Cultural Diversity in Canada: The Social Construction of Racial Difference

2. Cultural Diversity in Canada

Canada’s demographic composition is ethnically heterogeneous, in the sense that its citizens have come from many countries of origin and cultural backgrounds. One customary way to depict cultural diversity in Canada is describe it in terms of the population size of those not belonging to the two charter groups. Indeed, this was the method adopted by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s, which coined the term the “Third Force” to refer to Canadians not of British and French origin (Canada, Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1965: 52)[1] . In its final report, the Royal Commission stressed that Canada was a mosaic, or a multicultural society, made up of three basic elements: the British, the French, and other Canadians. While recognizing the charter status of the British and the French, the Royal Commission also acknowledged the contributions of other non-charter groups. This trichotomy has been essentially adopted as the proper way to discuss the nature and composition of Canada’s population diversity.

Historically, the numeric predominance of those of British and French origin was unquestionable. Before the great wave of European migration to Canada between 1896 and the beginning of the First World War, Canada’s population was indeed mainly made up of those of British and French origin. For example, the 1871 Census of Canada shows that 60 percent of Canada’s 3.5 million people were of British origin, and 30 percent French origin; Europeans not of British nor French origin accounted for only 7 percent of Canada's population in 1871 as well as in 1881 (Kalbach, 1990: 24). This demographic composition basically persisted until the turn of the century.

The wave of immigration to Canada prior to the First World War began to increase the stock of Europeans not from British or French origin. Between 1896 and 1914, over three million immigrants came to Canada. When the supply of emigrants from England and Western Europe was dwindling, Canada began accepting people from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Poles, Ukrainians, Hutterites and Doukhobors. In the period between the two world wars from 1915 to 1945, another two million immigrants came to Canada (Statistics Canada, 1983: A125-163).

The census data of Canada indicate that Canadians of European origin other than British and French increased from 8.5 percent of the total population in 1901 to 14.2 percent in 1921, and to 17.8 percent in 1941 (Kalbach, 1990: 24). In contrast, Canadians of British origin declined in relative terms from 57 percent of the total population in 1901 to 50 percent in 1941, but those of French origin remained at around 30 percent of the total population in 1901 and in 1941. In short, if the composition of Canadians of European origin other than British and French is used as an indicator of ethnic plurality, then there was an increase in diversity between 1901 and 1941. However, Canada's population in 1941, as in 1871, was made up of people mainly of European origin, which accounted for 98 percent of the total population in 1941 and in 1871, despite the fact that the population had increased from 3.5 million people in 1871 to 11.5 million people in 1941.

Table 1 : Population by Ethnic Origin, Canada, 1921-1971

Between 1941 and 1961, the proportion of Canadians of European origin other than British and French further increased; in 1941, they made up 17.8 percent of the total Canadian population, by 1961, they rose to 22.6 percent (Table 1). In contrast, those of British origin declined in relative terms from 49.7 percent in 1941 to 43.8 percent in 1961. Thus, the expansion in ethnic diversity between 1941 to 1961 was also in the direction of increasing the proportion of Canadians of European origin other than British and French, and decreasing the proportion of Canadians of British origin. However, the ethnic composition of the Canadian population continued to be overwhelmingly those of European origin, which remained at 97 percent of the total population in 1961 and 96 percent in 1971. Thus, when the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism wrote about the “Third Force” and its place in the Canadian mosaic, it was writing from the vantage point of a multicultural Canada made up of mostly those of British, French and other European origin.


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