ARCHIVED – The current state of multiculturalism in Canada and research themes on Canadian multiculturalism

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Section 1: The Current State of Multiculturalism in Canada

The New Evidence on Multiculturalism and Integration

Ever since its adoption in 1971, supporters and critics of multiculturalism have debated its impact on the social, economic and political integration of immigrants and visible or religious minorities and their children. Supporters argue that multiculturalism assists in the integration of immigrants and minorities, removing barriers to their participation in Canadian life and making them feel more welcome in Canadian society, leading to a stronger sense of belonging and pride in Canada. Critics argue that multiculturalism promotes ghettoization and balkanization, encouraging members of ethnic groups to look inward, and emphasizing the differences between groups rather than their shared rights or identities as Canadian citizens.

This is a highly ritualized debate whose basic terms have barely changed in over 35 years. One reason for the continuous recycling of this debate is that, until recently, we had little concrete evidence to test these dueling perspectives on the impact of multiculturalism. However, in the past few years, important new evidence has emerged. We can divide this evidence into two broad categories:

  1. evidence that the process of immigrant and minority integration is working better in Canada than in other countries; and
  2. evidence that the multiculturalism policy plays a positive role in this process.

On the first point, “integration” is a broad term, encompassing many different dimensions. For example:

  • economic integration into the labour market;
  • political integration into the electoral process and other forms of political participation;
  • social integration into the networks and spaces of civil society, from informal networks of friends and neighbours to membership in more formal organizations.

On all of these dimensions, there is growing evidence that immigrants to Canada and visible or religious minorities fare better than most, if not all, other Western democracies.

For example, recent research has revealed the following:

  • There is a high level of mutual identification and acceptance among immigrants and native-born Canadians. Canadians view immigrants and demographic diversity as key parts of their own Canadian identity. Compared to every other Western democracy, Canadians are more likely to say that immigration is beneficial, less likely to believe that immigrants are prone to crime, and more likely to support multiculturalism and to view it as a source of pride. (For example, according to a series of “Focus Canada” polls conducted by Environics, support for multiculturalism among Canadians has increased over seven years: 85% of Canadians agreed that multiculturalism was important to Canadian identity in 2003, compared to 74% in 1997. [ Note 2 ]) And immigrants and minorities return the compliment. They have a very high level of pride in Canada, and are proud most of all of Canada’s freedom and democracy, and its multiculturalism (Adams 2007). This sort of mutual identification is a precondition for successful integration.

  • In terms of political integration, compared to every other Western democracy, immigrants in Canada are (much) more likely to become citizens (Bloemraad 2006). Nor is this simply a desire to gain the safety or convenience of a Canadian passport. Compared to other countries, these naturalized immigrants are more likely to actually participate in the political process as voters, party members or even candidates for political office (Howe 2007). For example, there are more foreign-born citizens elected to Parliament in Canada than in any other country, both in absolute numbers and in terms of parity with their percentage of the population (Adams 2007: 70‑74).

    While the percentage of foreign-born Canadian members of the federal Parliament (13%) is lower than the percentage of foreign-born people in the overall population (19.3% in the 2001 census), this level of “demographic parity” is (far) higher than in the U.S. (2% foreign-born in the House of Representatives versus 14.7% in the population) or Australia (11% versus 23%) or any European country. (In fact, in France, most of the foreign-born members of Parliament are the children of French diplomats or of colonial settlers, not people of immigrant ethnic origin.)

    Moreover, it’s worth noting that the foreign-born MPs in Canada are not only, or even typically, elected in ethnic enclave ridings composed of their own co-ethnics (Adams 2007: 77‑80). To be sure, there remain obstacles to the political participation of immigrants and ethnic minorities in Canada – well documented in Karen Bird’s cross-national research project on this issue (Bird 2004, 2005, 2007). But, compared to other countries, political parties in Canada are more likely to actively recruit minority candidates and to run them in competitive ridings (and not just as token candidates). And once nominated, there is no evidence that voters in Canada discriminate against such candidates (Black and Erickson 2006). This again confirms the reciprocal nature of integration: immigrants want to participate in Canada’s democratic process, and the broader electorate is open to being represented by immigrants.

  • The children of immigrants have better educational outcomes in Canada than in any other Western democracy. Indeed, uniquely among Western countries, second-generation immigrants in Canada actually outperform children of non-immigrant parents (OECD 2006). Moreover, this is not solely due to the higher socio-economic background of immigrants in Canada. On the contrary, immigrant children from lower socio-economic backgrounds also do better in Canada than in other countries.

