It is incorrect to state that Canada lacks a melting pot tradition. It arose and gained support at the time a similar tradition was explicitly formulated in the U.S. Its continuity can be traced through John Diefenbaker’s notion of “One Canada” to Preston Manning’s Reform Party. Manning’s view of bilingualism and multiculturalism as special privileges for distinct groups is strikingly reminiscent of Dalton McCarthy’s Equal Rights movement …

Apart from French Canada, two other forces have reinforced the Canadian mosaic. The first was the fact that Canadians of British ancestry wished to retain their British roots and traditions. Not really wishing to become unhyphenated Canadians themselves, they had difficulty persuading others to do so. British Canadians would not trade the rights of Englishmen for the rights of man, or the reflected glories of the Empire for a Canadian identity that might have included their fellow Canadians. The second force was anti-Americanism, as the sociologist S.D. Clark has explained most clearly. In 1950, Clark noted that the frontier had served as a melting pot in both North American countries but that Canadian elites had resisted this tendency so as to preserve the colonial character of Canadian society1 …

In sum, the legacy of Canadian history and the complex character of Canadian society prevented either the melting pot or the mosaic philosophy from gaining hegemony. The former was strong in provincial politics and in populist movements. The latter reigned supreme in Quebec and dominated the two major parties at the federal level, Diefenbaker notwithstanding. The Liberals’ early espousal of a melting pot philosophy came to an end as the populist roots of that party withered away under Laurier’s leadership.

Meanwhile, south of the border, by 1963 two noted students of American ethnicity maintained that the melting pot theory was no longer useful or credible, if it ever had been. In Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded that ethnicity had persisted in the U.S. and seemed likely to do so indefinitely, reinforced by race and religion. By the time the second edition appeared in 1970, evidence had accumulated to prove them right.

Multiculturalism: Trudeau’s invention

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which seemed to mark the triumph of Henri Bourassa’s vision of an equal partnership between two founding peoples, actually contributed to its disintegration. Its public hearings encountered considerable resistance to the notion of English-French duality. The Commission was forced to devote an entire volume of its report to “the contributions of other ethnic groups” in an effort to preserve its own legitimacy. One result of its efforts was to turn French Canadians and “other ethnics,” traditionally allies against the melting pot tendencies of English Canada, into adversaries. The more sophisticated opponents of Quebec nationalism saw their opportunity.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau borrowed from his favourite philosopher, Lord Acton, the idea that a truly liberal state should not be dominated by one ethnic group because it will use its power to oppress other groups and provoke a reactive nationalism on their part. Trudeau viewed French Canadian nationalism, which tried to use the Quebec government for nationalist ends, as a reaction against British Canadian nationalism, which had tried to use the colonial state, and later the federal state, for nationalist ends. But if one group is a majority, how can it be prevented from dominating?

The answer is to have no majority. If no group is large enough to dominate, government will have to be based on compromise, and the evils of “nationalism” will be avoided. (English Canadians were slow to realize that when Trudeau denounced “nationalism,” he meant loyalty to an ethnic group, not loyalty to the state. The different meanings of nation in the two languages caused considerable confusion.)

Official multiculturalism, a policy first proclaimed by Trudeau in the House of Commons on October 8, 1971, thus served several related purposes. It was a quid pro quo to “other ethnics” for the 1969 Official Languages Act. It was a reminder to Quebec nationalists that the French were only one of several ethnic groups. It was a warning against any effort by Quebec to create its own melting pot, an effort already urged by many nationalists (and undertaken a few years later with Bill 101). Finally, multiculturalism was intended to ensure that the Canadian state would never again be an instrument of British Canadian nationalism by dissolving “English Canada” into a congeries of different ethnic groups. If there was no majority, according to this Actonian reasoning, French Canada did not have to worry about being a minority. In a sense multiculturalism was an updated version of the British imperial policy of divide and rule.

Multiculturalism was quickly endorsed by the opposition parties and soon adopted as policy by several of the provinces, with the conspicuous exception of Quebec. One reason for its rapid acceptance was its apparent resemblance to the more familiar notion of the Canadian mosaic. Another was its un-American symbolism, at a time when anti-Americanism in Canada was especially high. Still another was that most non-French Canadians preferred multiculturalism to equal partnership between French and English, including those who would have preferred a more “British” definition of the country. Significantly, the popularity of the concept only began to decline after non-white and non-European groups replaced the Italians and Ukrainians as its most obvious beneficiaries, and the Mulroney government shifted the focus of multiculturalism policy from the dubious notion of encouraging cultural differences to the more praiseworthy objective of combating racism.

