Canada Day marks the anniversary of July 1, 1867, when the three separate colonies of the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick became a single Dominion.
For Canadians, it is an opportunity for a show of national pride: fireworks, flag waving, and sporting red and white T-shirts. Such fervour is unsurprising, but it comes in the context of today’s darker displays of nationalism, particularly those by right-wing and populist politicians. Trump’s “Let’s Make America Great Again!” is a slogan that rides roughshod over America’s controversial history as a melting pot and, in Europe, the resurgence of divisive politics in several countries has set off warning bells.
The term “melting pot” describes a (con)fusion of nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities. It was used as the title of a 1908 play by Israel Zangwill depicting the life of a Jewish immigrant family, whose surviving members come to America in the wake of a pogrom in what was then Russian Moldova.
The idea of a melting pot has been challenged by later proponents of “multiculturalism”, who have put forward other metaphors to describe society in a state of transition, such as mosaic, salad bowl, and kaleidoscope. Multiculturalism itself became official Canadian policy under the government of Pierre Trudeau in 1971. Trudeau said:
“There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”
Canadian multiculturalism treats all citizens as equal. Immigrants keep their identity, take pride in their ancestry and still find a place in the new country. That sense of acceptance encourages racial and ethnic harmony as well as cross-cultural understanding.
Yet, ironies abound. Multiculturalism is the creed of a country whose history includes the persecution of its First Nations peoples – a history only recently publicly acknowledged and whose consequences are still being felt. Multiculturalism evolved in the face of the Quebec sovereignty movement, which by 1970 had led to a campaign of violence that culminated in the murder of Quebec’s Minister of Labour. Resentment by the French-speaking peoples of Quebec against “English Canada” still simmers. Other groups – such as the Chinese and Japanese – have their own historical grievances.
Four waves of immigration to Canada took place over three centuries: British and French; British and Irish; Eastern Europeans; Italians and Portuguese. After the 1960s, people continued to come to the country fleeing repression or in search of work. In November 2017, the government announced that Canada would admit nearly one million permanent residents over the following three years, motivated by the economic needs of the country in the face of an ageing demographic.
Multiculturalism is set to continue even though immigrants to Canada are obliged to learn about some of the less controversial aspects of Canadian history. In order to become citizens, they must answer questions about the nation such as: Who are the Métis? Who was the first prime minister of Canada? What does the word “Inuit” mean? What is Canada’s national animal?
In a survey released in time for this year’s Canada Day, a random sample of 1,645 voters were asked 10 questions from the study guide given to those seeking to become Canadian citizens. Only 12% of respondents got eight or more correct answers, the threshold to pass the test. The average score was five out of 10.
Canada wants to share its vision of stability and prosperity with those who accept living in a multicultural society. The government has not solved all the problems that such a vision brings, but on Canada Day people celebrate their allegiance to past and present and to an implicit recognition of their shared humanity.
Will the spirit of multiculturalism – non-discrimination and inclusion – survive the next influx of migrants and refugees, who may well be fleeing severe human and natural conflict? Time will tell but, like crossing Niagara Falls on a high wire, it’s going to be a difficult balancing act.