  • There is an almost complete absence of immigrant or visible or religious minority ghettos in Canada. Today, as throughout Canadian history, immigrants often choose to live in neighbourhoods where co-ethnics already reside. But these areas of residential concentration do not exhibit the economic impoverishment, impaired mobility or social isolation that characterize ghettos in the U.S. or Europe. Ethnic neighbourhoods in Canada are a stepping stone to integration, not a prison that impedes integration (Walks and Bourne 2006; Qadeer and Kumar 2006; Hiebert, Schuurman and Smith 2007).

  • Compared to other countries, Canada has been less affected by the global surge in anti-Muslim sentiments and by the resulting polarization of ethnic relations. According to a survey conducted by Focus Canada in 2006, 83% of Canadians agree that Muslims make a positive contribution to Canada (Focus Canada 2006). International polls reveal that Muslims in Canada are less likely than Muslims in other countries to believe that their co-citizens are hostile to them. Moreover, Muslims have the same level of pride in Canada as other immigrants, and indeed are more likely than native-born Canadians to believe that the country is moving in the right direction: 91% of Muslims said this, compared to 71% of the general population (Adams 2007).

In short, there is growing evidence from cross-national studies that Canada outperforms other countries on a range of measures for immigrant and minority integration. This is not to say, of course, that there are no real problems facing immigrants and minorities in Canada; I will return to these below. But there is growing recognition of Canada’s comparative advantage among scholars and international policy networks.

What is more disputed is whether multiculturalism plays any significant role in this comparative success. Critics of multiculturalism sometimes argue that Canada’s record of integration is explained by other factors, such as the fact that Canada’s immigrants tend to be more highly skilled than immigrants in other countries, and the fact that there is a relatively open labour market. In other words, immigrants bring with them high levels of human capital, and can more easily employ that human capital in the labour market compared to other countries. On this view, the presence of the multiculturalism policy contributes nothing to the successful integration of immigrants and minorities in Canada, and may in fact impede it (e.g. Goodhart 2008).

However, new research has helped to clarify the role that the multiculturalism policy plays within the broader processes of immigrant and minority integration. This research on the effects of multiculturalism has operated at two broad levels: individual identity and institutional design.

At the individual level, surveys indicate that multiculturalism provides a locus for the high level of mutual identification among native-born citizens and immigrants in Canada. In many countries, native-born citizens with a strong sense of national identity or national pride tend to be more distrustful of immigrants, who are seen as a threat to their cherished national identity (Sides and Citrin 2007). But the fact that Canada has officially defined itself as a multicultural nation means that immigrants are a constituent part of the nation that citizens feel pride in.

So multiculturalism serves as a link for native-born citizens from national identity to solidarity with immigrants and minorities. And conversely, multiculturalism provides a link through which immigrants and minorities come to identify with, and feel pride in, Canada. From their different starting points, there is convergence on high levels of pride and identification with a multicultural conception of Canadian nationhood. Studies show that in the absence of multiculturalism, these links are more difficult to establish, and national identity is more likely to lead to intolerance and xenophobia (Esses et al. 2006; cf. Weldon 2006).

A new international study of acculturation has also confirmed the constructive role that multiculturalism plays in enabling healthy processes of individual acculturation (Berry et al. 2006). Many studies have shown that immigrants do best, both in terms of psychological well-being and sociocultural outcomes, when they are able to combine their ethnic identity with a new national identity. Scholars often call this an “integration orientation” as opposed to either an “assimilation orientation” (in which immigrants and minorities abandon their ethnic identity in order to adopt a new national identity) or a “separation orientation” (in which immigrants and minorities renounce the new national identity in order to maintain their ethnic identity).

Defenders of multiculturalism have long asserted that multiculturalism policies can encourage and enable this sort of integration orientation – indeed, this is known as the “multiculturalism hypothesis” (Berry, Kalin and Taylor 1977). Members of ethnic minorities will be more likely to identify with a new national identity if they feel their ethnic identity is publicly respected. We now have new evidence to support this hypothesis. The International Comparative Study of Ethnocultural Youth (ICSEY), studying over 5,000 youth in 13 countries, has confirmed that countries with multiculturalism policies encourage the development of this integration orientation, with better outcomes (Berry et al. 2006).

At the institutional level, we also have new evidence of the role that multiculturalism plays in creating more inclusive and equitable public institutions. For example, the massive OECD study that established Canada’s comparative advantage in educating immigrant students emphasized that a crucial factor in this success was the presence of specific policies to address issues of cultural and linguistic diversity in the school population – policies that, in the Canadian context, have emerged under the rubric of multiculturalism (OECD 2006). These diversity policies help to explain why the children of immigrants do better in Canada, even when one takes into account the skills, education and income of their parents.

