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

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Section 2: Research Themes on Canadian Multiculturalism

Overview of the 2006‑2008 Research Themes

During the 2006‑2008 period, the following six themes were chosen as priorities for research by the Research Group of the Multiculturalism and Human Rights Branch.

  1. Social inclusion/exclusion
  2. 2017 projections
  3. Applied policy research
  4. Racism, discrimination and post-multiculturalism
  5. Religious diversity
  6. Security in a pluralistic society

In general, the authors of the regional reports felt that these themes were important and valid, and that future research should continue to address them. However, a number of suggestions were made about how to make the themes more focused. Indeed, as we will see, many of the proposed new themes are, in effect, attempts to rearticulate these earlier themes in ways that make more explicit the underlying issues and concerns.

Social inclusion/exclusion: Some of the regional reports found that the term “social inclusion” was too amorphous. After all, virtually all of multiculturalism is essentially about social inclusion. It was therefore suggested that the research themes focus on specific issues of inclusion and exclusion, whether in terms of specific vulnerable groups (e.g. youth, Muslims) or in terms of specific social processes (e.g. job discrimination, social isolation, media stereotyping).

2017 projections: Some of the regional reports suggested that this theme was useful when it was adopted in 2006, but that it was now increasingly unnecessary or out of date. The original emphasis on the 2017 projections was useful in giving Canadians a wake-up call about the dramatic demographic changes that were occurring in our country. However, that wake-up call has now been well publicized, not least because of the publicity surrounding the release of the 2006 census data. As a result, it was suggested that we now need to move beyond demographic projections to examine the substantive policy issues that are raised by these trends. In particular, we need to examine our “multicultural readiness” for an increasingly diverse society in terms of education, health care, urban planning, and so on.

Applied policy research: Some of the regional reports suggested that all research commissioned by the Research Group, on all the research themes, be “applied research,” and hence that it be a principle that applies to all the research themes rather than a separate research theme. (This comment may reflect a misunderstanding of the administrative reasons within Canadian Heritage for having a separate theme on applied research.)

Racism, discrimination and post-multiculturalism: Some of the regional reports suggested that this theme combined (or conflated) two distinct issues that were worth separating. On the one hand, there are a set of questions about our current policies on racism and racial discrimination, and how they can be made more effective. On the other hand, there is a more speculative debate on the future of multiculturalism as a concept or model, and whether inherited ideas of multiculturalism need to be replaced with new, post-multicultural approaches in an era of “hyper-diversity.” The regional reports proposed that more concrete and urgent issues of racism and discrimination be separated from more speculative and theoretical issues about the future of multiculturalism, and that both issues be treated as separate research themes.

Religious diversity: This was the one theme from the 2006‑2008 period that met with universal support among all the regional authors. There was a unanimous sense that issues of religious diversity are of growing importance in Canada, and that the success of Canadian multiculturalism (and indeed of Canada as a country) depends on improving our understanding of the challenges raised by this diversity. But it was equally emphasized that issues of religion cannot be separated from older issues of racism, and that one of the most important challenges we face is precisely the complex interaction between racial prejudice and religious intolerance.

Security in a pluralistic society: All the regional reports acknowledged the increased salience of security issues in a post-9/11 world, and the obligation of the government to monitor and protect Canadians against these threats. However, there was a concern expressed that “securitizing” issues of immigration and multiculturalism could have unfortunate, and indeed counter-productive, effects. If immigrants and visible or religious minorities feel that they are being stigmatized by the government (or by other citizens) as security threats, and that they are not trusted to behave as loyal Canadian citizens, then they are likely to withdraw from public life and feel more alienated from Canadian institutions. The net result may be to create precisely the sort of conditions of isolation and distrust that breed radicalism. The regional reports, therefore, emphasized that issues of security needed to be carefully framed to avoid any unfair targeting or stigmatizing of particular groups.

In short, the regional reports viewed the previous 2006‑2008 research themes as identifying real issues of enduring importance, but several authors suggested that the new research themes for 2008‑2010 should both tighten the focus (e.g. replace the scope of “social inclusion” with more specific forms or mechanisms of exclusion) and draw out some of their interconnections (e.g. exploring the link between religious diversity and racial discrimination). Their proposals for doing so are discussed in the next section.

Proposed 2008‑2010 Themes from the Regional Reports

As I noted earlier, the regional reports propose a total of 48 research themes for the 2008‑2010 period. Here is the complete list of these themes, region by region, moving from east to west. I have translated the first 20 themes from their original French versions. (See also the table for the list in tabular form.)

