Multiculturalism in Canada

Multiculturalism iCanada:

What are we talking about?

 Dr. George Egerton

History Department UBC

Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum

13 November 2008


Since the Liberal Government of Pierre Trudeau announced its Multicultural Policy in 1971, gave it protected status in the Constitutional Act, 1982, followed up by the Mulroney Government’s Multicultural Act in 1988, Canadians have prided themselves as multicultural exemplars, providing legal, political and cultural patterns and theories for other states and peoples to emulate. Indeed, Canadian public support for multiculturalism has remained high (outside of Quebec), compared with Western European countries and the US – usually at over 80%. The Aga Khan, in helping establish the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa (2006) described the Canadian practice of seeking unity in diversity as “Canada’s gift to the world.”

Multiculturalism provides a fundamental theme in Canadian identity – along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, universal Medicare, international peacekeeping, etc. Annual federal spending on multicultural programs is about $300M, with much more from Provincial, Municipal, and private sectors.

What are we talking about? For starters, the Department of Canadian Heritage Website asks and answers the question: ‘What is Multiculturalism? Canadian multiculturalism is fundamental to our belief that all citizens are equal. Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of, diverse cultures. The Canadian experience has shown that multiculturalism encourages racial and ethnic harmony and cross-cultural understanding, and discourages ghettoization, hatred, discrimination and violence.

Through multiculturalism, Canada recognizes the potential of all Canadians, encouraging them to integrate into their society and take an active part in its social, cultural, economic and political affairs.‘

Who could be against this? Think of the alternatives: racial discrimination, ethnic cleansing, tribal warfare, genocide, white supremacy, etc. Our purpose here today is not to attack multiculturalism, which is an essential feature of ‘peace, order and good government’ in Canada, but to enlarge its definition, and make it better. The principal problem to be addressed is the exclusion of religion from definitions of multiculturalism, and its relegation to the private sphere in the politics of modern Canadian pluralism, as operated by elites of government, courts, media, education, and major cultural institutions.

My principal focus will be on the evolving nature of Canadian pluralism which led to present conceptions of multiculturalism, and specifically the place of religion within Canadian pluralism. I will speak briefly to the history of religion within Canadian pluralism, notably with regard to the changing cooperative and conflictual relations between religion and Canadian constitutional politics. Professor Stackhouse will focus more on contemporary challenges, opportunities and responses. I will be hi-lighting some of the principal findings from my Canadian Religion and Politics Project, which studies the history of public religion and politics in Canada since WWII.

            The terms pluralism and multiculturalism are politically-charged and contested. I will be mainly using the broader term of pluralism, but will relate it to the Canadian variant of multiculturalism. Social theorists tell us pluralism can take several forms and definitions. There is first, and most elementary, the demographic diversity of human peoples and communities within states, grouped by such characteristics as race, ethnicity, language, religion — some characteristics inherited, others chosen. This type of pluralism has massively increased since WWII as a correlate of globalization and large-sale migrations. Then there are theories of pluralism, as to how to promote unity, cooperation, understanding, and social peace — ranging from melting pot / assimilationist models, through intercultural harmonization patterns (favoured in Quebec), to mosaic models preserving and promoting diversity. Most democratic political cultures have rejected assimilation and adopted some form of pluralism, as part of a liberal ideology, and linked it closely with protection of minority human rights. But even in democratic cultures the promotion of unity, national identity, shared values, social peace and national security often conflicts with protection of minority rights and race-neutral immigration policies, especially since the onset of global terrorism. With the rise of radical Islamism, since the late 1970s, and especially after the terrorism of 9/11 (2001), religion has become an increasingly problematic factor in the definition and operation of pluralism. This is not just a result of the fears and threats presented by Islamism; the challenge comes more generally in defining the status and functions of all religions in public life and their recognition in prevailing models of pluralism.

            What can we learn from a brief history and typology of Canadian models of pluralism, and the standing of religion in these models? My Canadian Religion and Politics Project identifies three major types of pluralism in Canada’s history: Christian pluralism; religiously-inclusive pluralism; and secularist pluralism.

  1. Christian Pluralism (From British North America to Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent)

From the earliest colonization of the Americas, including French and British North America, the Christian religion was central to the defining elements of politics, law, culture, and imperial purpose. After the British conquest (1760), Quebec Catholicism was given legal protection, and with the frustration of the Church of England’s quest for exclusive establishment after the 1840s resolution of the clergy reserve struggle, Canadian churches lived with denominationalism, competitive but also cooperative — in an informal establishment, functionally similar to Britain and America, despite the constitutional differences.