Similarly, multiculturalism has been shown to play an important role in making Canada’s political process more inclusive. Consider the study conducted by Irene Bloemraad, comparing the political integration of immigrants in the U.S. and Canada (Bloemraad 2006). She examines Vietnamese immigrants in Boston and Toronto, who provide an interesting “natural experiment” in the effects of multiculturalism policies. There are virtually no relevant differences in the demographic characteristics of the Vietnamese immigrants who ended up in Toronto rather than Boston – they arrived with comparable levels of education, work experience, language fluency, and so on. Yet the Vietnamese in Toronto have a much stronger sense of Canadian citizenship, and are more actively participating in Canadian public life.

There are of course many possible explanations for this difference other than the presence of stronger multiculturalism policies (e.g. labour markets, political party structures, etc.), but Bloemraad systematically canvasses these alternative explanations and concludes that multiculturalism policies are indeed a crucial part of the story. These policies encourage and enable the Vietnamese community to participate more quickly and more effectively in mainstream Canadian institutions, by facilitating the self-organization of the community, by creating new cadres of community leaders who are familiar with Canadian institutions and practices, by creating new mechanisms of consultation and participation and, more generally, by creating a more welcoming environment.

According to Bloemraad, the same pattern applies to Portuguese immigrants in Toronto and Boston as well – they arrived with similar demographic characteristics, but the Portuguese immigrants in Toronto have integrated better into Canadian citizenship, due in large part to Canadian multiculturalism (Bloemraad 2006). Subsequent research by Bloemraad has shown that multiculturalism policies in other countries have also had a positive effect on citizenship (Kesler and Bloemraad 2008).

If we put these various findings together, they push us toward some clear conclusions. I believe that the 35‑year debate in Canada between those who argue that multiculturalism promotes civic integration and those who argue that it promotes ethnic isolation can now safely be put to rest. These recent studies – all of which were produced from 2006 to 2008 – provide strong evidence that multiculturalism in Canada promotes integration and citizenship, both through its effect on attitudes, self-understanding and identity at the individual level and through its effect on institutions at the social level.

The Global Backlash

One might have expected these research findings about the beneficial effects of multiculturalism to be ly discussed in the media and among public commentators. In reality, the findings have been almost entirely ignored – few, if any, of these studies have received any significant public attention.

Instead, what has dominated the debate in Canada in the 2006‑2008 period is the spectre of backlash and retreat from multiculturalism. This may seem odd, given the findings I have just reported. But it is important to remember that Canada is not an island unto itself – it is part of an international community that has been struggling with issues of ethnic and racial diversity. And in much of the rest of the world, there is a spread perception that multiculturalism has “failed” and that it is time to “pull back” from multiculturalism, which has been taken “too far.”

Perhaps the most vivid example of this retreat from multiculturalism is the Netherlands. It adopted perhaps the most ambitious set of multiculturalism policies in Western Europe in the 1980s. Yet, starting in the 1990s, the country started to cut back on these policies and then abandoned them almost entirely in the 2000s. Multiculturalism in the Netherlands has been replaced with fairly harsh and coercive “civic integration” policies which (to critics at least) appear to be indistinguishable from old-fashioned assimilation.

The Dutch case is now ly viewed as the prototypical example of “the failure of multiculturalism” and is cited in other European countries as grounds for retreating from their own multiculturalism policies, or for not adopting such policies in the first place. We see this, for example, in Britain, where the New Left has largely abandoned its commitment to multiculturalism. And several European countries that had once considered multiculturalism are now following the Dutch model of adopting coercive “civic integration” policies – e.g. Austria and Germany (for an overview of these developments in Western Europe, see Joppke 2007). And while this backlash is strongest in Europe, we see a similar trend in Australia, where the conservative Howard government disavowed multiculturalism and cut back on its funding (although some of the slack was then picked up by enhanced multiculturalism policies at the provincial level, which were governed by the Labour Party).

This global backlash and retreat is now so spread that even international inter-governmental organizations that had once championed multiculturalism are now backing off from it. For example, the Council of Europe recently declared that multiculturalism is simply the flip side of assimilation, equally based on the assumption of an irreconcilable opposition between majority and minority, leading to “communal segregation and mutual incomprehension” (Council of Europe 2008: 10).

