The fluid and complex nature of Canadian diversity

Ethnic and cultural diversity are long-standing features of Canadian society. Even before European settlers arrived, the territory that is today Canada included a diverse range of Aboriginal Peoples including Inuit and many autonomous groups that are now referred to as First Nations. From the beginning then, the territory of Canada has included peoples of many languages, cultures, and worldviews.


The French and British were the first groups from outside North America to set up long-term settlements here but they included people from a range of backgrounds.  The British, for example, included English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish.  Both British and French settlers often brought with them people from other parts of the world and others arrived on their own.


People of African descent have been in Canada from early days of European settlement.  Slavery was legal in both New France and the British colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries and many free Loyalists of African descent arrived with a wave of refugees from the United Sates in 1783 and 1784.  Significant Chinese immigration to the west coast of the territory now called Canada began with the gold rush in British Columbia in the mid 19th century. According to the 1870-71 census of Canada, German speakers made up a significant part of the non-Aboriginal population of Canada.

Framework for Diversity

Dr. Will Kymlicka has developed a framework to think about the complexity of ethnic and cultural diversity in Canada. He studied developments in Canadian public policy and law to identify different kinds of minority groups:


(1) National Minorities: As a group, national minorities existed in the territory of Canada before the country was formed and had their own institutions of governance and social policy. Francophones in Québec are an example of a national minority.   As a collective they existed in the territory of Canada before the country was formed and had their own institutions of governance and social policy.  Canada was established as a federal state partly to allow them a measure of autonomy and self-government.  Provinces were given control over important areas of social policy like education partly so Francophones could maintain and promote their distinct language and culture. Indigenous peoples are also national minorities. The Canadian constitution recognizes three separate groups of Aboriginal Peoples: Inuit, First Nations, and Métis.  Section 35 of the constitution sets out the rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada and it begins with the statement: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”  For most Aboriginal people and groups treaties are of central importance in understanding their relationship with Canada.


(2) Polyethnic (Immigrant) Minorities: The many peoples of Canada who are not from British, French, or Aboriginal backgrounds.  Some of these people are fairly recent arrivals but, as pointed out above, others are descendants of migrants who came to Canada long ago – in some cases before it existed as a country.  It was largely in recognition of this category of diversity that the Government of Canada developed a multiculturalism policy in 1972 that became formalized in the Multiculturalism Act in 1988.

Further Reading


Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995).


Kymlicka, W. (2003). Being Canadian. Government and Opposition, 38(3), 357-385.


Kymlicka, W. (2007). Ethnocultural diversity in a liberal state: Making sense of the Canadian model(s). In K. Banting, T. J. Courchene, & L. Seidle (Eds.), The Art of the State Volume Iii:  Belonging? Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada (pp. 39-86). Montreal: The Institute for Research on Public Policy.


Kymlicka, W., & Norman, W. (Eds.). (2000). Citizenship and Diverse Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.

A brief overview of approaches to diversity education in Canada

The idea of addressing ethnic diversity in the classroom has had a tumultuous history in Canada. A large part of this is because of the treatment of difference in schools and how the various approaches have impacted children (and their communities) from outside the majority culture. The following reviews four different approaches to diversity education through Canadian history. Note that these approaches often exist together with one or more dominating education at particular times throughout Canada’s history.


1. Education that ignores difference

The beginning of public schooling in Canada characterized difference as aberrant, a deviance to be erased. Ethnic diversity in the classroom was seen as a threat to the Canadian identity. There are numerous curriculum and government documents that outline the need to “Canadianize” those who were different in any way. Policies of English only in the classroom and mandatory religious training are just two example of how government worked to erase all differences between its citizens. Perhaps the most devastating example of ignoring difference is our history of residential schools where a systemic approach attempted to eradicate Aboriginal cultures.

2. Education that insists on difference

Another approach to diversity focussed on insisting on difference, rather than ignoring it. For example, there are several generations of boys who took technology courses while the girls learned Home Economics. These differences mirrored the different gender social expectations and roles at the time. This same treatment of difference created educational streams where children from Aboriginal, Black and Latin American cultures were forced into modified classrooms with lower expectations of school success and career futures. The argument for these ‘modified classrooms’ was that these cultures were genetically predisposed to be violent and/or lazy and/or unable to learn. This racist perspective was cloaked in a false presentation of caring and meeting the special needs of children.

3. Colour-Blind Education

After attempting to erase difference and ignore difference, educators took a colour-blind approach. This time, educators claimed not to notice the colour of their students. The idea was that all children were the same in the eyes of the teacher and the school and their skin colour had no impact on their educational achievement. Unfortunately, this approach has created lots of problems. The refusal to acknowledge a person’s skin colour is packaged with the refusal to acknowledge that person’s history, culture, language and barriers. In other words, to claim to be colour-blind literally says that you do not see the person.


A second problem with the colour-blind approach is the unspoken normalization of White. When we say we treat all children the same and we do not see their colour, what we are actually saying is that we treat all children like the majority and the colour we see is White. This normalizes White, making all other skin colours invisible and unusual.


A partnering philosophy of the colour-blind is meritocracy. Meritocracy is the idea that people succeed on their own merit. Simply put, the philosophy goes like this: if you work hard, you will succeed. If you didn’t succeed, you didn’t work hard enough. The problem with this philosophy is the assumption that all people start at the same point with the save advantages. However, many children do not start with the same advantages of the dominant society and no matter how hard they work, they may not be able to succeed due to structural barriers that exist in school and in society.

4. Critical Anti-racist Education

In this approach, difference and the social treatment of difference are critically examined. Educators teach from the perspective that understands that difference is embedded in an historical and societal context that needs to be continually and critically questioned. Decisions around curriculum content, educational approaches, and what counts as knowledge are examples of questions explored by both teachers and students.