The Atlantic RegionNote 4 ]

  1. Social inclusion, social bases of respect and social justice
  2. Exclusion and marginalization of youth
  3. Health, ethnicity and visible minorities
  4. Religious diversity and racial integration
  5. Immigration into rural and francophone communities
  6. Data gathering and projections for 2006‑2031

QuebecNote 5 ]

  1. The contribution of visible and religious minorities to Quebec culture
  2. Socio-economic integration and participation of second-generation immigrants, religious minorities and visible minorities
  3. Racism and racial discrimination
  4. The socio-economic conditions of visible and religious minorities
  5. The role of language (mother tongue and second language) in the process of labour market integration
  6. The integration strategies of visible and religious minorities in Quebec
  7. [Comparing] visible minorities and religious minorities
  8. Youth from visible or religious minorities, and second-generation Canadian youth
  9. The elderly in visible and religious minorities
  10. Women in visible and religious minorities
  11. Poverty, exclusion and residential segregation
  12. The contribution of social policy to the socio-professional integration of visible and religious minorities
  13. The impact of the media on the development and spread of stereotypes and racial prejudice
  14. The specific case of Quebec


  1. Multiculturalism for the twenty-first century
  2. Institutional self-sufficiency of ethnic, religious and visible minority groups
  3. Public reception of multiculturalism
  4. Media and multiculturalism
  5. Regional issues: Toronto, Ottawa-Gatineau / mid-size cities / towns / northern Ontario

Manitoba and Saskatchewan

  1. Visible minority and religious minority community relations with Prairie Aboriginal peoples
  2. The role of visible and religious minorities in the evolution of rural and northern communities
  3. French-speaking visible minorities in the Prairies
  4. Responding to contemporary phenomena: visible minority and religious minority integration in the Prairies
  5. Protecting and promoting the history of Canadian national heritage
  6. The status of women in visible and religious minority communities in the Prairies
  7. Public performances of identity: food, festivals, holidays and holy days in visible and religious minority communities

AlbertaNote 6 ]

  1. Strategies for tackling racism and discrimination
  2. Religion and inclusion
  3. Economic participation and standard of living
  4. Francophone and Aboriginal populations in Alberta
  5. Youth, seniors and multiculturalism
  6. The future of Canadian multiculturalism policy

Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories

  1. Multicultural initiatives coordinated with Aboriginal initiatives
  2. Economic growth and labour market migration
  3. Logistics of data collection and program management

British Columbia

  1. Economic participation and lifestyles correlation
  2. Multiculturalism in social services policy and planning
  3. Youth at risk: multiculturalism, education and violence prevention
  4. International geopolitics and domestic responses: Implications for multiculturalism
  5. Racism and discrimination: implementation of Canada’s Action Plan Against Racism
  6. Meaningful engagement with the 2010 Olympic Games
  7. Multiculturalism: Future policy evolutions

It would obviously be impossible to discuss each of these 48 proposals in depth, particularly since many of the authors provide detailed explanations for their choice of themes, including suggestions for specific research initiatives and activities. What I propose to do instead is to highlight what I take to be some of the common themes that underpin these diverse proposals, and to consolidate them into a more manageable list.

As I noted earlier, the list contains a number of proposals that are clearly region specific. For example, “meaningful engagement with the 2010 Olympics” is obviously most relevant for British Columbia. Similarly, the fact that many visible minorities in the Territories are not permanent residents but on short-term contracts gives issues of multiculturalism a very unique flavour in that region. However, alongside these regional concerns, we can also identify a number of themes that recur throughout the length and breadth of the country. Even a cursory glance at the 48 themes reveals a number of core issues that appear in several of the regional lists.

In the next section, I will list what I see as the ten most important such themes raised in the regional reports. These ten themes are interrelated, and some questions or topics recur under more than one heading (as indeed was true of the 2006‑2008 themes). However, while they blur into each other at the margins, they also reflect ten distinct and important focuses of potential research.

Ten Proposed Research Themes for Canada

1. Adapting multiculturalism to religious diversity

As I noted earlier, there was unanimous support in all the regional reports for the importance of further research on religious diversity in Canada. Several more specific research questions were raised under this heading, but three in particular are worth noting: (a) Traditionally, multiculturalism in Canada has worked with and through organizations defined along lines of ethnicity (e.g. the Canadian Ukrainian Congress) and race (e.g. the Urban Alliance on Race Relations). How are organizations and social movements defined along lines of religion similar to, or different from, those based on ethnicity and race? How do multiculturalism programs and consultation procedures initially designed for issues of ethnicity and race need to be revised to deal with religion?; (b) Insofar as multiculturalism does adapt to address issues of religious diversity, how does this relate to principles of “secularism” that underpin contemporary liberal-democratic principles of government?; and (c) Does the principle of “reasonable accommodation” provide an adequate and sufficient basis for addressing claims by religious minorities in Canada?