            In this informal establishment, religion functioned as ‘the conscience of the state,’ performing priestly functions (public prayers, rituals, legitimating government authority); pastoral functions (health, welfare, schooling, chaplaincies; guarding family and sexual morality); and prophetic functions (temperance crusades, social gospel criticism of capitalist injustices). In this Christian pluralism run by the national, mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, Canada defined itself manifestly as a ‘Christian democracy’ where the Christian religion and liberal ideology cooperated in governance. The ties of church and state were consciously tightened in times of national peril, especially wartime, as when the national churches and the Government defined WWII as a crusade for Christian and liberal civilization against Nazi Paganism – and then portrayed the Cold War as a struggle against godless communism.

            In the post-World War II period, under Liberal Prime Ministers Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent (the former a devoted if eccentric Presbyterian, the latter a devout Catholic) the mutual respect and cooperation of church and state remained intimate, as Canadian society experienced a period of religious revival and unprecedented institutional expansion. In this ‘post-colonial’ period, as Canadian nationhood was searching for new identity distinct from Britain, Canadian political elites, even more than religious elites, insisted on preserving the Christian component of national identity and international alignments.

  1. Religiously-Inclusive Pluralism (From Diefenbaker to Pearson)

            The Conservative Governments of John Diefenbaker after the elections of 1957-58 continued to emphasize the religious dimension of the struggle against Communism, appealing not least to Ukrainian and Eastern European communities settled and expanding in the Canadian West. The next major intersection point of religion in constitutional discourse and evolving Canadian pluralism came with the quest by Diefenbaker’s Conservative Government to advance the cause of human rights – a project which culminated in the Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960. While Diefenbaker, as a dedicated Baptist, was wary of any interlocking of church and state, he maintained close relations with not only church leaders but also the Jewish community through his long-term participation on the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. The evidence clearly indicates the continuing salience of religion in directing government purpose and legitimating its authority; but exclusively Christian language was now giving way to a more inclusive ‘religious pluralism,’ as political leaders made explicit efforts to include Canada’s Jewish community in the national religious consortium. While human rights now came to make greater claim on Canadian national identity and purpose, political and religious elites nevertheless remained agreed that government authority and human rights needed a religious foundation. When the Diefenbaker government took up the task of legislating a Canadian Bill of Rights, the discussion in committee and in Parliament demonstrated there was near unanimous support, as previously, for placing rights explicitly within a religious framework. The Preamble to the Canadian Bill of Rights therefore specified ‘that the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions . . .’. This wording reflected close consultation with Jewish leaders on the part of Justice Minister Davie Fulton and the leading Liberal member of the Parliamentary Committee, Paul Martin Sr., both being devout Catholics.

The reference to the ‘supremacy of God’ in the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights did not herald a renewed age of faith. Indeed, the decade of the ‘sixties would witness fundamental shifting in Canadian cultural history, not least as the religious affiliations, beliefs, and behaviour of Canadians experienced unprecedented, rapid retrenchment – first in English-speaking Protestant Canada but soon also in Catholic Quebec where the so-called ‘Quiet Revolution’ led by the Liberals under Jean Lesage saw the Provincial government rapidly remove the Catholic church from its former public hegemony in culture, welfare, health services, and education.

            Churches in Canada and internationally would engage in radical rethinking of theology and mission – most thoroughly and systematically in the deliberations of Vatican II (1962-1965), but more radically in Protestant immanentalist theologies, welcoming the ‘secular city,’ being ‘honest to god, ’demythologizing’ the faith, and finally heralding the ‘death of god.’ Journalist Pierre Berton’s 1965 best-seller book, The Comfortable Pew, broke all Canadian sales records and engaged the mainline Canadian Protestantism in a firestorm of self-criticism and an urgent quest for renewed relevance. Indeed, by brilliantly popularizing the main themes of the radical theologians, Berton captured and projected the agenda of Canadian liberal Protestants for the rest of the 20th century as they abandoned the old theology, the old curricula, and the old morality in the age of the pill, situation ethics, and mass entertainment.

