Multiculturalism and hyphenated-Canadians

Last month we introduced Barcelona to some new-found Canadian friends. Ron and his son Jordan live in Toronto but Ron was doing some work in Dublin and Jordan came to visit during his spring break. Ron and I had some long conversations about the issue of immigration here (Europe) and we couldn’t help but compare it with what we see in Canada and what we hear about in the US.

First there’s the issue of how the government deals with the issue of immigration and how that reflects on people’s perceptions of it. In very general terms, in Europe it seems immigration is perceived as a recent problem that needs to be controlled or corrected somehow. It’s always on politicians’ agendas, along things like crime, accessible housing, and pensions. In Canada, it’s more of a solution to a problem. Canadians are fully aware that their country is underpopulated and with a low birthrate it seems it would shrink more and more. The solution? Allow hundreds of thousands of skilled immigrants in every year.

Now, here’s the key. Because the Canadian government sees it as good thing in the long run and an investment, it actively sells the idea of immigration as being positive for the country as a whole. The government and to a large extent Canadians as a whole fully embrace the idea of multiculturalism. They also make no difference between a Canadian born in Canada and a Canadian who became so after immigrating to the country. Immigrants are also not so clearly ghettoized as in the US. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act says:

Government of Canada recognizes the diversity of Canadians as regards race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society and is committed to a policy of multiculturalism designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada

furthermore the act determines that:

(1) It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to

(a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;

(b) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future;

(c) 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 and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation;

(d) recognize the existence of communities whose members share a common origin and their historic contribution to Canadian society, and enhance their development;

(e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;

(f) encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be both respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character;

(g) promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins;

(h) foster the recognition and appreciation of the diverse cultures of Canadian society and promote the reflection and the evolving expressions of those cultures;

(i) preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada; and

(j) advance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada.

Federal institutions

(2) It is further declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada that all federal institutions shall

(a) ensure that Canadians of all origins have an equal opportunity to obtain employment and advancement in those institutions;

(b) promote policies, programs and practices that enhance the ability of individuals and communities of all origins to contribute to the continuing evolution of Canada;

(c) promote policies, programs and practices that enhance the understanding of and respect for the diversity of the members of Canadian society;

(d) collect statistical data in order to enable the development of policies, programs and practices that are sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada;

(e) make use, as appropriate, of the language skills and cultural understanding of individuals of all origins; and

(f) generally, carry on their activities in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada.

You can read the full text here.

I’ve witnessed many of this policies be put in practice. The city of Toronto, for example, spends a lot promoting festivals from other cultures such as Mexican Independence Day, Caribana (a Caribbean street festival), Black History month, Asian Heritage month, etc… Parents are encouraged to speak their native language with their children so the child can be bilingual or multilingual.

One of the things Ron mentioned that I never thought of was the difference between hyphenated Americans and hyphenated Canadians. In the US, there’s usually a negative connotation to terms like African-American, Native-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American. The ideal is to be just American. With no other word attached to it by a hyphen. In Canada, on the other hand, we are all hyphenated Canadians. Even the original white settlers are known as either English-Canadians or French-Canadians. So the hyphen might denote the country of origin – like Italian-Canadian or Iranian-Canadian – but it doesn’t really bring along any negative connotations (I don’t usually hear the hyphens associated with racial terms).

The way people and government have embraced multiculturalism is one of the things I love most about Canada. I think it’s only through initiatives like these and improved education about the positive outcome of interaction with other cultures that we might hope to end discrimination one day.

In the end, we are all canucks, we all complain about the weather and dream of retiring some place warm ;)


Today is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.


Disclaimer: this is not an indepth comparative essay of immigration policies in Canada, USA and Europe. I´m well aware that the immigration system in Canada is not fail-proof. There are anti-immigration groups, unscrupulous immigration lawyers, and the customs of recently arrived immigrants are not always respected. My point is that immigration is perceived as a positive thing and conceived as an intrinsical part of Canadian identity, which leads to a more harmonious process and increased tolerance.

Author: guerson

Food-obsessed historian and knitter.

