Multiculturalism as Foreign Policy

The World in Canada Part 2

by Alidad Mafinezam

To grasp the place of multiculturalism in Canada’s foreign policy, the concept’s history bears revisiting. The seeds of Canada’s current achievements were sown in the 1960s and early 1970s by the successive Liberal governments of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, who also charted, for the first time, a unique and independent foreign policy for Canada. During the five years of the Pearson government, from 1963 to 1968, Parliament achieved formative, nation-defining breakthroughs by instituting the Maple Leaf as Canada’s flag, the Canada Pension Plan and publicly funded and universal medical care, which was later enshrined in the Canada Health Act, as well as student loans to make higher education more accessible. These achievements coincided with the adoption of bilingualism and non-discriminatory and “colour-blind” immigration policies. The birth of this new Canada, personifying what Trudeau conceived as the “Just Society,” was thus inseparable from the recognition of the cultural rights and freedoms of all Canadians. An accepting attitude toward newcomers and diversity has been woven into the country’s national self-definition for more than three decades.

The policy of multiculturalism, announced by Trudeau in 1971, grew out of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which Pearson’s government had spawned in 1963. The official recognition embodied in the royal commission—that French-speaking Canadians were full and equal linguistic partners with English-speaking Canadians, recognition that was enshrined in the Official Languages Act of 1969— created the political and cultural space for the Canadian government and the country as a whole to extend a similar privilege to all Canadians. In a historic speech to the House of Commons on October 8, 1971, Trudeau declared:

There cannot be one cultural policy for Canadians of British and French origin, another for the original peoples and yet a third for all others. For although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other. No citizen or group of citizens is other than Canadian, and all should be treated fairly.

The announcement of the multiculturalism policy, and the establishment of a ministry of multiculturalism in turn, sowed the seeds for another defining achievement of the Trudeau government: the repatriation of the constitution from Britain, enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982, and the corresponding adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that year. The Charter, which guarantees the civil and democratic rights of all Canadians, declares in its article 27 that “this Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”

These achievements, in many ways unique to Canada, provide the ideal launch pad for the current generation of Canadians and their leaders. In a world that is in dire need of dialogue, understanding and tolerance on the one hand, and that is ever more economically competitive on the other, Canadian cities offer the ideal sites for gathering leaders and solution seekers representing the entire globe to address the most pressing problems. Environmental challenges left in the wake of a booming urban China with an insatiable need for fossil fuels; the lingering and still vast underdevelopment of rural China, which accounts for two thirds of the country’s population; sectarian strife and the urban-rural divide in an India that stakes its claim as an information technology powerhouse; the continuing economic stagnation and lack of democratic institution building in the vast majority of Muslim countries—such issues can be debated to positive effect in Canadian cities and institutions, where multicultural populations possess wide-ranging and in-depth knowledge about the world, especially about their countries of origin.

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