Cultural Diversity in Canada: The Social Construction of Racial Difference

4. Changes in Ethnic and Racial Diversity

When the 1963 Royal Commission referred to the three elements of Canada’s mosaic, it was, without any doubt, one that was overwhelmingly European in origin. Even within the so-called “Third Force” were mostly those of European origin. For example, the 1961 Census of Canada, taken just two years before the 1963 Royal Commission, clearly shows that about 88 percent of those not of British or French origin were of European origin (Table 3). This Canadian mosaic of Europeans has a history that dated back as early as the late nineteenth century, and it persisted for much of the twentieth century. Changes in the mosaic before the 1970s were mainly in the direction of having more European diversities in the Canadian population other than British and French.

By 1971, Canadians of European origin continued to account for 96 percent of the 21.5 million people in the total population. Those of European origin other than British and French remained the dominant element within the “Third Force”, accounting for 85.5 percent of the 5.8 million people who declared a non-British and non-French ethnic origin in the 1971 Census (Table 3). However, by 1981, this group had declined to 75.8 percent of those not of British or French origin. By 1991, despite the growth of the non-British and non-French origin to 7.4 million people, the European component of the “Third Force” had further declined to 55.7 percent.

Hence, between 1971 and 1991, despite that fact that those not of British or French origin remained at around 26 to 28 percent of the total Canadian population[4] , there were changes in the ethnic and racial differentiation in the “Third Force” to include a growing segment made up of non-European origin. For example, in 1971, those of Asian origin accounted for only 5 percent of those not of British or French origin; by 1981, they had grown to 11.3 percent, and by 1991, they had further increased to 21.6 percent. Similarly, those of African origin rose from less than 1 percent of those not of British or French origin in 1971 to 3.4 percent in 1991.

Table 3: Composition of Non-British and Non-French Ethnic Origins in Canada, 1961-1991

By the time the 1991 Census was taken, 55 percent of the “Third Force” was still made up of Europeans, but about one-quarter of it was accounted for by Asians and Africans. Hence, it is not so much the increase in the proportion of the “Third Force”in the total population as the growth of racial minorities within the “Third Force” which made ethnic diversity more noticeable in Canada in the 1980s. This point is also evident in the 1996 Census, despite a substantial number of Canadians choosing the “multiple origins” and “Canadian origins”. On the surface, it would appear that the non-British and non-French segment of Canada’s population had grown to 49 percent in 1996 (Table 4). In reality, about 20.7 percent of the total population chose “Canadian origins”. Thus, the segment of the population that was non-British, non-French and not Canadian origins made up 28.5 percent in 1996, which is comparable to the proportion of non-British and non-French reported in the 1961 to 1991 censuses (Table 3). Even within the more broadly defined category of non-British and non-French origins, “other European origins” and “Canadian origins” accounted for about two-thirds of this group.

The tendency of recent immigrants to settle in metropolitan areas also gives the impression that there have been dramatic changes in diversity. For example, even though nationally visible minorities made up 11.2 percent of Canada’s population in 1996, they accounted for 32 percent of the population of the census metropolitan area in Toronto and 31 percent of that of Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 1998).

Table 4: Composition of Ethnic Origins in Canada, 1996

The growth of visible minorities within the “Third Force” creates the impression that there has been more cultural diversity in the Canadian population, even though the Canadian population continues to consist of overwhelmingly those from British, French or other European origins. Undoubtedly, the increased immigration from Third World countries since the 1970s has contributed to the growth of Asians, Africans, and other visible minorities in Canada. The tendency of recent immigrants to settle in metropolitan areas also gives the impression that there have been dramatic changes in diversity. For example, even though nationally visible minorities made up 11.2 percent of Canada’s population in 1996, they accounted for 32 percent of the population of the census metropolitan area in Toronto and 31 percent of that of Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 1998). Thus, the more conspicuous presence of visible minorities in Canadian society, especially in major urban centres, has given a new demographic and political reality to multiculturalism in Canada.


[4] Calculations on ethnic origins of the Canadian population are complicated by changes in the questions used in various censuses. Since 1981, respondents to Canadian censuses were allowed to choose “multiple origins” as an answer to the ethnic origin question. As a result, 1,838,615 individuals, or 7.6 per cent of the total population, chose “multiple origins” as an answer to the “ethnic origin” question (Statistics Canada, 1984). In the 1991 Census, 7,794,250 individuals, or 28.9 per cent of the total population, chose “multiple origins”; 88.5 per cent of those who chose multiple origins made a selection that involved either British or French and other combinations (Statistics Canada, 1993).

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