Meanwhile, multiculturalism had been entrenched in Canada’s constitution. Section 27 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms directs that “this Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” In his statement of October 8, 1971, Trudeau asserted that in Canada “there is no official culture.” If it is true, this statement apparently does not have a meaning analogous to the statement that in the U.S. there is no official religion. While the U.S. government avoids any involvement in religion, even to the point of refusing to take note of it in the census, the Canadian government is heavily involved in culture, to the tune of more than $1.5 billion annually. Indeed, if there is no official culture, why have a policy? Presumably because the market cannot be counted upon to produce the results that Lord Acton would have preferred.

An even more serious contradiction concerns the concepts of individual and collective rights. In Trudeau’s political thought individual rights have always been of primordial importance, and collective rights viewed with suspicion. Multiculturalism was valued because it allegedly made individual rights more secure, not as an end in itself. Yet multiculturalism, if taken seriously, has undeniable collectivist implications.

These collectivist implications have surfaced most clearly, and most ominously, in the form of demands by various ethnic groups for symbolic and even financial compensation for past wrongs allegedly perpetrated by the Canadian state. First it was the Japanese Canadians protesting against their internment and resettlement during the Second World War. When the government capitulated to their demand for apology and compensation, Chinese Canadians demanded similar redress for a tax on Chinese immigration imposed a century earlier. Then Italian Canadians demanded compensation for the internment of suspected fascists (about 1 per cent of the Italian-Canadian population) during the Second World War. After Mulroney apologized for that episode, Ukrainian Canadians demanded compensation for the internment, during the First World War, of some of their ancestors who had emigrated from Austria-Hungary. Even a group of Franco-Ontarians is trying to take the government of Ontario to court for “cultural genocide.” Note that in the nature of collective rights, no injury to actual living persons need be claimed, much less proved.

Even the most vehement supporters of official multiculturalism are beginning to resist the financial implications of such demands. In December 1994, one week after denouncing Neil Bissoondath’s critique of multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone, Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Trudeau’s successor as Mount Royal MP, announced that the government would no longer consider financial redress for any wrongs inflicted on ethnic groups by previous governments. The government, she said, could not rewrite history. Spokesmen for the Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian ethnic lobbies reacted angrily.

The pot that didn’t melt

While all this has been going on in Canada, there have been parallel developments in the U.S. The word multiculturalism has surfaced also to become a subject of great controversy. As in so many other respects, the two countries appear to be converging, even as Canadians turn a blind eye to the fact and insist on their own distinctiveness.

The publication of Beyond the Melting Pot in 1963 coincided with the end of an era in U.S. ethnic relations. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his campaign for Afro-American civil rights to Birmingham, Alabama, and President Kennedy brought civil rights to centre stage in his administration. Kennedy’s civil rights legislation would be adopted in the following year, and Johnson’s Voting Rights Act a year later. Increasingly, however, Afro-American militants replaced the original goals of “integration” and “civil rights” by “Black Power,” collective rights and quasi-separatism. They contended that Afro-Americans would continue to be, as they always had been, excluded from the melting pot, that integration would, at best, benefit a relatively small black middle class. Instead, they emphasized their African “roots” and alleged cultural distinctiveness vis-à-vis white America …

Perhaps the most significant developments in ethnic relations in the U.S. involved the so-called “Hispanic” population. Like the Canadian term francophone, Hispanic is a generic term covering a number of distinct groups, which include Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and the indigenous “Chicano” element in the southwest which predates the acquisition of the territory from Mexico in 1845. Largely because of rising immigration, legal and otherwise, “Hispanics” are increasing much more rapidly than the population as a whole. Following the example of Afro-Americans, they have come to expect a proportionate share of political appointments and nominations and of access to education and opportunity. Perhaps more ominous demands include bilingual or Spanish-language education, which already exists in some areas, and the availability of Spanish-language services from all three levels of government.

The erosion of the melting pot concept has also been reflected in the census. The 1970 census was the first to attempt to determine the total number of “Hispanics,” although Mexicans had been counted separately since 1930. In 1980, the U.S. census for the first time followed Canada’s example of asking ethnic origin.

Even the expression multiculturalism has entered the American vocabulary, although with no acknowledgement of its Canadian origins. Jesse Jackson in his attempt to build a “rainbow coalition” was perhaps the first prominent politician to use the term, but since that time it has become generally familiar. On the other hand, the term melting pot has largely acquired connotations of forced assimilation or even racism and is rarely used by Americans except in a hostile or ironic sense. Bilingual education, which was widespread before the First World War, has been revived in many states and been subsidized by the federal government since 1968 …

In actual fact there has probably been more resentment among Afro-Americans than among Euro-Americans against the new multiculturalism. Increasing emphasis on the goals of Hispanic Americans has tended to deflect attention away from the still unresolved problems of Afro-Americans. The social and economic progress of some relatively recent immigrants, as contrasted with African Americans, has not failed to attract attention. (Canadians may recall the reaction in Quebec when the Dunton-Laurendeau commission revealed the fact that French Canadians ranked near the bottom among ethnic groups in average income.) Resentment seems to focus specifically on certain immigrant groups, notably the Koreans who often operate small stores and other businesses in neighbourhoods with large Afro-American populations.

