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Canada’s multiculturalism

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Canada has been declared by the UN to be one of the best countries in the world in which to live – yet to define our identity is like trying to nail smoke to the wall. Canada is a nation of many cultures. There are Canadians from nearly every ethnic background imaginable, be they French or English, or descendent from immigrants from all corners of the world. In 1971, the Trudeau government adopted a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework (McRoberts, 1997). Multiculturalism is here to stay, but is it beneficial to the formation of the Canadian identity?

McRoberts points out; the policy can be observed in a very negative light. He goes on to state that “it has been argued that multiculturalism has impeded rather than facilitated the integration of immigrants into Canadian society” (McRoberts, 1997 pg131). However as the evidence will show, the policy of multiculturalism can only lend more strength to this distinctively Canadian form of identity. So what is multiculturalism? The word grew out of biculturalism, which had long been Canada’s official cultural policy to deal with the differences between the anglophone majority and substantial francophone minority.

In the 1960s the biculturalist view was challenged by groups as diverse as First Nations and Chinese immigrants and this counter opinion was termed “multiculturalist”. There are many ways to define multiculturalism. Kymlicka views multiculturalism as cultural pluralism, how minorities are incorporated into societies, and how societies accommodate the cultural differences of minority groups and confront the demands of these groups for recognition of their identity (Kymlicka 1995).

Fleras sees multiculturalism as a set of principles, policies, and practices for accommodating diversity as a legitimate and integral component of society (Charlton, Baker, 1994). Given this, we can conclude that multiculturalism is a policy which argues that immigrants, and others, should preserve their cultures and the different cultures should interact peacefully within one nation. Under Pierre Trudeau in 1971 the nation moved to an official policy geared towards multiculturalism.

This policy has been supported by every subsequent government and was added to Canada’s 1982 constitution. Those who critics Canada’s policy of multiculturalism argue that Canadians are a rag-tag assortment of people from every nationality imaginable, as a result, its relatively small population, spread over a large area, shares no unifying traits or customs. Immigrants are encouraged to maintain their distinctiveness from the rest of the Canadian population, and even those Canadians who are descended from the original colonists share no identity of their own.

Thanks to multiculturalism, many Canadians do not even understand one another, let alone feel a common bond or share distinctive characteristics. This point is further illustrated by McRoberts, who states “if there is to be no official culture, then it is difficult to designate any set of values that are common to all Canadians or that characterize a Canadian community” (McRoberts 1997, pg132). Still others argue that Canada’s policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework has lent it a confused and feeble national identity.

Two of the more published critiques of multiculturalism come from Neil Bissoondath and Reginald Bibby. Bissoondath a Canadian immigrant from Trinadad argues that multiculturalism limits the freedom of minority members by confining them to cultural and geographic ghettos (Bissoondath, 1994). Bibby in his book ‘Mosaic Madness: Pluralism Without a Cause’ argues that official multiculturalism is a divisive force that is reducing national solidarity and unity. In defense of multiculturalism we must start with an understanding of Canadian history.

Canada began with the fusing of two cultures, traditionally enemies. The cautious tolerance that arose with the beginnings of Canadian history endured through to the dawn of the 20th century, when immigrants from other nations began to incorporate themselves into Canada’s population. The many cultures that comprise the Canadian population are united in their acceptance of one another. Multiculturalism strengthens rather than weakens the Canadian identity, because it allows Canadians to see past their differences to the basic values that unite them.

Multiculturalism has been Canadian from the start, and to deny its role would be to deny our identity in itself. A people’s history is arguably the key factor in the development of its identity. Canada began as a French colony. Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent settlements in what is today Canada. Port Royal was established in Nova Scotia in 1604, followed by the city of Quebec in 1608. France remained the dominant force in the region for over one hundred years. However, France gradually began to lose its land in the new world to the British Empire (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002).

As a result of the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713 concluding the War of Spanish succession, France gave up its claims to Newfoundland, Acadia and the Hudson Bay area. In the 1756, the Seven Years War between Britain and France began, fought simultaneously in Europe and in North America. Strategic English attacks on major French strongholds in the New World forced the French into retreat. The city of Quebec fell to the British in 1759 after the battle of the Plains of Abraham, and in 1760 the British converged at Montreal.

In the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, France relinquished its claim to all of its former colonies, keeping only two small islands. French dominion in Canada had come to an end, and New France became British North America (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002). Suddenly, the British government found itself faced with the challenge of ruling its enemy’s people. The British commenced a series of “experiments” in an effort to find an effective method for governing the French colonists, known as Canadiens, who suddenly found themselves under the rule of the British crown.

The Canadiens were accustomed to a unique way of life very different from that of the British colonists. Among the most prominent differences were religion, the landholding system and legal system. The French were predominantly Roman Catholic, the British Protestant. These two branches of Christianity, despite their many similarities, have historically been at odds with one another. The French agricultural community operated on the seigneurial system, in which the habitant farmers paid dues to the owner of the land on which they lived, called the seigneur.

This system was entirely foreign to the British, who bought their own land and paid no dues. French civil and criminal law also differed considerably from the British judicial system. The Canadiens had been accustomed to having their disputes settled before an unbiased judge, and were understandably perplexed at the ponderous workings of the British system of courts and trials. It was clear that the British government would have a monumental task in ruling the French people. Either the Canadiens would have to be bent to fit the British system, or the system manipulated to fit the Canadiens.

