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Multiculturalism, Interculturalism and Discrimination | Canada |

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Multiculturalism, Interculturalism and Discrimination

Jennifer Elrick

/ 4 Minuten zu lesen

When Canada adopted an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971 it was the first country in the world to do so. At the time, the policy was conceived mainly as a complement to the policy of bilingualism that made English and French Canada’s official languages in 1969.

Spanish dancers at an event in Winnipeg. (© picture alliance / All Canada Photos)


It is thus referred to as a policy of "multiculturalism within a bilingual framework." The multiculturalism policy aims to affirm the "dignity of all Canadians", regardless of race, ethnicity, cultural heritage, religion, ancestry and place of origin; it invites individuals to keep their identities and take pride in their ancestry while "encouraging them to integrate into their society and take an active part in its social, cultural, economic and political affairs."

Both the bilingualism and multiculturalism policies were initially designed to counter rising Québec nationalism and to ease tensions between the French and English majority and the "other Europeans" who had arrived in the course of the twentieth century. The policy itself makes it clear that Canadian multiculturalism exists within the framework of the democratic norms laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed, giving the federal government the mandate to, among other things, "recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future."

In 2008, responsibility for the Multiculturalism Program was transferred from the Department of Canadian Heritage to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. One year later, in 2009, the federal government introduced changes to the Multiculturalism Act that included the addition of three new policy objectives: (1) to build an integrated and socially cohesive society; (2) to help institutions meet the needs of a diverse population; and (3) to participate in discussions of multiculturalism and diversity at an international level.

While Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration from 2008 to July 2013, tended to avoid extensive use of the term “multiculturalism” and emphasized the need for more social cohesion, this anti-multiculturalism turn is happening exclusively at the level of political rhetoric, not policy-making. In contrast to many European countries, multiculturalism as a policy and political philosophy is generally popular among Canadians. It is a part of Canadian identity that has been fostered systematically in public school curricula, public broadcasting, social services, history museums, etc.

Interculturalism in Québec

Seeing the 1971 federal policy of multiculturalism as an affront to previous commitments to English-French biculturalism, Québec has been pursuing its own framework since the 1970s, which it calls "interculturalism". What exactly distinguishes multiculturalism from interculturalism is a matter of philosophical debate. Interculturalism can be said to differ from multiculturalism in its stronger emphasis on integration into a collectivity rather than maintaining and celebrating diversity as an end in itself. At the heart of this process is continuous dialogue between the established population and newcomers (although the latter are not ascribed the same power as the former), aimed at gradually creating a new public sphere.


Despite Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism, racism and minority discrimination in employment, housing and policing remain a concern. Visible minorities face earnings disadvantages, even among third-and-higher-generation Canadians. According to analyses of Canada’s Ethnic Diversity Survey (EDS), visible minority respondents are far less likely than other population groups to identify as Canadians and express a sense of belonging; that perceived lack of belonging tends to be much higher among second-generation Canadian visible minorities than among their recent immigrant counterparts.

Occasionally, highly-publicized events turn diversity, discrimination, and multiculturalism into contentious political issues, as was the case when a debate about the limits of "reasonable accommodation" of minorities erupted in Québec in the late 2000s. A series of events fuelled this debate, including a 2006 Supreme Court ruling in favour of a Sikh student wishing to wear his kirpan (ceremonial knife) to school, a request by Orthodox Jews to have the windows of a local community centre frosted so as to obscure views of women exercising, and a report that men were being excluded from prenatal classes in one neighborhood because immigrant women felt uncomfortable with their presence. Following these events, the tiny Québec town of Hérouxville, which had almost no ethnic minorities or immigrants among its population, published its own “standards” for appropriate ways of living, which researchers characterize as being aimed at the town’s (nonexistent) Muslim population. The most oft-cited of the standards is that "we consider that killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive, are not part of our standards of life." Shortly after this incident, the Québec provincial government appointed a commission, headed by Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor (referred to as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission), to investigate practices for accommodating diversity and make recommendations for the future. The Commission’s 2008 report made some concrete recommendations but notably declared that the “crisis of accommodation” the Commission was supposed to respond to was more a “crisis of perception” (i.e. overreactions to incidents that had been blown out of proportion by media and politicians) than a problem with actual accommodation practices.

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Jennifer Elrick is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on family-related immigration policies in Canada and Germany since 1945. E-Mail Link: