From Mosaic to Harmony: Multicultural Canada in the 21st Century

Authors: Jean Lock Kunz , Stuart Sykes
Document Type: Archives
Published Date: Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 5:00am
ISBN number: PH4-42/2007F-PDF, 978-0-662-07670-4

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Executive Summary


Multicultural Diversity for the 21st Century: From Mosaic to Harmony

Overall Findings


Executive Summary

Canada’s multicultural diversity is a product of three cultural drivers: Aboriginal peoples, the English and French “Charter” groups, and immigrants from around the world. In particular, successive waves of immigration since the 1970s have made Canada ever more diverse in ethnicity, culture, religion, and language. As do most multicultural societies, Canada faces the challenge of respecting cultural differences while fostering shared citizenship, conferring rights while demanding responsibilities, and encouraging integration but not insisting on assimilation. 

Recent ethnic and religious-based conflicts and debates in Europe and Canada have renewed governments’ interest regarding the integration of immigrants and their descendents. In Canada, especially following a number of incidents stemming from the complexities of accommodating religious sensitivities, the country’s approach to ethno-cultural diversity has been pushed to the forefront of public discourse. 

It is in this context that the Policy Research Initiative (PRI), in partnership with the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Metropolis Project, held roundtable consultations in eight cities across Canada: Halifax, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, and Vancouver. These consultations included representatives from all three orders of government, community organizations, business, and the media, as well as experts on immigration and diversity. The roundtables addressed two questions: 1) how to foster diversity without divisiveness and 2) whether Canada’s multiculturalism policies need review in light of today’s social and geopolitical realities. 

At the roundtable consultations, it was agreed that managing multicultural diversity is a work in progress, evolving over time as social realities change. Regardless of these changes, however, the principles of these policies, such as equality, respect for diversity, human rights, and full participation, shall remain the cornerstones of inter-ethnic relations in Canada. 

According to many participants, multiculturalism sets a vision for Canada and a framework for intercultural relations within a single society. That said, most Canadians understand multiculturalism as a policy to facilitate the integration of non-European newcomers and their immediate descendents. While there is general goodwill towards multicultural diversity, participants felt that Canada should not promote cultural differences at the expense of shared Canadian values.  

In particular, multicultural policies have yet to resonate with younger Canadians, who grew up in a multicultural and global environment. Roundtable results asserted that younger Canadians often find it difficult to pigeonhole themselves into a certain ethnic group – especially those from intercultural families whose ancestries consist of more than one ethnic or religious heritage. They are more likely to see themselves first and foremost as Canadians. With the Internet being an integral part of their life and with the ease of travel, they regard themselves as global citizens. A more relevant question for them would be how to define their Canadian identity in the global context. 

It was noted that multiculturalism has become an easy target for failings and challenges resulting from other policies. It was almost universally argued that recent backlash against multiculturalism can be traced to anxiety and fear about the unknown. Many participants described debates about multiculturalism issues, such as religious diversity and the effects of ethnic enclaves,1 as poorly informed and frequently simplistic.  

Many of the roundtables touched on the fact that religious diversity lies at the core of many of the current debates about multiculturalism. As revealed by the discussion of “reasonable accommodation” in Québec and elsewhere, and due to the increasing religiosity among new immigrants, this is likely to continue. It appears that religion is a dimension that current conceptions of multiculturalism are ill-prepared to handle. 

Roundtable participants pointed out that multiculturalism policies can work only if they are in sync with other domestic and foreign policies, such as those on employment, immigration, health, and international relations. There is a sense that government departments operate in isolation in their respective silos. It was felt that there is little dialogue across sectors and cultural groups. 

Discussions on cultural diversity also generally involve only members of visible minorities and newcomers, who represent only one fifth of Canada’s population. Aboriginal groups and those who are not visible minorities are not represented in consultations. This practice reinforces perceptions that multiculturalism is only for visible minorities, exacerbating the “us vs. them” dichotomy. 

Roundtable findings reveal that future efforts must focus on four areas: 

Move from “Narrowcast” to “Broadcast” – There is a need to create a multicultural tent for all Canadians by including a wide spectrum of the Canadian population in the policy dialogue. Furthermore, the voices of younger Canadians should be heard. Roundtable participants asserted that the “multicultural generation” is negotiating their multiple identities in a global context. Canada’s approach to multicultural relations needs to reflect this shift in orientation. 

Roundtable participants unanimously agreed on the need for a vertically integrated policy dialogue that engages the grassroots as well as governments (municipal, provincial, territorial and federal) and that is backed by a formal commitment. However, participants cautioned against efforts that could be described as social engineering. Cultural diversity is a lived experience that requires the collaboration of all sectors of society. 

Combat Ignorance through Evidence – Participants advised governments to be more active in combating poor analysis and false associations when they appear in the various fora that inform debates about the practice and reality of multiculturalism in Canada. 

Though much research has been conducted on immigration and diversity, the results need to be better utilized in policy development. And valuable lessons could be learned through study of factors that contributed to the success (or the lack thereof) of current and past practices. 

Integrate Faith into Modern Multicultural Discourse – It is apparent that, contrary to earlier predictions, religion will not fade away as a source of distinctiveness in modern society. Previous decisions about how societal institutions and religions interact with one another may need to be revisited, particularly in the formation of policy. 

