Canadian Multiculturalism: Global Anxieties and Local Debates

By Banting, Keith; Kymlicka, Will | British Journal of Canadian Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Canadian Multiculturalism: Global Anxieties and Local Debates


Banting, Keith, Kymlicka, Will, British Journal of Canadian Studies


In much of the world, and particularly in Europe, there is a widespread perception that multiculturalism has failed, and Canada has not been immune to these rising global anxieties. A number of commentators have argued that smug complacency is blinding Canadians to growing evidence of stresses and failures in ethnic relations in their country. In this article, we explore this evolving debate. We briefly review the global backlash against multiculturalism, and why some commentators see warning signs in Canada as well. We then look at the evidence about how the multiculturalism policy in Canada operates, and about trends in immigrant integration and ethnic relations. We show that there are indeed stresses and strains within Canadian multiculturalism, with real issues that require serious attention. But we misdiagnose the problems, and their remedies, if we read the Canadian experience through the lens of the European debate.

IN MUCH OF THE WORLD, and particularly in Europe, there is a widespread perception that multiculturalism has failed, and that it is time to pull back from the approach, which has been taken too far. To some extent, Canada has bucked this trend; popular support for multiculturalism remains relatively strong, and none of the major national political parties is proposing to abolish or retreat from multiculturalism. Indeed, Canadians often exhibit general confidence about the state of ethnic relations in Canada when compared to the riots in Bradford, Paris and Sydney, or the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands. There is a general sense that the Canadian model of immigrant integration has been relatively successful, and that it needs only minor tinkering, not major U-turns.1

Yet Canada has not been immune to the rising global anxieties about multiculturalism. A number of commentators have argued that this smug complacency is blinding Canadians to growing evidence of stresses and failures in ethnic relations. According to these commentators, Canada too is 'sleepwalking towards segregation', to quote the now-famous phrase of Trevor Phillips in his critique of multiculturalism in the UK (Phillips 2005), and that the backlash against multiculturalism in Europe should serve as a wake-up call to Canadians.

In this article, we will explore this evolving debate. We will begin by briefly reviewing the global backlash against multiculturalism, and why some commentators see warning signs in Canada as well. We will then look more closely at the evidence about how multiculturalism policy in Canada operates, and about trends in immigrant integration and ethnic relations. We hope to show that while there are indeed stresses and strains within Canadian multiculturalism, we misdiagnose the problems, and their remedies, if we read the Canadian experience through the lens of the European debate.

The Global Context

According to many scholars, there has been a major shift in the general trends regarding immigrant integration in the western democracies, away from multiculturalism and towards social cohesion and integration. Whereas the 1970s and 1980s exhibited growing support for, and experimentation with, multiculturalism, the 1990s and 2000s have witnessed a backlash against it, and a retreat from it.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this retreat from multiculturalism is the Netherlands. It adopted perhaps the most ambitious set of multiculturalism policies in western Europe in the 1980s, yet in the 1990s it started to cut back on these policies, and then abandoned them almost entirely in the 2000s. Multiculturalism in the Netherlands has been replaced with fairly harsh and coercive 'civic integration' policies, which (to critics at least) appear to be indistinguishable from old-fashioned assimilation.2

The Dutch case is now widely viewed as the prototypical example of 'the failure of multiculturalism', and is cited in other European countries as grounds for retreating from their own multiculturalism policies, or for not adopting such policies in the first place. …

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