Cultural Diversity in Canada: The Social Construction of Racial Difference
The statistics on ethnic diversity of Canada show that since the turn of the century until the 1960s, there had been an increase in the proportion of those not of British and French origin. But such an increase was largely accounted for by more European diversities in the Canadian population other than British and French. Throughout much of the twentieth century and until 1971, over 96 percent of the Canadian population were made up of people of European origin.
Since 1971, there have been only nominal changes in the ethnic diversity in Canada in terms of increases in the proportion of Canadians not of British or French origin. Canada remains a country that is made up overwhelmingly of people of European origin, despite changes in the national origin of immigrants coming to Canada since the 1970s. However, within the “Third Force”, that is the group made up of non-British and non-French, there have been changes in the direction of a larger proportion being made up of members of the visible minority. These changes were largely brought about as a result of more immigrants from Asian, Africa, and other non-European regions being admitted into Canada after national origin was removed from the selection criteria of immigrants in the 1960s. By 1991, visible minorities accounted for 9.4 percent of the total population in Canada, and by, 1996, 11.2 percent (Statistics Canada, 1998).
The growth of the visible minority in Canada in the 1980s had created a new demographic and political reality, and along with it, growing concerns about the plight of racial minorities in Canadian society, as they experienced unequal life chances in Canada. The government changed the emphasis of the multiculturalism policy in the 1980s to pay more attention to issues of racial equality and racial harmony. It would appear that while the emergence of the visible minority in Canada created the political constituency to lobby for more racial equality, the political agenda of constitutional patriation had also produced a political climate for the state to support a public awareness towards racial equality and social justice.
Racial differences in Canadian society are also reproduced by unequal life chances, as well as normative values which attribute a lower social worth to those of non-white origin. Substantial evidence is available to indicate that the visible minority origins carry an earning penalty in the Canadian labour market that can be attributed to their non-white origin.
Another dimension in the politics of difference involves the debate over the social cost of racial diversity. Racial diversities are often assumed in public discourse as divisive and costly in Canadian society, which in turn, justify public policies to control the rate of that component of immigration which contributes to the disorderly expansion of “cultural diversity” beyond Canada’s means and capacity to absorb differences. In short, “cultural diversity” and “cultural differences” become codified concepts to signify the fundamental distinctions of “races” and the injurious consequences such distinction would bring to what otherwise would be a socially and culturally cohesive Canada. Despite the absence of scientific evidence showing how Canada’s “cohesiveness” has become more fragmented as a result of the growth of the visible minority population, unfavourable opinions expressed in public polls towards various aspects of the visible minority, immigration and integration are often used as self evident grounds to indicate “social fragmentation” and “racial tension”.
Thus, the challenge of cultural or racial diversity has less to do with the threat of visible minorities to Canada’s “social cohesion” than Canada’s unwillingness to see itself beyond a conventionally European society, and to position itself as a global nation of many cultures and people. In short, racial diversity is created less by demographic changes than by the reproduction of a normative and an economic order which reinforces social differentiation based on race and racial origin.
Thus, the challenge of cultural or racial diversity has less to do with the threat of visible minorities to Canada’s “social cohesion” than Canada’s unwillingness to see itself beyond a conventionally European society, and to position itself as a global nation of many cultures and people.
There is no doubt that the growth of visible minorities in Canada has created a new demographic and political challenge for the future of Canada, despite the fact that numerically they only account for 11.2 percent of Canada’s 1996 population. Projections into the 21st century indicate that the visible minority population in Canada will continue to grow faster than the total population, albeit at a declining rate (Dai & George, 1996: 27). Using various scenarios of population growth, the visible minority is estimated to be around 19.4 to 20.6 percent of Canada’s population by 2016. The prospect that one-fifth of Canadians would be non-white should be alarming to those who already feel that the European tradition and social fabric of Canada have been undermined by the current non-white population, and who defend a social and nominal order which accentuates “racial” differences.
It would appear that Canada has the policy option of following the alarmists’ narrow vision of cultural dominance based on race and superficial features of people, and continuing to frame polices that implicitly recognize the social significance of race. Alternatively, Canada may abandon its cultural parochialism and treat racial and linguistic diversity in Canadian society as potential resources with which multilateral trade, international diplomacy and other global exchanges can be further advanced. In short, in recognizing the value of cultural differences and racial diversity, Canada is also better positioning itself in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized in economy and culture. Canada has already committed itself to such a future when it entrenched the principles of equality and non-discrimination in the Charter. The question facing Canada’s future is how to bridge the gap between what it commits de jure and what it does de facto.
[I]n recognizing the value of cultural differences and racial diversity, Canada is also better positioning itself in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized in economy and culture. Canada has already committed itself to such a future when it entrenched the principles of equality and non-discrimination in the Charter.
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