In this European debate, multiculturalism is blamed for a variety of ills. In particular, it is said to have promoted:

  • the residential ghettoization and social isolation of immigrants (Cantle Report 2001);
  • increased stereotyping, and hence prejudice and discrimination between ethnic groups (Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007);
  • political radicalism, particularly among Muslim youth;
  • the perpetuation of illiberal practices among immigrant groups, often involving restricting the rights and liberties of girls and women (Wikan 2002).

According to critics, these problems have been worsening since the 1980s, but were ignored due to the naïve and indeed pernicious ideology of multiculturalism, which assumed that it was somehow “natural” that society should be divided into separate and disconnected ethnic groups, each with its own territorial space, political values and cultural traditions. As a result, European societies were “sleepwalking to segregation,” leading to an ethnic crisis (Phillips 2005). Citizens applauded themselves for their tolerant “live-and-let-live” attitude toward immigrants while ignoring the growing levels of segregation and marginalization.

This, in short, is the dominant narrative about multiculturalism in Europe. Multiculturalism, it is said, has been tried and has failed, with serious social consequences. It is now repudiated, both by individual countries and by pan-European organizations. The only remedy now is to insist that newcomers give priority to their new national identity over their inherited ethnic or religious identities – they must agree to be “Dutch first,” at least in relation to public life, and to renounce claims for the institutional accommodation or political expression of their ethnic identities. Ethnic identities, if they are to be preserved at all, must only be expressed in private life and not provide the basis for political claims to multiculturalism.

There are several questions that can be raised about this European narrative. If we look below the surface, we find that several de facto multiculturalist programs remain in place in several European countries even when their governments disavow the term – the “retreat” from multiculturalism is more rhetorical than real. (This is arguably true of the U.K., for example.) And the claim that multiculturalism is causally responsible for these social ills of segregation, prejudice, radicalism and oppression is highly debatable. I am not aware of any evidence which suggests that these social ills are worse in European countries that adopted multiculturalism policies (such as the Netherlands, the U.K. and Sweden) than in European countries that did not adopt such policies (such as Denmark, France and Austria). Indeed, I think the evidence suggests the contrary: these social ills are less prominent in countries with multiculturalism policies. [ Note 3 ]

However, for the purposes of this paper, what matters is not whether the European narrative is an accurate account of European realities. What matters, rather, is how this European narrative has come to influence debates in Canada.

Is Europe the Future for Canada?

The European narrative is so powerful that it has inevitably filtered back into Canadian debates. Many Canadian commentators, persuaded that multiculturalism has indeed failed in Europe, have started to look for evidence that Canada is following the same trajectory. One well-known example is Allan Gregg’s 2006 article entitled “Identity Crisis: Multiculturalism: A Twentieth-Century Dream Becomes a Twenty-First Century Conundrum,” published in The Walrus. Gregg begins with the Dutch case, blaming multiculturalism for Holland’s increasingly polarized ethnic relations, and then suggests that Canada too is showing signs of these social ills. Gregg argues that in Canada, as in the Netherlands, the elite consensus on a feel-good multiculturalism is blinding us to the reality of growing ethnic divides and animosities. Similar arguments have now been made by many other commentators, such as Margaret Wente, Michael Bliss, Robert Fulford, Jack Granatstein, and others.

These commentaries all have a similar structure, which we could summarize this way:

  • multiculturalism has demonstrably failed in Europe, producing greater segregation, greater stereotyping and prejudice, and greater polarization;
  • these failures are inherent in the very idea of multiculturalism, which is built on stereotypical and isolationist assumptions about ethnic groups;
  • while many Canadians think they are immune to these European problems, we can see growing evidence that the problems are also emerging in Canada (as indeed they inevitably must, given multiculturalism’s inherent flaws);
  • the remedy is either the abolition of multiculturalism, or perhaps a “post-multiculturalism,” which is said to avoid the excesses of multiculturalism without reverting to the sort of harsh assimilationism that we see in many European countries.

In short, on this view, Europe has done us the service of revealing the inherent flaws of multiculturalism, and we need to learn that lesson quickly in order to avoid the sorts of ethnic and religious animosities and divisions that are so visible in Europe.

It is this motif – Europe as the harbinger of Canada’s future – which has dominated the public debate on multiculturalism in Canada in the past few years. Many commentators are convinced that Canada is following in Europe’s footsteps, and so are constantly monitoring the environment to find the slightest evidence that Canada is witnessing the same sort of segregation, isolation, prejudice and polarization that we see in Europe. The important new evidence I described earlier about multiculturalism’s success in Canada has been largely ignored by the media and instead, attention has focused on any fact, event or study that seems to suggest that Canada is replicating the European experience of failed multiculturalism.