2. Racism and discrimination

Another theme raised in all the regional reports concerns the necessity of maintaining, and indeed enhancing, the commitment to the struggle against racism and racial discrimination. Several more specific research questions were raised under this heading, but three in particular deserve mention: (a) the need to explore the link between racism and religious intolerance, and in particular how anti-Muslim prejudice is reinforcing and transforming older forms of racism; (b) the need to explore the role of the media in either fighting or reinforcing stereotypes, and to identify appropriate strategies for addressing hate speech; and (c) the need to explore how multiculturalism can contribute to the Action Plan Against Racism.

3. Labour market integration

A third theme raised in all the reports concerns the need to better understand the obstacles to labour market integration for immigrants and second-generation visible and religious minorities. Among the more specific research questions raised under this heading, I would highlight (a) the need to better understand (and identify) discrimination in the labour market; and (b) the need to better understand the role of language competencies (and language training) in enabling or restricting economic integration.

4. Immigration beyond the metropolis

A fourth theme that recurs in all the regional reports concerns the need for more research on immigration outside of the big cities. To be sure, the vast bulk of immigration will continue to go into the main metropolitan centres in Canada, and Canada is a world leader in research on urban immigration, in part through the network of Metropolis research centres. But there are many immigrants outside these metropolitan areas, and several provinces are committed to increasing the flow of immigrants to smaller cities, towns and rural areas. More research is needed to see what enables smaller communities to attract and retain immigrants, and what role multiculturalism can play in building “welcoming” communities. Among the more specific questions raised under this heading were research on (a) immigrants in rural areas; (b) the multicultural needs of temporary skilled migrants in the North; and (c) supporting immigration to francophone minority communities.

5. Implications of security issues for multiculturalism

As I noted earlier, all the reports acknowledged the increased salience of security issues in Canada, and their potential negative impact on attitudes and practices of multiculturalism. They all worried that heightened security fears raised by the “war on terrorism” could lead to the unfair stigmatization of particular groups. However, the authors differed on how best to approach this difficult issue.

For some, the best response was to sharply separate debates on multiculturalism from debates on national security, and hence not to include issues of security as a research theme for multiculturalism. Others, however, recommended that the best way to prevent security issues from distorting multiculturalism was precisely to make this linkage a matter of explicit research.

For example, we need to study (a) whether ethnic relations in Canada are becoming “securitized” – that is, to what extent (and in what contexts) are the behaviour and attitudes of people and institutions toward members of visible and religious minorities changing to follow a logic of (in)security rather than a logic of multicultural inclusion? What is the effect of such changes on processes of integration?; and (b) in what ways are the members of ethnic and religious groups engaged in foreign conflicts involving their co-ethnics and co-religionists? When are they involved as peacemakers, helping to diffuse Canadian values of peace, democracy and human rights? When are they involved in supporting violence or other forms of radicalism that obstruct peace and democracy? How have these forms of diasporic involvement with “homeland” conflicts changed over the years? After all, the idea that particular minorities are a source of security fears has a long history in Canada, and situating the current fears in the context of this longer history might help provide some perspective, and useful lessons.

6. The future of multiculturalism

A sixth theme raised in all the regional reports concerns the long-term prognosis for multiculturalism in Canada. Multiculturalism is ly seen as having made an important contribution to Canada over the past 37 years, but both the domestic and international circumstances are changing, and we need to keep these big-picture trends in mind.

Here again, several more specific research questions were raised under this heading. They include (a) the emergence of “super-diversity” in which ethnic and religious diversity no longer arises primarily or exclusively from permanently settled citizens, but also from growing numbers of people with various legal statuses and degrees of attachment and residence, ranging from highly mobile globe-trotting professionals to unskilled migrant workers on repeat temporary work permits. What does multiculturalism mean in this context?; and (b) the impact of international debates and trends regarding multiculturalism on the situation in Canada. There is a clear backlash against multiculturalism in several countries around the world, most notably in Western Europe, but also arguably in the U.S. and Australia.

As I discussed in the first section, these international debates have exerted a strong, if often distorting, effect on Canadian debates, and such influences are inevitable in our globalized world. It is important, therefore, to research the specificity of the Canadian experience in relation to other countries, and to try to identify when the experience of other countries does or does not provide important lessons for our future.

These first six themes were extensively discussed in all the regional reports (although, as just noted, not all recommended including security issues as a separate theme), and hence can be seen as truly pan-Canadian in their scope. The remaining four themes were not singled out in all the reports, but they were highlighted in two or more of the six reports, and I believe they raise issues of national importance.

7. Relating multiculturalism to Aboriginal peoples

One issue that was emphasized in the two Western reports concerns the relationship between multiculturalism and Aboriginal peoples. As I noted in the first section, multiculturalism in Canada generally operates in a different legal and political “silo” from Aboriginal issues, which are governed by separate laws and constitutional provisions, and administered by separate government departments. Yet, as the regional reports from the Prairies and British Columbia discuss, the two issues are inextricably linked on the ground in many parts of the country.

