After 50 years since its first official recognition, does Canadian multiculturalism conserve its relevance in the 21st century?
The Multiculturalism Policy was first announced to be an official policy of Canada at the House of Commons in 1971 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In his speech, Trudeau stated that no official culture would define the Canadian identity but its cultural diversity that makes the country whole.
Since then, this policy has been contributing to the recognition of cultural and ethnic diversity in Canadian society. It also preserves all civil rights for Canadians of all origins. Canadians from different backgrounds have since been able to share and enhance their cultural heritage while enjoying a guarantee of equal treatment, respect and protection under the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of this policy. What does multiculturalism represent to Canadians with immigrant backgrounds nowadays? Does the Multiculturalism Policy still play an important role in 21st century society?
In the documentary Multiculturalism in Canada debated, broadcasted in 2004 by the CBC, host Adrian Harewood had discussions with guests directly related to multiculturalism.
Harewood spoke with the Tandava, a band from Vancouver, whose members include people from various ethnic backgrounds. Prashant Michael John, the Bangladeshi-Canadian guitarist of the band, was asked to share his thoughts about the word “multiculturalism.” He said, “To me it means going beyond traditions, beyond conditioning; in fact, it means not narrowing itself to a peer group but having the whole world as a huge thing that you can draw from.”
Lan Tung, a Taiwanese-Canadian member of the band, mentioned that living in Canada gave her an opportunity to play a multicultural kind of music that she could not play elsewhere.
Harewood emphasized in the documentary: “The Canada of the 21st century is a dynamic meeting place of people of diverse cultures and traditions.”
This perception seems to remain the same in the present time, especially since Justin Trudeau, the incumbent Canadian Prime Minister, is often seen as a pioneer in Canadian advocacy for multiculturalism.
“Multiculturalism is one of Canada’s greatest strengths and a vital component of our national fabric,” said Trudeau in a statement published on last year’s Canadian Multiculturalism Day. “All Canadians — regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, or language — have the right to be true to who they are, and to live peacefully as friends, neighbours, and colleagues.”
However, shortcomings are completely unavoidable. The desire to preserve and respect cultural diversity can be stated in words but the question of how to do it by action has never been easy to be answered. Racism is the case. As stated by StatCan, 21 per cent of the non-Caucasian population in Canada has reported that harassment and attacks are often based on race, ethnicity, and skin colour. The discrimination is even terribly increased since COVID-19, which mainly targets Asians and Canadians of Asian descent. Thus, this situation clearly indicates the inequality when it comes to the safety of different groups of ethnicities. While dealing with such an incident, the government’s anti-racism strategies seem to be unthorough and slow-effectuated.
As for Canadian youth, the topic of multiculturalism is also supported and of interest. Anthony Issa is a Canadian Concordia student with Lebanese family background. Since his grandfather and father are immigrants, Issa has a certain knowledge regarding this specific topic. He points out that multiculturalism nowadays is even included in the curriculum at the high school level; he learned that Canada is a nation formed by different groups of people, including immigrants and Indigenous people.
Although the Multiculturalism Policy seems to be symbolic to him in a sense that it does not have any influence on his family’s interests, Issa agrees that it still recognizes that all Canadians have the right to affirm their own cultures. He believes that the policy should be more applicable in society nowadays than it was before, since immigrants gradually occupy a larger percentage of Canada’s population in the 21st century. According to StatCan, the result of the 2016 Census shows that the number of immigrants accounted for more than one-fifth of Canada’s total population. This number is not only much higher than it was in the figures of previous years but also shows a growing sign over time. It is even expected to reach at least 24.5 per cent in 2036.
As a Canadian who tends to support global unity, Issa shows his concurrence towards the policy in terms of its equality: “We’re all from different backgrounds but everyone has the right to live in Canada and be treated fairly and equally.”
Feature graphic by Taylor Reddam