Is there in fact any evidence that Canada is experiencing the sorts of social ills that are blamed on multiculturalism in Europe? I cannot discuss all the bits and pieces of evidence that commentators invoke, but let me mention a few of the more familiar examples, and why I think they are often misleading.

  1. Many commentators point to Statistics Canada statistics about the growing number of “ethnic enclaves” as evidence of increasing European-style (or American-style) ethnic ghettoization (e.g. The Globe and Mail articles by Marina Jimenez). In my view, this is a red herring – an artifact of poorly defined Statistics Canada categories, combined with a misunderstanding of the historical record of immigrant settlement (visible minority immigrants today are actually less residentially concentrated than, say, the Italians were), and an even deeper misunderstanding of what “ghettos” are.

    The multiple errors involved in equating “ethnic enclaves” (as measured by Statistics Canada) with “ghettos” have been ably dissected in several recent studies which show that Canada’s ethnic neighbourhoods have virtually nothing in common with the banlieues of Paris.

  2. Some commentators have pointed to cases of Islamic radicalism in Canada, including the “Toronto 18,” as evidence of European-style ethnic polarization. After all, these are “home-grown” extremists who have grown up in social contexts that were committed to multiculturalism (e.g. the schools, hospitals, police force, media, etc.), and yet they clearly did not internalize any loyalty to Canada or to its norms of democracy, peace and tolerance.

    In my view, while the problem of Islamic extremism is real enough, blaming it on multiculturalism is a serious mistake. The reality is that Islamic extremism is found in all Western societies, whether or not they have multiculturalism policies, as disaffected youth are exposed to global jihadist ideas and networks. No free, democratic society can entirely prevent this sort of exposure (through the Internet, travel, private associations, etc.). What societies can do, however, is try to minimize the number of disaffected youth who would be attracted to it, and to try to enlist the support and cooperation of Muslim organizations in combatting extremism. And on this score, as we have seen, Canada has done better than other countries, since Muslims in Canada are less likely than Muslims in other countries to believe that they are treated with hostility, and are more likely to feel pride in the country.

    Moreover, the multiculturalism policy is at least partly responsible for these results since it creates both individual identity links with the country and institutional links with Muslim organizations (Keeble 2005). The question of how security agencies should best monitor extremism is of course a very important one, but we will go badly off course if we misinterpret isolated cases of extremism as evidence of any general trend toward ethnic polarization in Canada. Indeed, operating on that false assumption is likely to be self-fulfilling: if Muslims who view themselves as proud Canadians are treated with distrust by public authorities, these Muslims in turn may become distrustful of Canadian society.

  3. Some commentators have pointed to the persistence of illiberal practices among some immigrant and minority groups as evidence that they are failing to integrate into Canada’s liberal-democratic norms. This issue emerged, for example, in discussions of Aqsa Parvez’s case – the December 2007 “honour killing” of a Muslim girl by her father for not wearing the hijab. But here again, we need to get beyond isolated cases to look at the general trends. Cases of honour killings, coerced marriages or female genital mutilation can be found in every Western democracy, whether or not it has multiculturalism policies. There is no evidence that this problem is worse in multiculturalist countries (i.e., countries that do have formal multiculturalism policies and laws in place) like Canada than in non-multiculturalist countries like France or Germany.

    In any event, the occurrence of such cases should not be taken as evidence of any general trend toward the rejection of liberal-democratic values. On the contrary, a recent study shows that immigrants in Canada, regardless of their religious affiliation, converge toward the Canadian norm on what the authors call “Charter values,” including the rights of gays and women (Soroka, Johnston and Banting 2007). Indeed, as I noted earlier, what immigrants are most proud of in Canada is its democratic norms (Adams 2007). There is simply no evidence that immigrants and their children in Canada are not internalizing liberal-democratic values. The question of how best to prevent and prosecute such crimes is a very important one, but we will go badly off course if we misinterpret these individual acts as evidence of a general failure of political integration among entire ethnic groups.

  4. Other commentators suggest that recent studies of the attitudes of second-generation visible minorities reveal evidence of growing polarization. One frequently cited study is that of Reitz and Banerjee (2007), which showed that second-generation visible minorities express lower levels of “belonging” to Canada, compared not only to their white counterparts, but also to their own immigrant parents. Although Reitz and Banerjee themselves do not describe this as a harbinger of European-style polarization, this is how their study was often reported in the media.

    But here again, caution is needed. The findings about “feelings of belonging” in Canada are indeed worrisome. But if we look instead at questions of “feelings of pride” in Canada, we find a very different story. Visible minorities, including the second generation, express very high levels of pride in Canada on a par with white Canadians (Soroka, Johnston and Banting 2007).

