Multiculturalism, as a term, first came into vogue in Canada in the 1960s to counter "biculturalism," popularized by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. It has to a considerable extent replaced the term "cultural pluralism," although that term is still used in Québec. Its use has now spread from Canada to many countries, notably Australia.

In many ways a contested concept, multiculturalism is used in at least three senses: to refer to a society that is characterized by ethnic or cultural heterogeneity; to refer to an ideal of equality and mutual respect among a population's ethnic or cultural groups; and to refer to policies implemented by the federal government in 1971 and subsequently by a number of provinces.

The idea is seen as constitutive of Canadian identity at many levels. The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples, edited by Paul Robert Magocsi and released in 1999, asserts that individual ethnicity does not replace Canadian identity, rather it defines Canadians and their position in the world. (See also Canadian Identity and Language.)

Immigration and Multiculturalism

With the arrival of British explorers in the 18th century, the gold rushes of the 19th century, and the settlement of the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada became one of the world's main immigrant-receiving societies, a position it retained through the 1920s and after the Second World War (see Immigration; Immigration Policy). In anglophone regions of the country, immigrants were overwhelmingly expected to assimilate into the English majority. (In Québec, the vast majority of new immigrants during this time period arrived in Montréal, where many learned both English and French.) This expectation of cultural assimilation was embodied in the notion of the “melting pot” — a term that became popular in both the United States and Canada following the 1908 production of a play of the same title, which portrayed the assimilation of a Russian Jewish man into American culture.

In Canada, the first major challenge to the melting pot framework came in 1938, with the publication of Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation by John Murray Gibbon, which argued that Canada stood to benefit from the cultural diversity of its various ethnic groups. Gibbon’s metaphor of the cultural mosaic was elaborated in 1965, when sociologist John Porter published his book Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada, which criticized the class privilege enjoyed by people of British descent and the marginalization of other ethnic groups. (See also Vertical Mosaic.)

It was around this time that Canada began to accept increasing numbers of non-white immigrants. By the late 1960s, previous policies of racial discrimination in the immigration system had been rescinded, and in 1971, for the first time, the majority of new immigrants were of non-European ancestry — a precedent that has persisted ever since. The 2011 Canadian census recorded more than 200 different ethnic origins, including “Canadian.” According to the 2011 census, nearly 21 per cent of Canadians (6,775,800 people) were born outside the country, 93.5 per cent of that demographic is able to converse in an official language as well as their mother tongue.

Multiculturalism Policy in Canada

The federal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared its commitment to the principle of multiculturalism in 1971 and in so doing formalized a policy to protect and promote diversity, recognize the rights of Aboriginal peoples, and support the use of Canada’s two official languages. This led to the establishment in 1973 of the Ministry of Multiculturalism as well as the Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism.

The concept was again acknowledged in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982, which states that the Charter itself “shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” On 21 July 1988, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which formalized the government's commitment to "promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society" by establishing legislation to protect ethnic, racial, linguistic and religious diversity within Canadian society. Trudeau's declaration of Canada as a bilingual and multicultural nation resulted in an explosion of multicultural research. Publications and literature were developed, many national research surveys were launched, ethnic identity research escalated, and organizations were established to support diversity. Multiculturalism was celebrated as a new vision of Canadian identity, which would foster a global understanding of all ethnic communities.

Many programs, such as the Stop Racism campaign, were developed to address hate and bias in Canada, but more recent programs have shifted their focus to immigration issues and to the support of new arrivals, including assistance with professional accreditation and access to employment. Multiculturalism programs have also recognized the historic significance of certain ethnic groups by developing educational initiatives, such as school programs promoting Black History Month, which aims to educate young Canadians about the Black community and its history in Canada.

Multicultural policies in the 1970s did not meet the needs of all immigrants — especially with the increase of "visible minorities" — and were more closely aligned with long-established ethnic groups of European background. Nonetheless, the introduction of the term, and what has been called the multicultural movement, brought attention to the need for government policies to reflect the diversity of Canadian society.

The Public Response to Multiculturalism Policy

Government policies of multiculturalism have been viewed with hostility and suspicion by many. They have been viewed by some French Canadians as injurious to the French Canadian position as one of the two linguistic communities of which Canada is composed; some scholars decried them as a means of buttressing Anglo-Saxon dominance by diverting the efforts of the non-French and the non-English from political and economic affairs into cultural activities and excluding other ethnic groups from power and influence. Advocates from ethnic groups viewed multiculturalism policies as unacceptable substitutes for aid and many considered the policies and programs to be bribes for "the ethnic vote."

At times, hostility and suspicion toward multiculturalism resulted from ambiguities in policy statements, as subtle but necessary distinctions between cultural assimilation and structural integration were not always clearly articulated.

Public Discourse on Multiculturalism

Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor have been among the most influential Canadian thinkers on the subject of multiculturalism. Both work within a liberal framework, but at the same time critique and distance themselves from certain “difference-blind” elements of liberal thought in order to defend the application of special minority rights in certain exceptional circumstances, such as that of Québec.

In his 1995 book Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka develops a typology of minority rights, which includes self-government rights, special representation rights, and polyethnic rights (which he defines as legal and financial support for the protection of specific cultural practices). Kymlicka’s case for such special rights rests on three central arguments: the straightforward value of cultural diversity; what he calls the “equality argument” (the notion that without special protection, minority cultures are vulnerable to assimilation); and finally the role of historical agreements (such as historical agreements between the Crown and French Canada or Aboriginal communities). To that effect, he argues that it is important for policymakers to draw clear distinctions between national minorities and immigrant groups: “Immigrant groups are not ‘nations,’ and do not occupy homelands,” he writes, “Their distinctiveness is manifested primarily in their family lives and in voluntary associations, and is not inconsistent with their institutional integration.”

Taylor, in his 1994 essay “The Politics of Recognition,” takes a more philosophical and less policy-oriented approach, but like Kymlicka suggests that “liberalism can’t and shouldn’t claim complete neutrality.” Focusing on Québec, Taylor discusses two conflicting tendencies in the politics of equality: on the one hand the belief that people should be treated in equal and in therefore a difference-blind fashion; and on the other, the respect for cultural particularity. “The reproach the first makes to the second is just that it violates the principle of non-discrimination. The reproach the second makes to the first is that it negates identity by forcing people into a homogeneous mold that is untrue to them,” writes Taylor. Noting that difference-blindness is often promoted by the dominant culture, he adds, “Consequently, the supposedly fair and difference-blind society is […] in a subtle and unconscious way, itself highly discriminatory.” However, also like Kymlicka, Taylor declines to address the obstacles often faced by immigrants and only makes passing reference to Aboriginal peoples.