Ahead of the country celebrating it 150th anniversary next year, interesting insights will appear from the Canadian census on immigration and ethnic diversity this October. Since 1871, a question has been included on ethnic origin (although until 1951 it was referred to as racial origin). During the first half of the 20th century, most Canadians reported that they were either British or French. In 1986, some 69,000 persons wrote Canadian as their ethnic origin, an option which was not available on a list of examples provided by Statistics Canada.
With the diversification of newcomer source countries in the 1970s, the census of Canada reflected a growing number of ethnic attachments. Of the view that the multiplication of ethnic responses undercut newcomer attachment to Canada, in 1991, a group of Torontonians led a campaign asking people to write "Canadian" in the census question on ethnic origin.
Initially, the campaign seemed unsuccessful with over 700,000 Canadians -- mostly Ontarians -- declaring Canadian origin (that represented some three per cent of the Canadian population reporting only Canadian ethnicity, and one per cent doing so in combination with one or more other origins).
Nearly everyone who reported "Canadian" in 1996 had English or French as their first language, were born in Canada and had both parents born in Canada.
But that 700,000 made the number of ethnic Canadians the sixth most popular answer to the question, and thus in the next census it would appear sixth in order on the list of examples provided by Statistics Canada. As a result, some 5.3 million persons (a near majority of them in Quebec) reported their only ethnic origin as Canadian in the 1996 census, and another 3.5 million persons reported both Canadian and another origin. Together such responses represented some 31 per cent of the Canadian population.
Some observers saw this outcome as a victory for Canadian identity. However to argue that the census level of Canadian response strengthened national identity required that one overlook which Canadians responded in that way. Nearly everyone who reported "Canadian" in 1996 had English or French as their first language, were born in Canada and had both parents born in Canada.
A very small percentage of immigrants made "Canadian" part of their ethnic origin response. In regards the francophone respondents, surely some six months after the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty most francophone Quebecers did not affirm their sense of belonging to Canada by reporting that their ethnicity was "Canadien."
We owe it to the efforts of the very same individuals who regarded such multiple identities as a source of division.
By 2011, the number of persons declaring Canadian as their only ethnic origin was 5.8 million and 4.7 million reported Canadian along with another origin. In total, this represents nearly one in three Canadians. But if some 20 years later, the original objective of the campaign to get Canadians to say they were "just Canadian" hasn't been attained.
For one thing, some two in three Canadians don't make "Canadian" part of their response to the ethnic origin question. But more important, even amongst those who, in 2011, did offer such a response, some 45 per cent combined it with some other ethnic origin (it was 41 per cent that did so in 1996).
Amongst persons indicating they were third generation or more, about 41 per cent reported Canadian origin in combination with another ethnic origin. In the case of second-generation Canadians, some three in four of these children of immigrants responded in that way.
It all makes for a high percentage of individuals who can be described as "hyphenated Canadians," a term associated with dual and/or multiple expressions of identity alongside national identification. If hyphenated Canadian identities are now so important a part of our diverse ethnic landscape, we owe it to the efforts of the very same individuals who regarded such multiple identities as a source of division.
Paradoxically, their campaign carried a divisive message that risked valuing the ethnic Canadians over the non-ethnic ones. In the end, the architects of the campaign that sought to have the population declare that they were just Canadian unwittingly emerged as the champions of hyphenated identity.
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