Integration or Segregation: An analysis of the effectiveness of Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism.

By | October 16, 2023

In principle, federal support for distinct ethnic groups to retain their cultural identities while benefitting from full societal participation is generally supported. The official policy of multiculturalism promotes the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins, assists in the elimination of any barrier to that participation and ensures that all individuals receive equal treatment and protection under the law. The policy has been somewhat successful in promoting societal participation and addressing barriers. The efficacy of the policy, however, falls short in ensuring that all receive equal treatment under the law. In reality, visible ethnic minorities do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as Canadians of British, European or French origin primarily due to generational racist sentiment. By nature, people will self-segregate by encircling themselves with those that look and sound like them.

This paper analyzes the effectiveness of Canada’s policy of multiculturalism on societal integration. If one takes the position that the policy is ineffective in integrating distinct groups then one can argue that they policy may be indirectly promoting some form of segregation. Politically, the benefits of federal acknowledgement and support for the contributions of immigrants are understood. The policy of multiculturalism recognizes the contributions of immigrants to the building of Canada. An examination of the history of immigration policies and the experiences of the First Nations may explain the model of ethnic based socially distinct communities that do exist; however, it has not been effective in reducing community silos and promoting integration into a common Canadian national identity.

Historical Context

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was established by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1963. Canadian citizens who were not of British, French or aboriginal origin objected to the idea that Canada was defined as bilingual and bicultural and they questioned whether they were considered second class citizens or less important than any other group. The official policy on multiculturalism was announced to the House of Commons by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on October 8th, 1971. In his speech, Prime Minister Trudeau said that the government “accepts the contentions of other cultural communities that they, too, are essential elements in Canada and deserve government assistance in order to contribute to regional and national life in ways that derive from their heritages”. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act, enacted by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988, was based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Politically, there was broad consensus among the major parties that a policy of multiculturalism would bring minority immigrant groups into the Canadian mainstream. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms forms part of the Constitution Act (1982), a bill of rights entrenched in the Constitution of Canada. The Charter gives additional, although somewhat vague, protection to multiculturalism by declaring that the Charter “shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians”.

The paradigm of Canadian multiculturalism has to be viewed against a background of Quebec nationalism. The main driver for the push was resistance by French Canadians in Quebec to perceived Anglo-domination. In an effort to appease the separatists, Ottawa enacted the Official Languages Act on September 9th, 1969 to give French and English equal status in the government of Canada and to make the country officially bilingual. However, among the benefits of a sovereign Quebec would be much better career opportunities, particularly in the public service. The Parti Quebecois captured provincial power by pandering to the public service constituency; but the price for this public support was high and soon became unaffordable. Quebec took on ambitious public projects and had one of the highest civil service wage rates worldwide. The province was soon heavily in debt. Economic crisis management was of primary concern to the government and Canadian cultural policy would see a change from the preservation of heritage to a pragmatic justification for diversity in the 1980’s. The “instrumental value of multiculturalism is seen in better serving external markets and improving the country’s sales image” (Moodley, 1983, p. 328).

Ethnic Enclaves and Integration

In sociology, an ethnic enclave is a geographic area with high ethnic concentration, characteristic cultural identity, and economic activity. Observers of the Canadian model cite the increasing tendency of immigrant groups, such as Chinese, Pilipino and South Asians, to “live in self-segregated, often middle-class, ‘ethnic enclaves“, defined by Statistics Canada as communities with 30 percent of their population from one visible minority group” (Francis et al., 2012). The policy of multiculturalism recognizes and promotes these enclaves. Statistics Canada also reasons that the effect of residential patterns on immigrants may be a potential reason for the deterioration in the labour market outcomes of recent immigrants to Canada. Various groups tend to settle more densely in different urban centers. If clustering of these distinct groups based on language, ethnicity and land of birth inhibits the acquisition of the skills necessary for economic success in the labour market then this phenomenon “may help to explain the poor fairing of recent cohorts” (Warman, 2005, p. 6). Researchers (Lanphier and Richmond, 1995) argue that it may be impossible to reconcile equality of opportunity and social integration with “the maintenance of separate identities and cultural pluralism” (Lanphier and Richmond 314). Similarly, Peter S. Li and B. Singh Bolaria argue that multiculturalism is “the failure of an illusion” (Li and Bolaria, 1983) that a cultural solution could solve problems such as inequality and discrimination.