The first attempt of the British Crown came in the form of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It attempted to assimilate the Canadiens into the British way of life, forcing them to learn the language and new legal system, and allowing them very little say in how their colony was governed. The Act was a failure. Within a few years, it was replaced by the Quebec Act of 1774. Under this Act, the Canadiens were permitted to keep their way of life virtually intact, and to participate in their own government.

Such freedom was essential if the British hoped to keep Quebec’s loyalty in the face of the discord that was brewing in the Thirteen Colonies to the south of British North America. The Quebec Act kept the Canadiens loyal during the American Revolution, but caused dissent among the British Loyalists who fled to British North America following the Revolution. The result was the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided Canada into its chiefly French and English areas, referred to as Lower and Upper Canada (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002).

By forming separate governments to recognize the individuality of the French and English cultures, this prototype for bilingualism set the stage for Canada’s development as a bicultural society. Interestingly, despite the traditional enmity of the French and English, the early Canadians were able to fight alongside one another to defend themselves from the American invasion during the War of 1812 (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002). The distinctively Canadian traditions of biculturalism and tolerance were already beginning to emerge in the days of our nation’s infancy.

A series of historical experiments determined the most effective way to govern Canada. Maintaining the biculturalism of the region was essential, as the British soon discovered. The theory of assimilating the French population simply did not work, but allowing French and English to coexist, each with a system designed to fit their needs, proved a success (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002). This sentiment set the tone for Confederation in 1867, and endures to this day as an essential trait of the Canadian identity. Another of Canada’s distinctive traits is its cultural diversity.

Immigration has contributed to the Canadian identity by establishing multiculturalism, cradled within the framework of Canada’s already bicultural society. True to the tolerance of the emerging Canadian identity, these immigrants were not assimilated or forced to assume a culture that was not their own. The first known people to enter North America were the ancestors of today’s First Nations people. It is believed that they crossed the frozen Bering Strait from Asia between 20 000 and 10 0000 BC. In a way, even Canada’s very first residents were immigrants (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002).

Only much later did the French and British arrive to colonize the new world. These three distinct cultures, the roots of Canadian society, form the structure within which Canadian multiculturalism would begin to prosper. After Confederation in 1867, settlers began to move west into the Canadian prairies from Ontario. The settling of the west was strongly encouraged by the government, because there was a fear that an empty Canadian West might fall prey to American expansion (Francis, Jones, Smith, 2002). Nearly all of the immigrants were European. Many were French or British, but a significant number came from other ethnic backgrounds.

In the sparsely populated, wide open expanses of the prairies, multiculturalism thrived. Small communities of various nationalities dotted the Prairie Provinces. By the turn of the century, the prairies had been settled by wave upon wave of immigrants. Immigration slowed to a trickle during the First World War, but picked up once again during the 1920s. Thanks in part to immigration “the Canadian West had been transformed; there was a growing Euro-Canadian population, great expanses of wheat and other grains, prosperous farming towns, and a burgeoning regional identity”.

Immigration slowed once again during the depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, but recovered during its aftermath. In 1978, the Trudeau government passed a new Immigration Act, which opened Canada’s doors to embrace immigrants not only from Europe, but from around the globe. Canada’s cultural diversity flourished, and fears that the new immigrants would clash with the attitudes and values of native born Canadians were soon quashed. Canadian attitudes toward immigrants became more welcoming. As Canadians supported efforts to end racism and discrimination in Canadian law…. The result was a dramatic change in the sources of immigrants. Non-Europeans, especially immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean, arrived in increasing numbers” (http://www. mta. ca/faculty/arts/canadian_studies/english/about/multi/#immigration Para2) Today, immigrants from Asia and the Pacific make up the largest percentage of annual immigration.

Immigrants bring with them their skills and abilities as well as their cultures as traditions, and have made countless contributions to Canada as a nation. Who are the new Canadians? According to Statistics Canada’s 2001 survey, the fertility rate among people born in Canada has fallen to 1. 5 children per woman, below the 2. 1 needed to sustain the population. Immigration is responsible for the bulk of Canada’s population growth. Canadian immigrants strengthen the country, its economy as much as its identity. Canada is a nation of immigrants.

From the first colonists from France and Britain, to the settlers who claimed the vast Canadian West, to the many hopefuls who seek to enter Canada today to make better lives for themselves, all Canadians are descended from immigrants. Within the already established framework of bilingualism, Canada’s history led it to become a more and more multicultural society, another central element of our national identity. Bilingualism and multiculturalism in Canada is a government supported policy. In 1971, the Canadian government adopted a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.

This policy is unique to Canada among all the countries of the world, and is dedicated to preserving the cultural elements of our heritage. As has been shown, multiculturalism is inherent in the Canadian identity. Such government programs are essential to maintaining a strong identity. Canada’s government also sponsors a number of programs to assist recently landed immigrants to become successfully integrated into Canadian society. Programs are offered to help immigrants both financially and socially.

These programs encompass everything from basic to job-specific language training, loans and financial assistance, to organizations and volunteers dedicated to helping immigrants settle into their new life. Immigrants are permitted, even encouraged to retain the culture and traditions from their country of origin. It is apparent that multiculturalism is an integral part of the Canadian identity. It has influenced us throughout the history of our nation, and led the Canadian people to becoming a tolerant, freedom-loving society that respects the equality and identity of the cultures that comprise it.

It is true that many Canadians share little in common: they may come from opposites ends of the world to live at opposite ends of a continent. For this reason, multiculturalism does not weaken our identity, multiculturalism is our identity. Colonization initiated it, history has proven it, and government policy has reaffirmed it. The policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework can only lend more strength to this distinctively Canadian form of identity.

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