For someone like me, a European in favour of mass immigration but critical of multiculturalism, the Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizens’ that took place last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was both intriguing and  fascinating. The Foundation was set up in 2001 in memory of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a key architect of Canada’s multicultural policy. Its aim is to promote and fund research in the humanities and social sciences and, while not attached to any political party, the Foundation’s work is indelibly stamped with the liberal humanitarianism that many see as Trudeau’s principal political legacy and which, in many ways, has come to shape Canada’s self-definition. Multiculturalism, in this sense, is to Canada as the welfare state is to Britain.

Two themes seemed to run through ‘The Making of Citizens’ conference. The first was the belief that the debate between multiculturalism and its critics maps neatly on to the debate between those who favour immigration and those who are hostile to it; in other words, that those who oppose multiculturalism necessarily oppose immigration and that those who defend immigration can only do so by defending multiculturalism. The second theme was the insistence that Canadian multiculturalism is distinct from the European version, and suffers from none of the defects of the latter.

The first point is unquestionably false. In Germany, for example, multiculturalism developed as a means of denying citizenship to Turkish migrants. Turks had come to Germany originally as temporary ‘guestworkers’ but had subsequently become permanent residents, largely because Germany continued to need their labour. The German government, however, until the law was changed a decade ago, did not wish to grant citizenship, even to those of Turkish origin born in Germany. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep own culture, language and lifestyles.  Multiculturalism developed, in other words, not as a means of embracing immigration but as a way of keeping immigrants at arms’ length. In Britain, multiculturalism developed as part of the ‘twin track’ strategy on immigration: on the one hand the imposition of  increasingly restrictive immigration controls, initially designed specifically to exclude non-whites, and on the other, the creation of a social framework aimed at facilitating the integration of black and Asian communities into British society.

In Canada, too, the relationship between multiculturalism and immigration is far from straightforward. Historically, the policy developed as a way not of welcoming immigrants but of mitigating the impact of ‘biculturalism’ – the fracture and tensions between French and English speaking Canada. And, for all the insistence that Canada has a liberal immigration policy, Ottawa has in fact worked very hard to keep out the ‘wrong’ kind of immigrant. Canadian policy is largely about cherry picking middle class professionals and making it almost impossible for unskilled workers to cross the border. Little wonder that many European nations are now looking to Canada’s points system as a model for immigration control.

The second theme – about the distinctiveness of Canadian multiculturalism, and about its success in comparison to Europe – is, on the surface at least, more plausible.  Community relations in Canada have certainly remained relatively peaceful, and there has been far less of the violence and tensions found in Europe. I remain unconvinced, however, by the argument that all is rosy in Canadian multicultural garden for a number of reasons. Many of the problems in Europe to which Canadians often allude – inner city riots, for instance – are the products, not of multiculturalism, but of racism, though multiculturalism has certainly helped entrench old racial divisions and create new communal  antagonisms. Canada is no Utopia free of racial discrimination, nor of the tensions it generates. Moreover, the underlying problems with multicultural policies, problems that I have explored here and here and here and here and here and here, don’t vanish on crossing the Atlantic. Indeed, many of confrontations that have marked European multicultural tensions – such as over free speech issues or the wearing of the burqa – are present in Canadian society too.

One of my criticisms of multiculturalism, and of the debate around it, has been about the confusion of the lived experience of diversity and the policies enacted to manage that diversity, confusion, in other words, between a description of a society and a prescription for that society. A number of conference speakers suggested that Canadian multiculturalism amounts largely to a celebration of the lived experience of diversity, rather than the imposition of political policies. This seems to me unlikely for a number of reasons. First, because Canadian policy involves, as all multicultural policies must, a degree of prescription, and hence suffers, to some extent at least, from the problems that inevitably arise from all multicultural prescription – such as, for instance, the subcontracting out of political responsibility to so-called community leaders and the treating of individuals with a minority background as members of a group rather than simply as citizens.