Two contexts in particular were mentioned: (a) In Prairie urban settings, immigrants and Aboriginal peoples 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. We therefore need more research on how the sorts of well-established multiculturalism policies that were initially designed for foreign-born ethnic groups and visible minorities can be adapted to serve the needs of urban Aboriginal peoples; and (b) In the North, we sometimes have the opposite situation of well-established programs for Aboriginal peoples, including Aboriginal self-government rights, but relatively few multiculturalism programs available for religious and visible minorities. In this context, Aboriginal leaders have sometimes viewed attempts at promoting multiculturalism with suspicion, seeing these as a way of watering down their hard-won rights.

So we need more research on how multiculturalism can operate within a northern context that is historically shaped by Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal self-government. While these two contexts are distinctive to the West, I believe they also raise more general issues of national importance about how we understand the links between different dimensions of diversity in Canada.

8. Vulnerable groups: Women and youth/second generation

As I noted earlier, several of the regional reports suggested replacing the broad research theme of “social inclusion” with more focused themes that examine specific patterns of exclusion. Two groups in particular were seen as vulnerable to exclusion – women and youth/second generation – and several reports recommended devoting research themes to them.

Here again, a number of more specific research questions were raised. In relation to youth and the second generation, these included research on (a) whether the declining economic attainment of newer immigrants is being passed down to their children (i.e., whether the second generation is exhibiting declines in education, employment and income); (b) whether the risks of social exclusion are leading to lower feelings of belonging and identification with Canada; and (c) whether more specific programs are needed to help youth at risk.

In relation to women, the more specific questions included research on (a) the socio-economic integration of women from visible and religious minorities; (b) women’s access to language learning; (c) protecting gender equality within ethnic and religious minorities; and (d) enabling a greater participation of women from visible and religious minorities in civic and political life.

9. Patterns of ethnic community formation

One of the hot-button issues mentioned in several regional reports was “residential segregation” or “ethnic ghettoization.” As I explained in the first section, and as several of the reports also discussed, the public rhetoric on ghettoization is highly misleading. However, as the reports from Ontario and Quebec suggest, the very fact that the public debate on these issues was so misleading is itself evidence of an important lacuna in our research. We simply do not have sufficient evidence about the nature and structure of ethnic community formations in Canada, or how they have changed over time. We know basic census data about patterns of residential concentration, but we do not know the institutional structures that exist within these communities, such as ethnic media, religious organizations, financial organizations, recreational organizations, educational organizations, political and advocacy organizations, and so on.

Sociologists have long argued that members of immigrant groups are more likely to successfully integrate if their communities have a robust set of such institutions, and recent studies comparing Canada and the U.S. confirm this theory [ Note 7 ]. Indeed, Bloemraad argues that the success of Canadian multiculturalism is precisely tied up with the fact that it has helped to build and sustain the institutional infrastructure of ethnic groups. However, we do not have an “institutional mapping” of ethnic groups, and hence do not know whether ethnic groups today are able to maintain this degree of institutional complexity. Nor are we able to determine the ways in which particular forms of ethnic community institutionalization can sometimes impede integration.

The media are full of wild speculation both on the nature of ethnic community formations and on the alleged negative effects of ghettoization on integration. Research that attempts to map ethnic community formation in Canada and relate it to broader patterns of integration could help inform both public debate and public policy.

10. Multicultural readiness in service delivery

Finally, several of the reports highlighted the issue of “multicultural readiness.” As I mentioned earlier, given the spread publicity surrounding the release of the 2006 census data, it is no longer necessary to send Canadians a wake-up call about the emerging demographic trends. Rather, what is needed is further research on the sorts of reforms that will be required if public institutions are to be ready to deal with the increasing diversity of Canadian society.

In some contexts, such as education, the issue of “multicultural readiness” is a long-standing one, at least in the big cities, and one could argue that public schools already have built-in procedures for adapting to an ever-changing student population. But in other fields, such as health care, a new and more concerted investment in multicultural readiness may be required.

One particular issue that was raised in the reports concerns care for the elderly. While immigrants from non-traditional source countries began to arrive in large numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s, they are only now beginning to form a large percentage of the elderly in Canada, and there is good reason to believe that our system of elder care, seniors’ homes, hospitals and hospices is not fully prepared for the challenges this situation will raise. This is just one example, and one could imagine embarking on a more systematic “audit” of the multicultural readiness of various public institutions.

These ten themes do not encompass all the issues raised in the 48 proposals of the six regional reports. However, I believe that they capture the heart of the concerns underlying all the reports, and that they identify a set of issues that truly are essential for the future of multiculturalism in Canada.


4. Original in French.

5. Original in French.

6. Alberta and the Territories were covered in the same regional report, but the author divided the two areas for the purposes of identifying research themes, and I have followed her listing here.

7. See, for example, Irene Bloemraad, Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006.


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