    It is not immediately obvious how to make sense of these different results, but whatever the explanation for the divergence between pride and belonging, it suggests that lower expressions of “belonging” are not necessarily evidence of deep alienation or ethnic polarization. Moreover, it is important to note that, while the scores on belonging are lower for second-generation visible minorities than for whites, they are still impressively high: the median response for all visible minority groups was over 8 on a 10‑point scale. The vast majority of the members of all visible minority groups have a strong sense of belonging. And it is worth noting that these median scores for visible minorities are all higher than for francophone Québecers. If there is a problem of a lack of belonging in Canada, it is with the Québécois, not visible minorities.

  5. Finally, some commentators have pointed to Quebec’s recent “reasonable accommodation” debate as evidence of growing polarization. Stirred up by media reports of “excessive” accommodations of minorities, newspapers and radio shows in Quebec were dominated for a period of time by calls for a new, tougher approach to immigrants and minorities, and surveys showed spread support in Quebec for this idea. For the first time in many years in Canada, a major political party (the Action Démocratique du Québec [ADQ]) ran on an anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalism platform, and this proved to be a successful tactic, increasing their share of the vote and the seats. To avoid further loss of electoral support, both the Quebec Liberals and the Parti Québécois engaged in their own “get tough” rhetoric, denouncing “excessive” multiculturalism. (This dynamic of mainstream parties having to get tough to avoid losing support to an anti-immigrant party is of course precisely what happened in many Western European countries.)

    For some commentators, this was the first crack in the wall – the first real sign of a European-style retreat from multiculturalism, and a harbinger of what was likely to happen in the rest of Canada. Indeed, federal Cabinet memorandums speculated about the possibility of a similar backlash against multiculturalism spreading across the country. And yet, two years later, we see no evidence that this backlash is spreading. No other province has had the same explosive debate about religious accommodations, or the same attempt to win votes by appealing to anti-immigrant views, or the same calls for abandoning multiculturalism policies. So far at least, it appears that the backlash against multiculturalism has largely been restricted to Quebec.

    This is not surprising, since multiculturalism has always been less popular in Quebec than in other provinces, largely due to Québecers’ perception of themselves as a vulnerable minority within the anglophone sea of North America (I will return to this issue below), and partly because the anti-multiculturalist debates in France have more resonance in Quebec than in the rest of the country. But even within Quebec, it is now clear that the impetus of the anti-multiculturalist movement has ebbed. The Bouchard-Taylor report has shown that the original media reports of “excessive” accommodation were often wildly inaccurate, and it concludes that there is no need for a dramatic revision of the existing policy of accommodation.

    While not everyone agrees with the Bouchard-Taylor report, the issue has subsided, and support for the ADQ has dropped. It now looks more like a case of temporary “moral panic” than the sort of sustained backlash that we have witnessed in, say, the Netherlands, where government reports called for dramatic changes to integration policy, and where anti-immigrant parties permanently changed the political landscape.

In short, the various attempts to find signs of European-style problems in Canada are all, I believe, misleading. In fact, one could argue that many of these attempts were politically motivated. They have typically been advanced by people (such as Robert Fulford or Michael Bliss) who have always been opposed to multiculturalism, even before the European retreat from multiculturalism. This is not a case of people deciding whether to support or oppose multiculturalism based on new evidence. Rather, long-time critics of multiculturalism have jumped on the European anti-multiculturalist bandwagon and have hoped to ride it into Canada, desperately looking for any shred of evidence that can be (mis)interpreted as proof that Canada is falling into European-style patterns of ethnic animosity and division. If we look at the evidence dispassionately, however, it is clear that ethnic relations in Toronto are not like those in Paris, Amsterdam or Bradford.

Indeed, this is precisely the conclusion reached by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) in its 2007 publication Belonging? Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada. Noting the increasing tendency for commentators to read the Canadian situation in light of European trends, the IRPP decided to convene a major research project to examine in a systematic way whether “the Canadian model” was indeed facing the same troubles witnessed in Western Europe. Having examined various facets of the issue – economic, political and social – the IRPP team concluded that

… there is little evidence of the deep social segregation feared in parts of Europe … Canada is not “sleepwalking into segregation.” There is no justification for a U-turn in multiculturalism policies comparable to that underway in some European countries. (Banting, Courchene and Seidle 2007: 660, 681)

The Real (and Unresolved) Issues

Now that I have sketched the current state of the public debate and some of its misconceptions, we can turn to examining the research and analysis contained in the six regional reports that were commissioned by the research arm of the Multiculturalism and Human Rights Branch at the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. Each of these reports contains both an overview of regional trends regarding the situation of minorities and recommendations regarding themes for future research.