10 thoughts on “Multiculturalism and hyphenated-Canadians”

  1. One of many recent stories in the Toronto Star today tells how a highly educated family (award winning journalists in their home country) is struggling to get by on a 23000 year income (two schoolgoing kids, living in small 1 bedroom appartment!) because they do not get hired on jobs at their level of education in Canada.

    All around me in Toronto: why are most people in the low-pay jobs (cleaning etc) black or hispanic?

    This week in the newspaper: why did my eye catch a new campaign with advertisements saying “if Canada is a land of opportunity, why is a professor driving a cab?”. (What’s that? Professors are driving cabs?)

    Why does my friend from India tell me he experiences racism on a very frequent basis in Toronto?

    The acts and policies that you post here are certainly something admirable and something to aim for in a society. However, does this policy fully reflect reality in Toronto? Words are not always put into action and I think one should be realistic, stay alert, look around, and stay critical.

    The multiculturalism in Toronto is one of the things I like it for. Every day it amazes me how well people from all the different backgrounds live together. I respect that, and very much enjoy being part of it. However, unlike you, I do not get the impression that all these people from different backgrounds had or have truly equal opportunities (yet!)

    As for the comparison between immigration issues in Europe and Canada, I would like to ask, can you really make that simplistic a comparison as you do here? What for example if you live in a OVERpopulated, or at least very densely populated country, instead of an underpopulated country? How would you manage the income of new immigrants and at the same time keep up your image of being the most tolerant and liberal country of Europe? Are solutions as simple as you suggest?

    I would love to discuss this more in depth with you, however not on a blog. I much prefer a proper face to face dialogue. Therefore, looking very much forward to seeing you again in Toronto. We will have lots to talk about. But first, I wish you and Alan a fully enjoyable time left in Spain! HD

  2. I suppose that one can find failure in any system, after all we are human.
    Jackie, a friend from India, has just returned after a 3 month holiday there. She mentioned that she had met a lot of Indians on vacation who live in Canada. These people had nothing but praise for Canada.
    We all acknowledge a problem with regulated professions and matching immigrants to where the jobs are. I would like to point out that the government is aware of this problem and is actively seeking solutions.
    European attitudes are the way they are (and I have experienced them even here in Spain) because of the government’s approach to immigration and how they classify the issue.
    There are problems everywhere but I think the basic point Alex is trying to make is the different perceptions of these issues and how they are approached.
    I think if it was so bad in Canada, we would not have the harmony that exists today.

  3. Hello Heidi!

    The post isn’t supposed to be an academic treatise and so, of course it’s simplistic. But I don’t think population is a good criteria to evaluate European and Canadian response to immigration. I mean, sure, Canada is underpopulated but that’s because most of the country isn’t fit for living. The fact is, MOST immigrants go to a very few cities – Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Calgary. Of course, the problem is that Europe is an emigrant continent, not an immigrant one and they have had to adapt to the new phenomena of people coming in from all parts of the world.

    But the point isn’t Europe, the point is Canada. Every Canadian knows there are flaws in the system. After all, you can’t have hundreds of thousands of people come in every year and not have these kinds of problems. There are endless discussions about how to best connect recently-arrived immigrants to decent jobs. The government has been putting pressure on regulated professions (healthcare workers, engineers, etc) to ease their requirements so we can fill in the gaps with skilled immigrants. Like one Brazilian couple preparing to immigrate said recently, they know no one will be waiting for them at the airport with a job offer. They also know they’ll have to survive months without a job and that they won’t start at the same level they were in Brazil. Often they have to work almost for free just to get canadian experience before they can get a job they are happy with.

    As for professors driving cabs – Im sure there are lots of canadian professors driving cabs, after all, Academic jobs are not easy to get. They are few and far between and even I am thinking of alternative plans in case I don’t get a job, but that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m an immigrant.

    Like you said, maybe not everybody have truly equal opportunity yet. Immigration only became this open in the 1960s and numbers only increased greatly in recent decades. Thats less than a generation. But the fact that so many cultures can live side by side without being segregated and without violence means that something is being done right.