            After the disintegration of the Diefenbaker Government in 1963, Lester Pearson would lead a series of minority Liberal Governments ineffectively addressing a rising tide of bewildering issues, scandals, and national malaise. A child of the manse (Methodist, then United Church), the Prime Minister was as sincere a Christian believer as his predecessors. After the politically bruising struggle in 1964 to agree on a new Canadian flag (devoid of the Christian symbols in the previous Canadian Ensign), the Pearson Government had the happier task of arranging for the year-long celebrations to mark the centennial of Confederation in 1967, and to host the Montreal World’s Fair – Expo 67. Here the Government and its officials in the Centennial Commission took the initiative in helping Churches across Canada participate eagerly in their local communities’ centennial celebrations, with appropriate liturgies and prayers to honour the country. The Canadian Corporation on the 1967 World’s Exhibition also took the initiative in planning for religious participation in Expo 67. Their planning records clearly the religiously-positive pluralism of the Government and its officials in organizing this national spectacle. The Centennial Commission started by setting up, funding and providing administrative and publicity services for a Canadian Interfaith Conference which included representation from the national mainline churches and eventually some 33 religious faith communities, including Pentecostals, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Bahá’ís.

While the various religious communities were eager to join in the celebrations, the form of participation signaled some confusion and controversy in the evolving nature of pluralism in Canada. The Expo planners pressed for a single religious pavilion, housing all faiths under one roof. The leadership of the national churches wanted a single ecumenical pavilion for Christians, and declined to embrace the inter-faith pluralism first suggested by the Centennial planners. The evangelical Protestant churches equally declined ecumenism, and were the first to acquire a site for their own pavilion at Expo, where their Sermons From Science, drawn from the Moody Bible Institute, served principally as a forum for evangelization. The Canadian Jewish community also mounted its own pavilion. Whatever distinctives the churches and other religious faith communities wished to sustain at Expo, their pavilions turned out to be popular successes and equally signified the positive religious pluralism of the Pearson Liberals in facilitating religious participation in national life – and on terms favoured by the religious communities themselves.

  1. Secularist Pluralism (Trudeau and after)

Canada was changing radically through the turbulent Pearson years. Immigration, not just as previously from white European countries, mainly Christian, but now from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America, was changing Canada’s Anglo-Franco demographic hegemony, as race-based admission qualifications were replaced with a race-neutral points system. The demographics of multiculturalism were in the making.

The greatest political challenge faced by the Pearson Liberals, however, came in the form of Quebec nationalism. With Quebec Catholicism freely cooperating in its political disestablishment, the Quebec Liberals’ quest to be ‘maîtres chez nous’ soon transformed into a nationalist ideology which supplanted the discredited public functions of religion as previously exploited by the governments of Maurice Duplessis. Québécois ethnicity, language, and cultural assertion challenged Canada’s English hegemony and its federal constitutional structure. The federal Liberal’s responded with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1969) which initiated a long process of re-imagining the Canadian nation on the basis of a fairer Anglophone – Francophone partnership. The work and reports of the Bi and Bi Commission attempted to redefine Canadian nationhood in terns of ethnicity and language. The former centrality of religion in Canada’s national identity, as underlined repeatedly in the Parliamentary Committees studying human rights, constitutional issues and national purpose in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the drafting of the Canadian Bill of Rights, found no place in the recommendations of the Commission. Nor did this theme figure in the submissions made by the churches, who generally affirmed the Liberals’ attempt to re-imagine Canadian nationality along more inclusive linguistic and ethic lines.

The efforts of the Pearson Liberals to re-imagine Canadian nationhood in terms of bilingualism and biculturalism soon proved inadequate, critiqued roundly by aboriginal and other non-Anglophone, non-Francophone ethnic communities, burgeoning as a result of immigration patterns. By the late 1960s Canada was on the verge of several decades of radical re-imaginings which would witness transformative change in its constitution, jurisprudence and, not least, in church-state relations. Indeed, the defining elements of Canadian pluralism would shift from religion to language and ethnicity, as multiculturalism supplanted biculturalism in a new quest for national identity, purpose, and unity. Simultaneously, Canadian legislators embraced the protection of human rights as the fundamental legitimator of renewed governmental authority. By the time that religious questions would return to the renewed Canadian constitutional discourse directed by Pierre Trudeau as Justice Minister and then Prime Minister after 1968, Canadian public life and rhetoric would be in process of rapid de-Christianization, while jurisprudence and political theory were searching for non-religious foundations.

