This year, 2021, is the 50th anniversary of Canada’s official multiculturalism policy, which Pierre Trudeau introduced in 1971.
Multiculturalism was introduced in part to respond to the criticisms of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission, which investigated language and social tensions in 1960s Canada. The Commission initially focused only on Canada’s Anglophone and Francophone "founding peoples." It was harshly criticized by Canadians of other backgrounds for implying their communities were "second-tier." The commission incorporated those criticisms into its report, which Trudeau used as the basis for his multiculturalism policies.
Since then, multiculturalism has been praised and criticized. Its supporters praise it for enabling people from all over the world to be Canadian on their own terms, and for recognizing the contributions they’ve made to Canadian society. Its critics reproach it for seemingly undermining immigrants’ ability to integrate into Canadian society, for undermining the founding status of Anglophones and Francophones (conflicting with English and French being official languages), and for treating Indigenous people as an "ordinary" ethnic group without Treaty rights.
Some critics advocate interculturalism as an alternative. Interculturalism states that there’s a majority in any given society that sets out things such as the common language and legal framework. It also recognizes the responsibilities of minorities to integrate into society, such as using the common language. However, interculturalism also recognizes that those minorities have rights of their own that the majority must respect, including the rights in some cases to use their own languages. Interculturalism, at its best, is an attempt to balance the concerns and rights of both the majority and the minorities, while also recognizing their responsibilities to each other.
Quebec has been one of the strongest advocates for interculturalism in recent years. The idea of Francophone Canada as one of the country’s "founding peoples" is very deeply rooted there. Many Franco-Quebecois are genuinely concerned about whether newcomers are integrating into mainstream society. However, Quebec’s language laws also make various exceptions for its Anglo-Quebecois minority, including their rights to be educated in English.
Interculturalism is most popular in Quebec right now, but I wonder if it couldn’t also apply to the rest of Canada, too. Many other Canadians have the same kind of concerns about newcomers integrating into society, including learning English. Other provinces’ Francophone minorities have had the same complaints as the Anglo-Quebecois about language rights. Many Indigenous people have made it crystal clear they won’t accept being treated as "just" Canadians. Newcomers across Canada work extremely hard to fit into society, including learning English and/or French, and deserve to have their efforts recognized.
Interculturalism could go a long way to addressing multiculturalism’s criticisms while keeping its positives. The founding statuses of Anglophone, Francophone, and Indigenous cultures would be formally recognized, but so would the fact that these cultures evolve as new people bring new influences from the rest of the world. Newcomers, regardless of skin colour, would have just as much right to call themselves Anglophone or Francophone Canadians as someone whose ancestors came here 300 years ago.
It might be just what Canadian unity needs.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.