Secondly, Canada, as I have already observed, does not have an open immigration policy but a highly restrictive one. The closed character of Canada’s immigration rules clearly impacts upon immigrants and potential immigrants. It also impacts upon Canada’s economic needs, which are often for the kinds of immigrants Canadian law deems socially unsuitable to be citizens. To get round this, businesses and both provincial and federal authorities are now drawing upon the services of hundreds of thousands of ‘temporary workers’.  Temporary migration has, indeed, become the biggest source of new labour in Canada -182,322 temporary workers entered the country in 2010, coming to be fruit pickers, labourers, factory workers, janitors, waiters and chambermaids. They have few rights, no access to the services available to other immigrants, and are excluded from permanent residency or citizenship. Sound familiar?

The irony is that just as European nations are looking to Canada’s points system as a way of restricting immigration, Canada is adopting the European policy of temporary immigration without rights or status to fill its economic needs. This suggests that the same kinds of problems that Europe has faced may well be in store for Canada, too.  It also suggests that when it comes to celebrating diversity, Canada has a highly restricted definition of the term.  It is the diversity of those who are ‘like us’, not in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of class and outlook.

All of which explains why I remain sceptical about the claims for the success of the Canadian model. I will write a proper post about this in due course. I will also, in the next couple of days, post my talk at the conference. In the meantime, my thanks to the Trudeau Foundation for inviting me to speak, for accepting my scepticism with good grace, for a thoroughly enjoyable event and for opening up this much needed debate.


  1. Yoke-Sum Wong

    We were always told/taught that Canada was a Mosaic society (not melting pot) and I remember one of the diagrams in some social science text book was actually a chess board (strategic yes). We use to joke about Heritage Days (a Multiculturalism fest) as celebrating ‘127 kinds of kebab day’. Your reading of Multiculturalism as ‘like us’ against not us’ is very appropriate. Bourdieu’s concept of Cultural Capital (despite my reservations of that concept) actually fits. It does become more ‘melting pot’ among some groups (education, and income-class based). In comparison to Canada, British immigration policies are very liberal. Immigration under the Brian Mulroney years when the ‘distinct society’ debate was most heated, was indeed very selective and favored business migrants but also very highly skilled workers, family and under a special category, caregivers. As an Albertan, and an immigrant to Canada, the West always viewed Ottawa with a little more caution. Of course PM Harper is the product of a party which has its roots in The Reform Party (and even Social Credit) of Alberta, and a time when the Lougheed premiership told Trudeau ‘Let the Eastern Bastards freeze in the dark’ during the big energy row. Multiculturalism in Britain, in my experience, really tries to lock you into your racial/ethnic category, and it gets worst as you travel further east into Continental Europe. That said, Canada’s Multiculturalism policy still stays distinct (though there are overlapping issues) from First Nations and Metis issues – and this is where discrimination is far, far worst. The language of ‘self-determination’ and ‘modernity’ becomes more complicated when compared to actual policy, and practice. Thank you for the post. It’s a very sharp reading of Canada. That said, I’ll still take Ice Hockey over football anytime.

  2. Serge

    In my humble opinion the question- why Canadian society has more harmonious community relations than many European countries- has not been answered in this post. Certainly there are some problems in Canadian society – which society does not have them? The point is whether these problems are less acute than in the nations on the other side of Atlantic; they should be evaluated in comparative context.

    If the city X has lower criminal rate than the city Y, it does not certainly mean that there is no crime in the city X at all; the city X could be a safer city but it cannot be completely immune from the crime. However, as I understood from reading the post if there are some problems in Canadian society than we can equate them to current problems that exist in Europe, without looking at the comparative size and the scope of the problems.

    Canada is one of the few developed countries whose residents still view immigration in the positive light, where 58 percent of respondents still support the country’s level of immigration. I live in Calgary and people of this city one of the largest in the country – elected mayor Naheed Nenshi who is Muslim. I do not remember this topic being brought up during the election campaign at all. While I know that there are some small cities in Europe that have minority mayors, I can hardly imagine that people of some large Finish city or large Swedish city, say Gothenburg, would elect a mayor Muslim or that if he was running for election, his religious affiliation would not be discussed.

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