            The larger dimensions of this story can but be alluded to here. The 1960s and 1970s were transformative in terms of secularization, as ethnic and ideological pluralism supplanted the former Anglo-French, Protestant-Catholic dualism of Canadian history. The Canadian experience forms part of a process of modernization shared with all industrialized societies and, in Canada’s case, heavily influenced by Britain and America. From Britain came the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report (1957) that criminality and morality should be separated in such matters as homosexuality and prostitution, and that the state should confine itself to the proscription and punishment of behaviour that was manifestly harmful to society, while protecting the freedom of the individual, even if the choices indulged socially harmless ‘sinning.’ These themes found a sympathetic hearing in liberal Canadian quarters. Concurrently, from America the integration of politics and religion was most clearly challenged by a series of Supreme Court decisions which asserted a strict wall of separation between church and state in matters of public education, and other public services.

            In Canada, the legal transitions had the added drama of coinciding with the making of a new constitution — a project which focused in large measure on protecting human rights. The Canadian constitutional drama, moreover, was driven by a philosopher-king, Pierre Trudeau, who, as Prime Minister after 1968, made the constitutional entrenchment of a Charter of Rights his own political mission, seeing it through to success in the constitutional settlement of 1982.

            When in 1967 Trudeau became Justice Minister in the Pearson’s Liberal Government, the concurrent celebrations marking the centennial year of the Canadian confederation were troubled, at least latently, by a diffuse sense of social malaise as to national purpose and identity. With the crises of the depression and war now receding into memory after decades of unprecedented prosperity and a dawning of detente in the Cold War, the country found itself faced with not only the manifest challenge of resurgent Québécois nationalism but also a cultural revolution that was eager to challenge the traditional privileging of religion well beyond Quebec Catholicism. In the germinating legitimation crisis which attended the drift, scandals, and confusions of the last years of the Pearson government, it was the genius of Trudeau’s politics to project updated themes of classic liberal ideology – brilliantly indigenized for Canadian appeal: federalism and bilingualism to confront the separatist aspirations of Quebec nationalism; multicultural pluralism to accommodate and contain ethnic assertion and ideological conflict; civil libertarianism to enshrine protection for individual rights in a revised constitution; participatory democracy to include citizens in shaping a just society, and secularism to disentangle a modernized Canadian legal order from its religious constraints. Each of these themes resonated with Canadian mass culture by the latter half of the ‘sixties, and appealed deeply to academic, cultural, and media elites, offering renewed government purpose and legitimation while concurrently rejuvenating the Liberal Party.

            When the project to modernize Canadian law and liberate it from its religious framework addressed itself first to divorce legislation, Trudeau instructed Parliament in 1967 on the cardinal themes of the new pluralism:

We are now living in a social climate in which people are beginning to realize, perhaps for the first time in the history of this country, that we are not entitled to impose the concepts which belong to a sacred society upon a civil or profane society. The concepts of the civil society in which we live are pluralistic, and I think this parliament realizes that it would be a mistake for us to try to legislate into this society concepts which belong to a theological or sacred order.

            That the rights and freedoms of the individual would provide the animus for a comprehensive modernization and liberalization of Canadian law was evident not only in Trudeau’s approach to the issue of divorce law, but also in the initiatives he undertook in a coterie of other ‘morality’ issues, such as lotteries, birth control, homosexuality, and abortion — all of which contained potentially explosive intersections of religious and legal principles. After legal study of several of these issues within the Justice Department, and comprehensive public hearings on the issues of birth control and abortion conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, Trudeau combined these ‘morality’ issues with a series of other changes in the criminal law code into an Omnibus Bill which was given first reading in the Commons in late 1967.

            By the time the Omnibus Bill was passed in 1969, Trudeau had captured the leadership of the Liberal Party and led it to electoral triumph in 1968, assisted by the seductive, if transient, appeal of ‘Trudeaumania.’ However, if Trudeau’s charisma and progressive agenda won him the first Liberal majority government since 1953, his trenchant federalism sparked revolutionary violence from the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in October 1970 to suppress separatist terrorism in Quebec both demonstrated the perceived fragility of state authority and shocked civil libertarians that one of their own would go so far.

            The Reports of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism were insufficient to contain the challenges of Quebecois nationalism; neither was biculturalism sufficient to meet the mobilized resistance it encountered from both Aboriginal peoples and the recent immigrant communities which were neither Anglophone nor Francophone. The final volume of the Bi and Bi Commission was compelled to address the insufficiency of biculturalism, and recommended the fundamental themes of multiculturalism. Trudeau’s responses were to legislate official bilingualism in the federal domain, and in 1971 proclaim a policy of multiculturalism.