Religious literacy (or the lack thereof) appears to require more attention. While much of the debate on managing diversity centres on accommodating religious principles, decision-makers and the public in general are often ill at ease in responding to these challenges. People lack knowledge about the tenets of various religious beliefs and how they interact with public policy issues. Instead, much effort is devoted to particular concerns, such as radicalization and terrorism. 

Transform Principles to Practice – Much consternation was expressed about a disconnect between the policy of multiculturalism and the reality of multiculturalism on the ground. Often, roundtable participants argued, the delivery of programs emphasized cultural differences at the expense of encouraging individuals from different cultural backgrounds to learn about each other. It was felt these contributed to the challenge described above and have kept cultural communities from interacting with other communities as much as they might. 

Canadian society has evolved from a mosaic to a fusion of cultures where people of different origins interact and contribute to the communities where they live. A recurring theme from the roundtable consultations is that multiculturalism is a means to an inclusive and equitable society. Policy tools need to be adapted to the changing dynamics of inter-ethnic relations. In particular, policies need to be communicated and implemented effectively so that Canada may remain truly multicultural. 


Roundtable participants identified challenges in implementation of multicultural policies. In part, these challenges contributed to the communication issues described above; it was observed that actions speak louder than words. Implementation challenges also have a considerable effect on Canadians’ experiences with multiculturalism.

Three particular issues were identified. First, policies must have tangible goals so that results can be measured. Second, all stakeholders need to be involved in achieving these goals. Third, organizations need the right tools and knowledge to implement them. In all these regards, Canada’s approach to managing multicultural relations appears to fall short of the country’s vision of multicultural diversity.  

Multicultural Diversity for the 21st Century: From Mosaic to Harmony 

In this globalizing era, multicultural societies face the challenge of respecting cultural differences while fostering shared citizenship, conferring rights while demanding responsibilities, and encouraging integration but not assimilation. This is the message from the roundtables. Canadian society has evolved from a mosaic to a fusion of cultures, where people of different cultural origins live in harmony, and contribute to the communities where they live. This finding is reflected in the revised version of Table 1; the key metaphor of our time and the solution to the challenges we face have become apparent (See Table 2). A recurring theme from the roundtable consultations is that multiculturalism is a means to an inclusive and equitable society. Policy tools need to adapt to the changing dynamics of inter-ethnic relations. In particular, policies need to be communicated and implemented effectively so that Canada remains truly multicultural. As declared in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, federal institutions are to promote policies, programs, and practices that “enhance the ability of individuals and communities of all origins to contribute to the continuing evolution of Canada” and to enhance “the understanding of and respect for the diversity of the members of Canadian society” (Canadian Multiculturalism Act 3[2][b] and 3[2][c]). That said, administration of cultural diversity must be based on the principles of equality, human rights, respect for diversity, and the rule of law, as well as on full participation. 

There are pockets of ignorance in society, and it comes from a lack of enforcement of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. There are some aspects of it that we could review, and we should encourage interaction between different communities, and this is missing. We should promote and foster this [interaction between different communities] in society. Each of the many diverse communities has a wealth to offer, and what are we doing to take advantage of this wealth? Montréal Roundtable

Overall Findings 

Canada’s Approach to Multicultural Diversity: Excellent in Principle, but a Challenge in Practice  

Overall, participants believed that multiculturalism policies are forward-looking, representing a vision to which Canada aspires and a framework for managing inter-ethnic relations. Participants believed that this vision should speak to all Canadians and affect all policies and sectors of society. Compared with other policies, such as those on defence, finance, and the environment, policies on cultural diversity were viewed as matters of encouragement and ideals, with broad objectives but few specific goals. Furthermore, since cultural diversity differs across regions and cities, the implementation of a national policy on multiculturalism would reflect such differences. 

It was agreed that the process of managing multicultural diversity evolves as social realities change. Regardless, the principles of these policies, such as equality, respect for diversity, human rights, and full participation, will remain the cornerstones of inter-ethnic relations in Canada. Table 1, above, illustrates this evolution. 

Nevertheless, while the policies appear sound in principle, they need to be updated to respond to new challenges. And while Canada is good at developing sound policies, it is less successful in translating policy goals into reality due to overly subtle and uncoordinated practices in communicating principles, as well as disconnects between policy goals and implementation on the ground. According to many participants, while multiculturalism sets a vision for Canada, it could be better communicated. Consequently, participants believed there is not a single conception of multiculturalism shared by all. This has led to social divisions, false associations, and the policy’s lack of relevance to youth.  

The government needs to help all Canadians understand how the concepts of multiculturalism transcend everyday life (e.g., justice). They need to spell out and clearly articulate what [a multicultural society] would look like. In the business sector, what gets measured gets done. This needs to be built into policy discussion or else it is all just talk. Calgary Roundtable  

Further, it was felt that discussions regarding multiculturalism have been too abstract to be translated effectively into the everyday realities. In particular, questions emerged regarding terminology, such as “shared citizenship” and “twoway street.” These phrases are hollow if not grounded on a basis of equality. Shared citizenship without equal access would lead to a sense of second-class citizenship among the excluded. 

Participants pointed to an apparent gap between policies and implementation, which frequently made policies ineffective and sometimes even divisive. In spite of policies such as employment equity and multiculturalism, it was argued that a number of issues identified in the 1980s and 1990s are still current. These include the unequal access to employment for recent immigrants and visible minorities and the prevalence of low incomes among certain ethnic groups.