Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Integration and Identity in Canada: The Importance of Multicultural Common Spaces

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Integration and Identity in Canada: The Importance of Multicultural Common Spaces

Article excerpt


If there is a single defining characteristic of Canada, it must be space or, rather, the enormity of space. Its land area (10 million km) is second only to Russia, while its population is a mere 32 million, which yields a density of 3.2 people per square kilometre. Compare this with Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people and a density of 46 persons per square km, or the United States, that has almost the same land area as Canada, but with ten times as many people. Thus, the immediate task for Canada was to construct a single nation-state in a sparsely populated territory that fronts on three oceans.

While the saga of physically linking Canada from coast to coast is an important pillar of Canadian history, our focus now is on the challenging task of creating a Canadian narrative that enables Canadians to see how people who inhabit this massive space came together as a nation over time. Philosophers of modernity agree that the ethos of a country in its laws and constitution greatly derive from its history and traditions, and, we might add, from its geography.

In this article, we argue that cultural pluralism and demographic multiculturalism are central to Canada's future (Wilson 1993). This is exemplified by the fact that Canadian identity and citizenship are constantly receiving attention from media, academia, and policy makers. Often the focus is on what Canadian identity is and how a person can "become Canadian" in a lived, rather than an official, sense. This paper suggests that the experience of common spaces, where Canadians of all backgrounds meet, contributes to the development of a strong sense of being Canadian and should, therefore, have greater influence on public policies designed to address the link between multicultural integration and shared Canadian identity.

Common spaces in Canada are defined as locations in time and space where visible and religious minorities and other Canadians meet and interact; such spaces are the foundation for creating and enhancing a strong Canadian identity. They are the vehicle through which a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-religious population develops synergies that are strong enough to lead to a collective national identity.

The cumulative result of shared experience is a common economic, social, and cultural demographic infrastructure, which leads to a shared sense of belonging. High levels of social capital have been linked to a variety of benefits, including economic growth, civic participation, and individual and community well-being. Belonging to a community involves participation and active involvement within a shared geographic space, without artificial barriers. Such multicultural common spaces naturally foster an evolving and organic Canadian identity, allowing visible and religious minorities to develop a sense of belonging to community based on lived experiences, rather than on abstract and often purely historical or symbolic notions of what it means to be Canadian.

What this means for public policies that might fall under the rubric of multiculturalism is that more attention needs to be paid to the bottom-up reality of identity formation, as it links directly to the lived experience of integration in Canada. Public policies seeking to create or foster greater degrees of social inclusion or equality of opportunity, for example, are normally based on indicators of the socio-economic reality that Canadians face. Attempts to nurture shared Canadian identity should be conceived of in this way as well. In other words, policies and programs intended to promote a so-called shared Canadian identity should be based on sufficient evidence and research information about the process of identity formation among groups and individuals who must interact and seek to become integrated within public or common spaces on a daily basis.

Amidst an international backlash against globallzing trends in trade and finance, culture, social policies, and political entities, where identity and belonging in individual countries are tested against the integration of peoples of different racial and cultural backgrounds, Canada remains an international model of demographic multiculturalism and linguistic duality, where a myriad of ethnic groups, Aboriginal peoples, and two official languages add to the diverse fabric of the country (Chong 2007). …

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