The regional reports make clear that, while our problems are not Europe’s problems, we have no grounds for complacency. Indeed, the research in these reports makes it clear that there are a number of real issues that require serious attention. In this brief concluding section, I would like to flag a few of these issues, focusing on some of the dimensions that are often overlooked.

  1. Bringing religion into multiculturalism: All the regional reports agree that the place of religious diversity within multiculturalism has not yet been adequately debated or explored, and I have argued this myself elsewhere (Kymlicka 2007, 2008). The heated debates on religious family law arbitration and the funding of religious schools in Ontario, and the reasonable accommodation debate in Quebec, show that religion is now the most controversial domain of multiculturalism. The Bouchard-Taylor report is perhaps the first sustained public report on the topic in Canada, and while it is focused on Quebec, I think its analysis is relevant nationally. In particular, it argues that while the existing constitutional and legislative framework of “reasonable accommodation” and “open secularism” in Canada is largely appropriate, more work needs to be done in helping front-line workers and officials who face the daily task of actually implementing the policy and managing the debates it raises.

    This is an issue of “multicultural preparedness.” It is unrealistic (and undesirable) to expect the Supreme Court to adjudicate every single case of religious claims (like the kirpan case), but nor do we want these issues to become fodder for yellow journalism, as happened in Quebec. We need to “normalize” these issues, establishing effective mechanisms for advice, consultation and decision making that stakeholders can turn to without having to resort to either the courts or the media. Such mechanisms exist in the case of ethnic diversity and race relations, but are underdeveloped in the case of religious diversity, so that we are continually having to react to crises rather than proactively managing the issues.

  2. The media: This raises the issue of the role of the media, which was noted as a concern in several regional reports. In my view, the role of the media in Canada is a “glass half-full or half-empty” story. On the one hand, compared to most other countries, the mainstream media in Canada have largely avoided engaging in minority or immigrant bashing. Compared to tabloids in London and Rome, for example, the main newspapers in Toronto do not run endless cover stories on the alleged criminality of particular ethnic groups, or on the possibility of being “swamped” with unwanted migrants or bogus asylum seekers.

    Similarly, it is difficult to imagine Canadian newspapers deliberately setting out to provoke Muslim animosity by commissioning anti-Muslim cartoons, the way the Danish editor has candidly admitted to wanting to start a “culture war.” Most professional journalists in Canada have internalized a certain level of responsibility – or just political correctness – on these issues. On the other hand, there have been cases (often opinion editorials) that have been gratuitously offensive or misleading, giving rise to human rights complaints, and there is clearly room for improvement in the way the media handle various issues.

    But what is the right forum for addressing this problem? I suspect that human rights commissions are not necessarily the right forum, and we need to rethink how to promote and monitor responsible journalism on this issue. It is right and proper, I believe, for hate speech to be a criminal offence; it is also right and proper that there be standards of professional conduct for journalists, with regulatory bodies and avenues for individuals to complain about violations of these standards.

    But in many cases, what is really required is a broader public debate about editorial policy and human rights commissions are not the appropriate forum for that debate. Indeed, it is possible that the pursuit of complaints before human rights commissions is actually counter-productive, exacerbating the antagonism between the media and certain minority groups. In any event, it is undeniable that the media play a vital role in shaping public attitudes, and so the link between multiculturalism and the media deserves a fresh look.

  3. The relationship between multiculturalism and the other two main dimensions of ethnocultural diversity in Canada: French Canadians and Aboriginal peoples. Diversity policies in Canada today typically operate within three distinct “silos” with separate laws, constitutional provisions and government departments dealing with (a) multiculturalism in response to ethnic diversity arising from immigration, (b) federalism and bilingualism in response to the French fact; and (c) Aboriginal rights for First Nations. (I develop this “silo” metaphor in relation to Canada’s diversity policies in Kymlicka 2007b.)

    In many respects, it is inevitable and appropriate that these three policy domains and frameworks be distinguished. No single set of diversity policies can encompass the distinct historical legacies and current needs of Canada’s diverse groups. However, it is equally important to clarify how these three dimensions interact. It would be regrettable, indeed tragic, if the three policy frameworks were seen as operating at cross purposes, as if anyone who supports Aboriginal rights or Quebec’s national aspirations must reject multiculturalism, or vice versa. This was an important issue in the Quebec debate on reasonable accommodation.