            The Liberal attempt to re-imagine Canada in the 1970s and 1980s would focus not just on bilingualism and multiculturalism, but also on the patriation of Canada’s constitution from Britain with the inclusion of an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms which would provide the foundation for a new Canadian identity and national purpose. I have written about this and can say little in the time left today. But what interests me especially is that in the debates leading to the multicultural policy, and in the long discourse leading to the new constitution and its Charter of Rights in 1982, the dimension of religion was almost absent – until virtually the last-minute successful mobilization of evangelicals and Catholics forced the Trudeau Government to include in the Preamble to the Charter the assertion that: ‘Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law’. This was done despite the opposition of Trudeau and his Justice Minister Jean Chrétien. And although this represented a reassertion of a classic formulation in Canadian constitutional tradition – the cooperative fusion of public religion (supremacy of God) and liberal ideology (the rule of law) – the reference to the ‘supremacy of God’ has remained pretty much a dead letter in the secularist pluralism which has been predominant in Canadian jurisprudence and politics since the Trudeau revolution.


            Can we learn anything from the three models of pluralism in Canadian history? I will leave it to Professor Stackhouse to pick up the threads of Canada’s contemporary challenges and opportunities of multiculturalism. But let me suggest a few themes.

            The first model of Christian pluralism, the Anglo – Franco Canadian Christian dualism, is gone forever, irretrievably – in face of the religious, secularist and ethnic diversity of modern Canada.

            The third model of a secularist pluralism, the prevailing model since the Trudeau revolution, itself faces growing problems. It is based on the assumption that a version of secularist liberal rationalism, directed by political, educational, media, and especially judicial elites, can mediate the ideological, religious and cultural disputes of society, and maintain a successful, secularist multiculturalism. However, the following difficulties arise:

– the exclusion of religion from public life increasingly alienates major religious communities, who resist the constraints of privatization.

– the use of the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to subordinate religious rights to equality rights, as in the privileging of sexual orientation, alienates many religious communities

– the resistance to confessional education in the public school systems, including its constitutional removal in Quebec and Newfoundland, alienates confessional communities. The Catholic separate school system of Ontario is under increasing attack.

– Québécois dislike multiculturalism and favour inter-culturalism, while imposing a secular pluralism in public life, including education. This is increasingly alienates Quebec’s religious communities, including Catholics.

– the interdiction of all Christian or other religions’ prayers in official ceremonies – as in the commemorations on Parliament Hill for the victims of 9-11 terrorism, or the in the ceremonies commemorating the victims of the Air India downing – alienates religious communities.

– the resistance to allowing religious communities to arbitrate family relations questions, applying Jewish traditions or Islamic Sharia law, as rule out recently in Ontario, alienates members of these communities.

– the use of ‘Charter values’ by courts or human rights tribunals to trump religious freedoms, including freedom of expression, alienates not only religious communities, but also many civil libertarians.

– secularist pluralism itself becomes a hegemonic ideology, suppressing the very diversity (especially religious diversity) it sets out to protect.

            The list only touches on a few of the problems and dilemmas of contemporary Canadian multiculturalism – which, like all ideologies tends to seek hegemony, power and mastery. And there are signs of increasing religious-based lobbying and mobilization against the exclusion or privatization of religion, while courts decisions (and even Human Rights Tribunals) show some rethinking of the importance of religious freedom to operate in the public sphere.

The recent reporting of the Taylor / Bouchard Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (Quebec: 2008) demonstrates renewed thinking on the need to include the religious factor in the reasonable accommodation of cultural differences.

            Perhaps needless to say, I think we can find a much more attractive multiculturalism in the religiously-inclusive pluralist model which operated under the Liberal Government of Pearson – a multiculturalism open to the public functions of religions, which allows civil society to mediate the richness and conflicts of ideological, human, and cultural diversity, without privileging one version as imposed by the state and the courts. Such an open, religiously-inclusive multiculturalism would not only enhance religious freedoms, it would mitigate the ghettoization of resentful, alienated religious communities and promote real cultural engagement and understanding. This model does not promise perfection; there would be lots of messiness and contention. But it could work better than the secularist model of pluralism that guides contemporary Canadian multiculturalism.

            Most of Canada’s diverse communities have learned to play the politics of multiculturalism quite successfully; while national political parties compete for the so-called ethnic vote. Apparently the Conservatives are now surpassing the Liberals in this game. Of interest is the fact that these communities now not only constitute major sectors of the Canadian population, but they are also the most religiously committed. This is true for Islam, Hinduism and other growing religions in Canada; it is equally true for Christianity. These numbers and mentalities will count increasingly in the on-going negotiation of Canada’s multiculturalism policies.