Canadian Multiculturalism Act

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Canadian Multiculturalism Act


By: Government of Canada

Date: July 21, 1988

Source: "Canadian Multiculturalism Act." R.S., 1985 c. 24 (4th Supplement), as amended through 2002. Government of Canada, 2002.

About the Author: The legislative power of the Canadian government is vested in its Parliament, an entity composed of an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate. When proposed legislation has been passed by both parliamentary bodies, the enactment becomes law upon receiving Royal Assent, a largely symbolic process of confirmation carried out by the Governor General or their designate.


The passage of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988 represented a confirmation of the approach taken to cultural diversity in Canada since the country had begun to encourage wholesale immigration from nontraditional sources in the 1960s.

Unlike the neighboring United States, where its initial racial diversity occurred through the emancipation of its African American slave class before and after the Civil War (1861–1865), Canada was established as a multicultural society from the time of the capture of the French colony of Quebec by the British in 1759. British North America, as the English colony in Canada became known, was governed as a single political unit with distinct English and French communities.

British colonial authorities did not seek to assimilate the French population of British North America, nor did Britain engage in a involuntary resettlement of the French as it had done with the Acadians of the eastern Canadian coast that Britain relocated to Louisiana between 1775 and 1778. The British North American administrators permitted the French language, culture, and the practice of the Roman Catholic faith in what is now the Canadian province of Quebec through the entire British colonial period. While the colonial relationship between the English and the French was often fractious, there was never any serious effort to assimilate French culture into that of the English majority. When Canada was granted independence from Britain in 1867, the French and English peoples of Canada were explicitly recognized as the two founding peoples of the country. It is this cultural duality that is the foundation to all subsequent Canadian immigration policies.

The French and English communities have remained the dominant cultural forces in Canada. The relationship between the province of Quebec and English Canada was often referred to as "the two solitudes," where there was an absence of outright conflict but little integration of the two cultures, notwithstanding government policies such as bilingualism in the federal government service.

The dual-nation cultural structure of Canada after 1867 did not encourage liberal immigration practices in relation to peoples of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Canada acted vigorously to exclude Chinese workers after the transcontinental railway was completed through the use of a significant proportion of Chinese labor in 1885. Canada explicitly encouraged northern Europeans to take up farming on the Canadian prairies after 1900 in preference to other races and nationalities. Canada also interned over 22,000 males of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War: Canada did not intern persons of German or Italian origin during the course of the conflict.

In the post Second World War period, Canada accepted a large number of persons who had been displaced from their European homelands. Canada also encouraged the immigration of northern Europeans, particularly British and Dutch persons during this period.

The federal government moved to a more liberal immigration policy in the 1960s, and Canada's racial and ethnic diversity expanded to embrace a multitude of cultures. The 1982 enshrinement of the primary document of the Canadian constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, elevated the concept of Canadian multiculturalism to an entrenched constitutional principle.

In 1988, Canada enjoyed an international reputation as a nation with one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world. The Multiculturalism Act confirmed Canada's ongoing commitment to the promotion of ethnic and cultural diversity.




3. (1) It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to

    (a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledge the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;

    (b) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada's future;

    (c) promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation;

    (d) recognize the existence of communities whose members share a common origin and their historic contribution to Canadian society, and enhance their development;

    (e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;

    (f) encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be both respectful and inclusive of Canada's multicultural character;

    (g) promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins;

    (h) foster the recognition and appreciation of the diverse cultures of Canadian society and promote the reflection and the evolving expressions of those cultures;

    (i) preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada; and

    (j) advance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada.

(2) It is further declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada that all federal institutions shall

    (a) ensure that Canadians of all origins have an equal opportunity to obtain employment and advancement in those institutions;

    (b) promote policies, programs and practices that enhance the ability of individuals and communities of all origins to contribute to the continuing evolution of Canada;

    (c) promote policies, programs and practices that enhance the understanding of and respect for the diversity of the members of Canadian society;

    (d) collect statistical data in order to enable the development of policies, programs and practices that are sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada;

    (e) make use, as appropriate, of the language skills and cultural understanding of individuals of all origins; and

    (f) generally, carry on their activities in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada.


4. The Minister, in consultation with other ministers of the Crown, shall encourage and promote a coordinated approach to the implementation of the multiculturalism policy of Canada and may provide advice and assistance in the development and implementation of programs and practices in support of the policy.

5. (1) The Minister shall take such measures as the Minister considers appropriate to implement the multiculturalism policy of Canada and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, may

    (a) encourage and assist individuals, organizations and institutions to project the multicultural reality of Canada in their activities in Canada and abroad;

    (b) undertake and assist research relating to Canadian multiculturalism and foster scholarship in the field;

    (c) encourage and promote exchanges and cooperation among the diverse communities of Canada;

    (d) encourage and assist the business community, labour organizations, voluntary and other private organizations, as well as public institutions, in ensuring full participation in Canadian society, including the social and economic aspects, of individuals of all origins and their communities, and in promoting respect and appreciation for the multicultural reality of Canada;

    (e) encourage the preservation, enhancement, sharing and evolving expression of the multicultural heritage of Canada;

    (f) facilitate the acquisition, retention and use of all languages that contribute to the multicultural heritage of Canada;

    (g) assist ethno-cultural minority communities to conduct activities with a view to overcoming any discriminatory barrier and, in particular, discrimination based on race or national or ethnic origin;

    (h) provide support to individuals, groups or organizations for the purpose of preserving, enhancing and promoting multiculturalism in Canada; and

    (i) undertake such other projects or programs in respect of multiculturalism, not by law assigned to any other federal institution, as are designed to promote the multiculturalism policy of Canada.

