CBC Digital Archives

True Canadians: Multiculturalism in Canada debated

In 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to declare multiculturalism as official state policy. The bold step charted the path to a vibrant and evolving cultural mosaic premised on mutual respect for Canadians of all backgrounds and ancestry. Yet the roots of multiculturalism in Canada can be seen in the country's earliest beginnings, as three founding cultures — aboriginal, British and French — were soon joined by many more from around the globe. Today, multiculturalism is a touchstone of Canadian national identity and a point of pride for Canadians from coast to coast to coast. The CBC Digital Archives recalls some of the struggles and triumphs along the way.

Over the more than 30 years since it was declared national policy in Canada, multiculturalism has meant different things to different people. For some, the mosaic of Canada's diversity means the freedom to invent, reinvent and innovate while drawing from a rich global cultural palate. For others, it has fostered a ghettoization of ethnic and linguistic groups. Still others see it as a policy yet to be taken seriously enough to challenge entrenched economic and institutional divisions. Treasured, controversial or a promise yet to be fulfilled -- multiculturalism remains a distinctly Canadian work-in-progress.
• Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rose in the House of Commons on Oct. 8, 1971 to accept all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission was charged with looking into how best to ensure wider recognition of the bicultural and bilingual quality of Canada. But in embracing the commission's advice to expand bilingualism, Trudeau noted that there ought not be one cultural policy for Canadians of French and British origin and another policy for everyone else. To this end, multiculturalism would henceforth be official state policy.

• Trudeau concluded his address that day by stating: "I wish to emphasize the view of the government that a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework is basically the conscious support of individual freedom of choice. We are free to be ourselves. But this cannot be left to chance. It must be fostered and pursued actively. If freedom of choice is in danger for some ethnic groups, it is in danger for all. It is the policy of this government to eliminate any such danger and to 'safeguard' this freedom."

• All three party leaders stood in reply and supported the government's new policy. The leader of the Official Opposition, Tory Robert Stanfield, said he was pleased with the declaration of this new principle acknowledging the complexity of Canadian identity, but expressed concern that the government had not acted quickly enough to implement it. NDP leader David Lewis expressed unreserved support for the policy, while Social Credit leader Réal Caouette applauded the announcement but maintained that he did not want to see it lead to a nation made up of a Little England, Little France, Little Italy and so on.

• For more on the commission's report, please visit the CBC Digital Archives topic The Road to Bilingualism.

Medium: Television
Program: Hot Type
Broadcast Date: Sept. 14, 2004
Guest(s): Jonathan Bernard, Michael Bliss, Stefan Cihelka, Prashant John, Sherene Razack, Mina Shum, Lan Tung
Host: Adrian Harewood
Duration: 42:35

Last updated: January 31, 2012

Page consulted on March 28, 2012

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