countries of origin. Laws and governing regulations and administrative guidelines are constantly being reviewed, revised, expanded and reshaped to suit the times and the events.

Unfortunately peoples’ lives continue. Indigenous women and children have gone missing for decades without much concern for their lives as humans. Women continue to be sexually abused even though there are laws to protect us. There is a widening gap between those who have and those who do not have, so poverty is a disturbing and ongoing blight on our young nation.

Systemic Racism:

Race though, is the blight on our nation and the UN International Human Rights Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination recently brought the issue of racism, the elephant in the Canadian Living Rooms, to the forefront, in their report released on September 13, 2017. Members of the committee called on Canada to apologise for its colonial past and involvement with the slave trade. The Committee called for reparations for people of African Descent; to do more to eliminate Anti-Black Racism; to protect the rights of its Indigenous Peoples; to more effectively deal with the atrocities of the missing Indigenous women and girls.

The report has special significance to the Descendants of African Slaves in Canada, because the World is now marking the UN’s Decade for People of African Descent. In 2002, the former Heritage Minister, The Honourable Sheila Copps, laid a plaque designating Africville, one of Canada’s oldest known Black communities, a national heritage site. The gesture may have inspired racial pride in the area’s descendants, yet it has not quelled the ongoing anti-Black Racism across Canada and calls by racialised communities to respect in practise the pillars of cultural and racial diversity and the reality of Canada’s multicultural heritage.

Nation Building: Diversity Equals Equity:

Canada can benefit from an Afro-Centric Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to what took place in South Africa after Apartheid and what is now taking place across Canada to hear the stories of Indigenous People who have lost their loved ones. Canada has still not come to grips with the fact that many of these individuals and groups with ties to primarily non-white countries and part of the British Empire, are no longer drawers of water, sex slaves at the order of their masters, but are now equals and demanding to be in the board rooms of the nation and all levels of the decision making tables.

For instance, a cursory review of those board rooms indicates there has never been a non-white Chair in the history of any of the major public boards. These include the Canada Council, the Canadian-Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) the Canadian Museum of History, the National Arts Centre, or even the National Film Board. The inability to be at decision-making tables can severely curtail their influence on policies that impact a nation, as well as Canada’s Global partners because diversity means improved business.

Altruism and Economics: Closing the Gap:

Research has shown the continuing under-employment of racialised groups in Canada according to the dynamics of Overqualification (Statistics Canada 2006). This continues to be a major distress for the university educated, especially racialised groups. To Canada’s credit more emphasis is now being placed on the transference of skills and knowledge for recently arrived newcomers. Partnerships are being built with private and public sector businesses; training and awareness programs are being given to human resource and other managers on the value of diversity in the workplace.

However, economics now over-rides altruism. Those who are applying for vacancies are racialised individuals with sometimes unpronounceable last names. The Canadian Government is now discussing the value of blind hiring to pre-empt the rejection of otherwise qualified candidates because of their last names and other identifying markers. There is no indication of whether race, age, gender or other biases will prohibit the hiring of these groups.

It is also not co-incidental that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Government have agreed to accept more than 25,000 Syrians fleeing civil strife in their homeland. Many are young and will eventually help to bolster our depleting labour shortages and tax base. New businesses are already being created, new ideas being generated. Canada will be a better place as our economy expands. In one sense altruism and economics can be key components of good governance and strategic leadership. These are some of the strengths leaders will need to develop to be visionaries of the future. Therefore rectifying these anomalies may not take another 46 years.

Ultimately, altruism is about fairness and justice; equity and inclusion. Canada can lead, Canada has led and Canada can be a beacon for the World in her treatment of humanity abroad and especially at home within a multiracial and multiethnic society. With the election of Jamettt Singh as the first non-white Canadian to lead a major political party, we have begun to see past the colour bar. Therefore eliminating systemic institutionalised racism must always be an integral practise and priority for policy makers with built in on-going monitoring and evaluation.

Anne C.D. Clarke, BSW (Honours), MA (Political Science)
Anne Clarke is a Gender and Diversity Specialist and Community Development Worker. Prior to her work as a Cuso International Professional at the Bureau of Gender Affairs in Jamaica and Women’s Issues Network, Belize, CA, Anne Clarke, originally from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a former Policy Advisor and Legislative Researcher on Parliament Hill and Executive Director of the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations.

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