(2) The Minister may enter into an agreement or arrangement with any province respecting the implementation of the multiculturalism policy of Canada.

(3) The Minister may, with the approval of the Governor in Council, enter into an agreement or arrangement with the government of any foreign state in order to foster the multicultural character of Canada.

6. (1) The ministers of the Crown, other than the Minister, shall, in the execution of their respective mandates, take such measures as they consider appropriate to implement the multiculturalism policy of Canada.

(2) A minister of the Crown, other than the Minister, may enter into an agreement or arrangement with any province respecting the implementation of the multiculturalism policy of Canada.

7. (1) The Minister may establish an advisory committee to advise and assist the Minister on the implementation of this Act and any other matter relating to multiculturalism and, in consultation with such organizations representing multicultural interests as the Minister deems appropriate, may appoint the members and designate the chairman and other officers of the committee.

(2) Each member of the advisory committee shall be paid such remuneration for the member's services as may be fixed by the Minister and is entitled to be paid the reasonable travel and living expenses incurred by the member while absent from the member's ordinary place of residence in connection with the work of the committee.

(3) The chairman of the advisory committee shall, within four months after the end of each fiscal year, submit to the Minister a report on the activities of the committee for that year and on any other matter relating to the implementation of the multiculturalism policy of Canada that the chairman considers appropriate.


8. The Minister shall cause to be laid before each House of Parliament, not later than the fifth sitting day of that House after January 31 next following the end of each fiscal year, a report on the operation of this Act for that fiscal year.

9. The operation of this Act and any report made pursuant to section 8 shall be reviewed on a permanent basis by such committee of the House, of the Senate or of both Houses of Parliament as may be designated or established for the purpose.


The sweeping language of the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 confirms why this legislation has been referred to as the high water mark of Canadian multiculturalism. The legislative intent evident from the words of the enactment must be assessed in light of the sequence of political and social events since its passage. Canada's cultural fabric has sustained significant pressure in the years since 1988 in a manner that has challenged the Canadian multicultural identity.

As with the United States and Australia, two other nations built through immigration, various political forces in Canada have opposed the promotion of cultural diversity at various periods. In the early 1960s, prime minister John Diefenbaker (1895–1979) attacked such diversity as representing "hyphenated Canadianism," where immigrant persons were encouraged to be something other than citizens of one Canada. The province of Quebec also resisted non-white immigration as a means of protecting its French culture from incursion; ironically, immigration from Haiti to Montreal created a large French-speaking, non-white community in that city.

The face of Canada changed quickly. In the period between 1967 and 2006, approximately ninety percent of all immigrants settled in urban centers, most of these in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The Greater Toronto Area, with its population of over 4.5 million people, is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse regions in the world. As an example, over 350,000 Muslims live in Toronto, a population that did not exist to any significant degree in 1967. There are an estimated 400,000 persons of Chinese heritage in the Toronto area, and federal projections suggest that one half of the Toronto population will be composed of visible minority persons by 2017.

With the rapid growth of immigrant communities, Toronto has been the focal point of numerous debates concerning racial and ethnic tolerance and diversity. A rising violent crime rate in Toronto during the 1990s revealed a disproportionate number of persons of color in conflict with the law. In addition, large segments of the population expressed concerns over the public costs associated with immigration, particularly health and social assistance benefits. This demographic debate sparked controversy over whether Canada was truly as welcoming to diversity as the Multiculturalism Act proclaimed.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the neighboring United States brought renewed attention to Canada's multiculturalism. American officials expressed particular concern that Canada's immigration policies created an environment where terrorists could take up residency in Canada for the purpose of organizing further attacks upon American targets. The highest levels of the United States government criticized Canadian immigration and border security as an indirect threat to American homeland security, urging Canada to tighten its immigration procedures.

The issue as to whether Canada is a de facto refuge for anti-American terrorists prompted strong domestic sentiments to be expressed concerning modern Canadian multiculturalism. Many Canadians, particularly members of the different immigrant groups who had come to Canada within the previous thirty years, urged the Canadian government to continue to promote racial and cultural diversity; Canada's population growth from twenty million people in 1967 to the 2006 census estimate of over thirty million people is attributable largely to immigration. In June, 2006, the arrest of seventeen alleged Muslim terrorists in the Toronto area, most of whom were persons born in Canada to immigrant parents of Middle Eastern origins, re-kindled this issue.

The Multiculturalism Act expressly provides that racial and cultural diversity is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage; equal protection and treatment under the law are implicit to such protections. A debate in the province of Ontario arose in 2005 regarding the Muslim religious law known as sharia and whether these laws could be enforced in Muslim communities in Ontario in substitution for the civil law. Proponents of sharia pointed to the principles of multiculturalism and equality enshrined in the Act and in the Charter of Rights.

In a unique aspect of Canadian criminal law, aboriginal persons convicted of a crime may take be entitled to be judged according to the decision of a sentencing circle, where representatives of the aboriginal community—not an appointed judge—determine the appropriate sentence to be imposed. The sentencing circle is recognition on the part of the Canadian justice system that the issues faced by aboriginal offenders require a different approach, one consistent with the philosophy of both the Multiculturalism Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.



Barry, Brian. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian View of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Bissoonath, Neil. Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2002.


Kealey, Linda. "Letters in Canada/Who Killed Canadian History?" University of Toronto Quarterly 69 (1999/2000).

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Canadian Multiculturalism Act

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Canadian Multiculturalism Act