01/06/2016 03:36 EST | Updated 01/06/2017 05:12 EST

The Fading Case Against Canadian Multiculturalism

Nino H. Photography via Getty Images
Monument to multiculturalism - Union station

In pluralistic democracies like Canada, there is rarely agreement around the definition of Canadian identity. In part this is because there are several ways to express Canadian identity. Being Canadian can mean different things to different people. Therefore, it is probably more fitting to talk about Canadian cultures and identities in the plural. As such, it's perfectly normal for there to be continued conversation about "who we are" as a people(s).

Some observers insist upon the importance of defining "us" in some singular way so that newcomers know precisely into what they're being asked to integrate. Of course the process of adapting to a country so diverse as Canada makes this idea impractical.

Although the debate about who we are dates backs a few centuries, we need to go back to 1971 to comprehend the contemporary basis for this discussion. In that year, the government of Canada introduced the official multiculturalism policy. Canada was then described by Prime Minister Trudeau (Pierre-Elliot) as "multicultural within a bilingual framework" (the policy establishing English and French as our two official languages was adopted two years prior). The PM declared that Canada could have official languages but not official cultures.

Although the term multiculturalism has remained broadly popular, its application has been the object of ongoing controversy. At the center of the debate is the issue of whether identities are in inevitably in conflict. That, for example, individuals must choose between their ethnic attachments and their Canadian identity. This view is rejected by the Government of Canada's as its vision of multiculturalism states that "...all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry, and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of, diverse cultures...with no pressure to assimilate and give up their culture, immigrants freely choose their new citizenship because they want to be Canadians."

Several critics of multiculturalism will describe such views as naïve. They see identities in zero sum terms; the more attached to country of origin or ethnic community, the less invested you will be in the "Canadian experience." Supporters of multiculturalism counter that multiple identities are inevitable and their acceptance strengthens rather than weakens attachment to Canada.

Over the past few decades there have been several efforts to provide some empirical basis for whether acknowledging multiple identities supports or detracts from our sense of belonging to the country. Analysts' preferred method for measuring identity often depends upon what stand they take in debates about multiculturalism. Multicultural supporters prefer weighing identities on a scale by asking about the level of attachment or belonging to various expressions of identity (i.e. are you very attached, somewhat attached, not very attached or not attached at all to to Canada, your province, your religion, your ethnic group, etc.).

For their part, certain detractors like to structure survey questions that force respondents to choose between identities by asking that they be ranked in order of importance (i.e. which of the following is most important: your nation, province, ethnic and/or religious group). By that logic, if Jews and Muslims put their religion before their country in such a survey, they presumably offer evidence of the failure of multiculturalism even if they indicate a strong sense of attachment to Canada.

Recently released data from the 2013 General Social Survey of Statistics Canada deals a rather serious blow to the critics of multiculturalism ( Of those Canadians reporting a very strong sense of belonging to "people with same ethnic/cultural background" approximately eight in ten report a strong sense of belonging to Canada compared with just over five in ten of those reporting a weak sense of belonging to "people with same ethnic/cultural background" reporting a strong sense of belonging. It's worth noting those immigrants and the Canadian born population surveyed report similar levels of belonging to Canada while possessing a very strong sense of belonging to "people with the same ethnic/cultural background"

With relatively limited data to back their view, critics of multiculturalism point to unacceptable acts committed by individuals identifying with specific groups as proof positive that Canadian multiculturalism is a serious problem. Too often the criticism is reduced to so-called evidence that is little more than some combination of generalizations, stereotypes, anecdotes, and assumptions. The net outcome is to undercut an otherwise legitimate debate about the role of governments in support of identities.

Jack Jedwab is Chair of the National Metropolis Conference on Immigration and Integration. The 18th edition of the Conference entitled "Getting Results: Migration, Opportunities and Good Governance" will be held at the Westin Harbor Front in Toronto between March 3rd and March 5th, 2016.