    Many Quebec intellectuals and politicians continue to believe that the federal multiculturalism policy, as it is currently worded in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, implicitly or explicitly plays down Quebec’s national aspirations. In my view, this is a mistaken interpretation, since the federal multiculturalism policy is fully compatible with a special status for Quebec. However, it is fair to say that the issue of how multiculturalism relates to bilingualism, federalism and Québécois nationalism has not been clearly addressed.

    Similarly, important issues are arising about the relationship between multiculturalism and urban Aboriginals in several Western cities. Immigrants and Aboriginals increasingly live in close proximity in various neighbourhoods, and while constitutionally speaking they may fall under different laws and regulations, the practical reality is that they often share public services and public space. Aboriginal leaders have sometimes viewed multiculturalism with suspicion, and while here again I think there is no inherent opposition between the federal multiculturalism policy and Aboriginal rights, more work needs to be done to explain how they work together.

    This in turn will require overcoming the perception that these policies are only relevant to ethnic groups, francophones and Aboriginal peoples respectively, as if other Canadians had no stake or involvement in issues of multiculturalism, bilingualism, federalism and Aboriginal rights. Rather, we need to explain how these policies aim to build relations of inclusive citizenship that encompass all Canadians, and that we all have a stake in ensuring the success of these three sets of diversity policies.

  4. Racism and discrimination: One area where multiculturalism and Aboriginal issues overlap concerns racism and discrimination. The issues of racism and discrimination were raised in all the regional reports and clearly are a profound challenge. But as the example of Aboriginal peoples shows, the challenges of racism are not necessarily captured in our inherited terminology of “visible minorities.” While Aboriginal peoples are not counted as visible minorities, they clearly are victims of racism. And even within the category of “visible minorities,” there are important differences in the nature of the racism they encounter.

    Several authors have long argued that anti-Black racism is qualitatively different from that suffered by other visible minorities. And, more recently, various authors have argued that anti-Muslim prejudice is also a very distinct form of racialization. If we only look at aggregate statistics about how “visible minorities” are faring, we may lose sight of these important initiatives – anti-racism initiatives might be working well for some groups even as prejudice is increasing against other groups.

    We know from other countries that anti-racism initiatives can sometimes get locked into outdated or inappropriate categories. For example, for a long period of time, British anti-racism initiatives treated anti-Muslim prejudice as if it were just another form of anti-Black prejudice. We need to make sure that anti-racism and anti-discrimination programs are tracking these differentiated and evolving patterns of racialization.

  5. Economic conditions: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all the regional reports discuss the growing evidence that the economic performance of recent immigrants is declining. Compared to earlier cohorts, immigrants today are taking longer to catch up to native-born Canadians in their earnings, and are at higher risk of poverty.

    The causes of this trend have been debated and tested in numerous studies, by Statistics Canada and others, and I have little to add to their analysis, except to note that many of these causes seem to lie outside the jurisdiction of the federal multiculturalism policy, relating instead to issues such as professional accreditation, the evaluation of foreign job experience, language training, and mismatches between immigrant selection and actual labour market needs (e.g. recruiting large numbers of IT specialists just before the IT bubble burst).

    The key point, however, and here I return to my starting point, is that whatever the causes and remedies, this trend is fundamentally different from the sort of “underclass” phenomenon that is discussed in Europe. While immigrants are facing increasing barriers in using their human capital – at a high cost both to themselves and to Canadian society in general – Canada is not becoming a society that is polarized between a wealthy, educated white majority and impoverished, unskilled racialized minorities, as in France and the Netherlands. The declining economic performance of immigrants exists alongside much more positive trends regarding the social and political integration of immigrants, reflected for example in educational outcomes, intermarriage rates, political participation rates and shared feelings of national pride.

The net result of these trends is neither the utopia celebrated by some defenders of multiculturalism nor the “sleepwalking to segregation” scenario predicted by critics. It is rather a complex bundle of factors, each of which needs to be examined on its own terms. The regional reports provide a number of helpful suggestions about how to study these dynamics. The first step in that direction, however, is to set aside the pervasive tendency to look at the Canadian experience through the lens of the European backlash against multiculturalism.


2. These polls also reveal that 74% of Canadians think that multiculturalism is a cornerstone of Canadian culture; 82% agree that multiculturalism is a source of pride for Canadians; and 83% agree that people from different racial and cultural groups are enriching the cultural life of Canada (Environics, Focus Canada, 2002).

3. For one of the few serious attempts to test multiculturalism’s role in these trends, see Koopmans, Guigni and Passy 2005. Unfortunately, their analysis depends on a particular reading of the Dutch case. I raise some doubts about their analysis in my review of Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007 (which makes the same mistake).


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