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Canadian Multiculturalism Policy, 1971

In a statement to the House of Commons on 8 October 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced multiculturalism as an official government policy. Multiculturalism was intended to preserve the cultural freedom of all individuals and provide recognition of the cultural contributions of diverse ethnic groups to Canadian society.

The policy of multiculturalism was implemented based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission was appointed in 1963 to examine the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to work towards developing an equal partnership between the British and French elements within the country. Commissioners were additionally instructed to consider the cultural contributions of other ethnic groups, but many cultural groups throughout Canada expressed concern that the latter part of the mandate was being ignored.[1] The commission addressed these concerns in their fourth and final report, recommending that minority groups be given greater recognition and support in preserving their cultures.[2]

The recommendations of the commission were adapted to become the government’s official policy of multiculturalism. In his speech to the House of Commons, Trudeau stated that no singular culture could define Canada and that the government accepted “the contention of other cultural communities that they, too, are essential elements in Canada.” A policy of multiculturalism was implemented to promote respect for cultural diversity and grant ethnic groups the right to preserve and develop their own cultures within Canadian society.

The government committed to support multiculturalism in four specific ways: assistance to cultural groups in their development and growth; assistance to members of cultural groups to overcome barriers to full participation in society; promotion of creative exchanges between cultural groups; and assistance to immigrants in learning French or English.[3] Despite its official endorsement of multiculturalism, the government did not support multilingualism. The Official Languages Act of 1969 defined English and French as Canada’s two official languages and the policy of multiculturalism was to be pursued within this bilingual framework.

The adoption of multiculturalism was partially motivated by political concerns. The Liberal’s traditional base of support in Quebec was being challenged by the rise of separatism and the party was looking to broaden its appeal. Trudeau hoped a policy of multiculturalism would assist the Liberal’s in winning votes from ethnic communities in Ontario and help appease the opposition to official bilingualism in Western Canada.[4]

Multiculturalism was largely a symbolic recognition of cultural diversity rather than a substantive change in government policy.[5] The government directed few resources towards the implementation of multicultural initiatives and it remained a marginal policy for many years. The ideals of multiculturalism were initially well-received although some criticized the policy for lacking substance and emphasizing the folkloric aspects of ethnic diversity without addressing the more immediate concerns of minority groups.[6] The province of Quebec specifically opposed multiculturalism, claiming that the promotion of cultural equality diminished the importance of the French and English contributions to Canadian Confederation.[7]

Library and Archives Canada. Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates, 28th Parliament, 3rd Session, Volume 8 (8 October 1971): 8545-8548, Appendix, 8580-8585.

  1. Sarah V. Wayland, “Immigration, Multiculturalism and National Identity in Canada,” International Journal of Group Rights 5, no. 1 (1997): 46-47.
  2. Freda Hawkins, Critical Years in Immigration: Canada and Australia Compared, 2nd ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 218; Michael Temelini “Multicultural Rights, Multicultural Virtues: A History Of Multiculturalism In Canada,” in Stephen Tierney, ed., Multiculturalism and the Canadian Constitution. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007, 43-60.
  3. Wayland, 47.
  4. Wayland, 47.
  5. Peter S. Li, “The Multiculturalism Debate,” in Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada, 2nd ed.,, ed. Peter S. Li (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999), 152.
  6. Wayland, 48.
  7. Hawkins, 221.