Increasingly ethnicity in American life is being defined as a zero-sum game between Euro-Americans, Afro-Americans, Asian Americans and “Hispanics.” (The fact that the last of these is a linguistic rather than a racial classification and thus overlaps with the others is usually disregarded.) Jesse Jackson notwithstanding, the rainbow coalition is a long way off.

Where do we go from here?

Clearly the two North American federations have far more in common so far as ethnicity and ethnic politics are concerned than the traditional stereotypes would suggest. The ideological partition of the continent in 1783, and the fact that French was originally, and rather ironically, the predominant language on the “British” side of the new boundary, led to some significant differences, differences sustained by the fact that Canada encouraged large-scale immigration from continental Europe during most of the period when the U.S. restricted it under the quota system. But developments since the 1960s have caused the two countries to converge.

The Quiet Revolution in Quebec and the civil rights revolution in the southern states gave ethnic questions a prominent place on the political agenda at the same time as the increasing weight of immigrants of non-European background altered the ethnic composition of the cities of both countries. The result has been increased emphasis on ethnicity and friction between the traditionally contending groups: English and French in Canada, Whites and Blacks in the U.S. French Canadians and Afro-Americans have on balance been more hurt than helped by the new emphasis on the problems and objectives of immigrant groups.

A recent study by two of Canada’s leading sociologists presents strong evidence of convergence, undermining the contrasting stereotypes of melting pot and mosaic.2 Jeffrey G. Reitz and Raymond Breton examined attitudes toward the retention of minority cultures, the degree to which minorities actually retain their cultures, the extent of prejudice and discrimination, and the incorporation of ethnic minorities in the economy. They found few significant differences between Canadians and Americans. Furthermore, one that they did find contradicts the stereotype: Americans were more supportive of cultural retention by minorities than Canadians, not less.

Some significant differences remain. Quebec has no counterpart in the American federation, although this could change in the long term if one or more southwestern states become predominantly Spanish-speaking. And Canada, largely because of its determination to resist absorption by the U.S., has a much stronger tradition of involvement by the state in “culture.” But these do not constitute a valid reason why “multiculturalism” should assume such a prominent place in the symbolic order of Canada as it has assumed recently.

In reality, multiculturalism does not in fact distinguish Canada from the U.S., it causes anxiety in Quebec and increasing resentment in anglophone Canada, and it is a highly questionable blessing for ethnic minorities, as Neil Bissoondath, among others, has recognized. For most of them, individual opportunity and participation in the mainstream of Canadian life are higher priorities than collective “rights” to cultural retention and the refighting of historical controversies.

Given the difficulties of the amending process, Section 27 can probably not be removed from the Charter. There are other ways in which Canada can retreat from its ill-advised policy of official multiculturalism. The Mulroney government moved in the right direction by downsizing the Ministry of State for Multiculturalism and shifting from cultural retention toward combating racism. Cultural assimilation and equal opportunities for all are in the long run the best defences against racism.

Another desirable step would be to eliminate the ethnic question from the Canadian census, while retaining the questions dealing with language. The ethnic question originally had the primary purpose of measuring the weight of the francophone minority but the language questions now do so in a more accurate and acceptable manner. The accuracy and reliability of the ethnic data have always been questionable, and since they do not measure the degree of assimilation they are largely irrelevant in any event. Their chief consequence is to encourage inflated claims by various “ethnic” lobbies as to the number of people they allegedly represent. In the last Canadian census more than 765,000 persons, mainly in Ontario, defied the instructions on the form and wrote in their ethnic origin as “Canadian.” Where is John Diefenbaker now that we need him?

Canada, to its credit, is a land of immigration, as is the United States. However, immigrant-receptive polities work best when the natural process of integration into the community is allowed to take its course. Ethnic diversity caused by immigration is very different from ethnic diversity caused by territorial expansion, like that of the former Soviet Union and (Lord Acton’s favourite example) the Austro-Hungarian empire.

“Multiculturalism” is a dysfunctional symbol and a misguided policy insofar as it blurs this fundamental distinction. It is time to let Lord Acton rest in peace.


1 S. D. Clark, The Developing Canadian Community (2nd edition; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) pp. 195-196.

2 Jeffrey G. Reitz and Raymond Breton, The Illusion of Difference: Realities of Ethnicity in Canada and the United States (Toronto: C.D. Howe, 1994).