Economic Integration Challenges

The federal government saw multicultural socialization as a vehicle to bring about a new type of employee able to function in a global economy. The manipulation of cultural policy in the pursuit of federal interests can be clearly traced. This manipulation “demonstrates not only the wide scope but also the limits of ethnic manipulation from above, mainly circumscribed by economic conditions that activated and inspired official ethnic policies in the first place” (Moodley, 1983, p. 330). It is ironic then, that census data reveals that immigrant unemployment is twice the national average during their first three years in Canada. According to A. H. Richmond, in his book “Comparative Studies in the Economic Adaptation of Immigrants in Canada”, this is particularly problematic for refugees and others who have not been selected on the basis of their knowledge of an official language or an occupational skill. Frequently, employers create and propagate a cycle of discrimination by insisting that immigrants have “Canadian experience”. According to Statistics Canada, “low-income rates among ‘recent’ immigrants (in Canada for less than five years) almost doubled between 1980 and 1995” (Garnett and Hou. Abstract). Under the Multiculturalism Act, it is the policy of the government to “ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law”; the reality is, however, that the policy is vague and ineffective in levelling the playing field in terms of immigrant economic integration opportunities.

Assimilation and Language

Assimilation is defined as “the process by which the characteristics of members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another“. That process, which has both economic and sociocultural dimensions, begins with the immigrant generation and continues through the second generation and beyond.” (Brown and Bean, 2006, p. 1). Prior to 1967, immigration policy favoured immigrants that could easily assimilate into Canadian society. The selection process was particularly disadvantageous to certain visible minority groups as evidenced by the treatment meted out to those from east and south Asia. For example, the head tax on Chinese immigrants and the quotas assigned to the Japanese. The indigenous people of First Nations fared no better. Residential schools were federally run institutions setup by the government with responsibility for educating aboriginal people. It was thought that an indigenous child’s best chance for success was to adopt Christianity, learn English and Canadian customs. The government felt that children were easier to mould than adults and therefore the concept of residential schools was the vehicle chosen to prepare them for assimilation into Canadian society. Canada adopted the skills-based points system as the selection criteria for immigrants in 1967 and officially adopted a policy of multiculturalism in 1971.

Such drastic change in policy certainly affected the immigrant mix. There was now federal support for groups to retain, embrace and promote their cultural idiosyncrasies. However, immigrant integration was difficult and the relationships between new immigrants and the host society was sometimes controversial. Language became one such controversial issue. The multiculturalism policy states that it will “preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada”. However, it was implicitly understood that members of ethnic groups would need to use either English or French, at least in the public sphere, in order to integrate. Their use of their mother tongue was a private matter. Within the Canada experience, fluency in English or French “has a large positive effect on earnings, independent of other personal characteristics and country of origin” (Chiswick and Miller, abstract).


The words “integration” and “segregation” are quite broad terms and they encompass many different dimensions depending on perspective. The official policy of multiculturalism promotes the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins, assists in the elimination of any barrier to that participation and ensures that all individuals receive equal treatment and protection under the law. Socially and economically, the policy has been successful, to some degree, in promoting societal participation and addressing barriers. However, the efficacy of the policy falls short in ensuring that all receive equal treatment under the law. Many studies have been done and a consistent theme is that immigrant groups whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as Canadians of British, European or French origin. Residents of ethnic enclaves or community silos are also less inclined to learn the dominant language and benefit for full societal participation. The wording of the multiculturalism policy is vague and it is therefore quite difficult to understand what were the precise intentions of the framers of the policy. However, the inefficacy of the policy in the promotion of full societal and economic integration cannot be used to ague, therefore, that the policy indirectly promotes segregation.


Moodley, Kogila. Canadian multiculturalism as Ideology, Ethnic and Racial Studies. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1983.

Knowles, Valarie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540–2015. Dundurn Toronto, 2016.

Francis, R. Douglas, and Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith and Robert A. Wardhaugh. Destinies – Canadian History Since Federation. Nelson, 2012

Lamphier, C. Michael, and Anthony H. Richmond. “Multiculturalism and Identity in ‘Canada Outside Quebec’ in Kenneth McRoberts, ed, Beyond Quebec: Taking Stock of Canada. McGill-Queens University Press, 1995

Li, Peter S. and B. Singh Bolaria. Racial Minorities in Multicultural Canada. Garamond Press, 1983

Picot, Garnett and Feng Hou. The rise in low-income rates among immigrants in Canada. Statistics Canada, 2003

Warman, Casey R. Ethnic Neighbourhoods and Male Immigrant Earnings Growth: 1981 through 1996. Statistics Canada and Department of Economics, Carlton University, 2005

Brown, Susan K and Frank D. Bean. Assimilation Models, Old and New: Explaining a Long-Term Process. Migration policy Institute, 2006

Chiswick, Barry W. and Paul W. Miller. Language in the Labour Market: The Immigrant Experience in Canada and the United States. University of Illinois at Chicago and Queen’s University, 1990.

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