Pluralism and Democracy

A Hindu wedding procession strolls along the Rideau River, with the Parliament buildings in the background (courtesy Corel Professional Photos).

Pluralism (also known as multiculturalism) is an important value in Canada. It is based on the recognition that there can be unity and strength through diversity, and that each individual is equal and has a right to participate as a full member of society. Throughout the country’s history, the accommodation of regional, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity has been a priority, and values such as freedom, democracy and human rights have been addressed through an ongoing dialogue among different cultures and communities.

Canada: A Pluralist Society

It can be said that Canada has always been a pluralist society; even before the arrival of Europeans, many different cultural and linguistic Aboriginal groups inhabited the country. European settlers added to this diversity, as did the many cultural groups that immigrated to Canada on a large scale after the Second World War. From the beginning, it has been difficult to define Canada based on its homogeneity or a national identity, since diversity is what truly characterizes it.

The debate over Québec’s place in Canada in the 1960s led the government to make an important change in legislation in 1971, and Canada became the first country in the world to declare multiculturalism as a state policy. Multiculturalism goes hand in hand with democracy, since the principles of equality and freedom characterize both. Pluralism in Canada is rooted in laws, institutions and policies that promote the participation of all people in society. Canada is not a cultural “melting pot”; people are encouraged to retain their cultural, linguistic and religious heritage.

Immigration and Democratic Principles

Today, Canada has the highest immigration rate in the world and counts over 200 ethno-cultural communities, including many with an Asian cultural background. Most Asian immigrants came to Canada after the Second World War, as restrictions against Asian immigration were lifted after more than two decades of exclusion. From the time they first began arriving in the 19th century through much of the first half of the 20th century, most Canadians of Asian ancestry were denied the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. With the extension of the federal franchise to Japanese Canadians in 1948, the last statutory disenfranchisement of Asians was removed. Canadians of Asian ancestry now represent 11% of the Canadian population; they are the country’s largest minority group and the fastest growing. They have contributed much to Canada in terms of history, economy and culture, and they are also changing the face of large cities, such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal, where they mostly concentrate.

Pluralism in Canada does not come without some problems. Many immigrants or their children, for example, feel that they face racism and prejudice. Although respect for other cultures’ traditions and customs is a core value of pluralism, there are inevitably some clashes of views held by different groups, which are sometimes opposed and difficult to conciliate in a democratic society. This is particularly true for beliefs and practices pertaining to religion. Racially-related crime (gang wars, for example) is also part of the Canadian reality. Moreover, immigrants to Canada, even second- or third-generation, often maintain close ties to their mother-culture and struggle to find a balance between what may appear as two competing cultural identities. Some feel alienated from their true identity in different contexts, such as in school, where the curriculum may not address issues pertaining to their own culture or history.

True pluralism and democracy remain as Canadian ideals, and more dialogue, understanding and compromise will certainly be necessary for these values to become stronger and unite Canadians of all cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, Canada’s pluralism remains an example and a source of inspiration for the rest of the world. In 2006, the Global Centre for Pluralism was established in Ottawa because Canada is considered one of the most successful pluralist societies in the world and it knows well how to manage its own diversity.

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