    Sure, you can focus on the hispanic person working as a cashier or cleaning job. But we don’t know how that person got there, what her qualifications are, etc. All I know is that I turn on the tv and I see an Indian presenting the main news on canada’s national television (CBC) and I see immigrants reaching the position of governor general of Canada or being able to work at any level of government.

    Of course there are problems, and that’s why when I get back to Toronto I want to volunteer as a mentor for new immigrants.

    Please, don’t take anything I said personally. This is not against Europe, it’s merely my own reflections about my own experience in canada, a country that has supported me more in the past 7 years than my own country in a lifetime.

  4. Here´s the association Gen mentioned to me, where I can volunteer:
    They work to improve access to employment for immigrants in Toronto and the region around it. From what I´ve been reading in blogs of recent Brazilian immigrants to Canada, there are tons os associations like this in Toronto.

  5. The words multiculturalism and tolerance are so different…Tolerance, in my opinion, is associated to a bad thing. I don´t want them to be tolerant when i am living there. Multiculturalism has a very delicate balance…they need us, so they are multicultural. And tolerant. Sometimes i think it is just propaganda, but i have to live there to know and feel this issue.

    I just listened to a CBC podcast…called ideas…they are now showing a talk about this. “The trouble with tolerance”. The show itself is very good and i recommend. 3 episodes…1 hour each.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    I really don’t think multiculturalism is just an ideal here. It has become reality and an idea embraced by the majority of Canadians. Of course, as anything that is relatively new, it has its problems and bits that need to be improved.

    I’m going to check the show you mentioned. The Ideas program on CBC Radio is indeed very good!

  7. I think too, that the idea of the United States as a melting pot really varies from area to area (as the idea of multiculturalism in Canada does too). Here in El Paso, being right on the border, celebrations that take place in Mexico are equally celebrated here. The Dia de los Muertos, a major holiday in Mexico, saw altars of all kinds set up across El Paso as well as various other parties etc. Here being Mexican-American is a source of pride and people celebrate their heritage all over the place. I saw the same thing when I was in Miami with Cubans. I think perhaps the rhetoric of immigration in the U.S. may be geared towards making people “American” full stop. But the reality is much more complex and depends region by region.

  8. Dana,

    I think that’s precisely why it causes so much pain and conflict in the US – the fact that the rhetoric is so distant from reality in a lot of cases. I’m beginning to think also that a strong nationalism goes against being more accepting of differences and peoples of other cultures. If you think that your nation and people are the best in the world, then it would follow more or less naturally that other people who do not belong to your nation and people are inferior. Canadians themselves sometimes worry that their lack of a strong sense of nationalism, of a strong Canadian identity, is a major flaw in their society but I think it actually allowed Canada and Canadians to adapt to the new reality of mass immigration and multiculturalism (which I agree is not the same across the country).
    Canada has now began to export some of its ideas of integration and multiculturalism. My friend Gen worked for an NGO in Toronto that funded all sorts of organizations that dealt with easing the immigrants’ integration into the Canadian workforce (e.g. and she’s now on her way to New Zealand to help establish a regional immigrant employment council (programs thru which to better settle and integrate skilled immigrants into the economy, modeled on the Canadian one) in Auckland.

  9. Oi Alexandra,
    Obrigada pela visita no Era e pelos elogios! Fico feliz em saber que o blog, que começou mais pela minha paixão em escrever e manter meus pais atualizados sobre as minhas peripécias por aqui, está agradando quem lê. E o que você mencionou é bem verdade, além de muita gente generalizar tudo não levam em conta a personalidade que varia de pessoa para pessoa e vc e seu marido são um exemplo disso né?

  10. Let me introduce you to a truly patriotic Canadian project that invites participation from all age groups and ethnic backgrounds. The Canadian Unity Travel Club enables Canadians to inexpensively explore regions of Canada that are off the beaten path to tourists and to experience the warm hospitality of rural Canada.

    The new blog Proud2bCanadian provides a friendly communication gateway for all ethno cultural visible minorities and Anglphone/Francophone Canadians to speak to one another. Check it out.

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