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The Canadian Multiculturalism Act

On 21 July 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act received Royal Assent. The Act enshrined multicultural policy into law, declaring the Government of Canada would “recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity” and “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.”


British and French populations declined throughout the 20th century while the number of non-European immigrants had increased. A post-war influx of European immigrants from places other than Great Britain and France challenged the fundamental bicultural partnership—between English and French—that had been central to the founding of contemporary Canada. As the Quiet Revolution unfolded throughout the 1950s and with it, new concerns about the role of Quebec within Canada, it became clear that there needed to be new consideration given to Canada’s cultural framework. The federal government called a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963 to interrogate the role of language and culture in post-war Canadian society. The Royal Commission completed its report in 1969, including recommendations to integrate ethnic groups outside of Canada’s traditional “founding nations” (British and French) into Canadian society.  

The recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism led to the formal adoption of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy by the federal government which provided government support to cultural groups in various ways to preserve their cultures while integrating into a broader, perhaps more diverse Canadian society.  In the 1980s, the commitment to multiculturalism was extended, incorporated into the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms both in s.27, which empowers the courts to consider Canada’s multicultural reality.

Hearings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, March 30, 1965. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The Multiculturalism Act

In 1985, the House of Commons created a standing committee on multiculturalism to address concerns about the relevance and utility of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy. By 1987, the committee published its report, in which it identified that the existing policy was too-focused on addressing the preservation of culture, rather than other challenges faced by new Canadians, including “employment, housing, education, and discrimination.” The standing committee called for legislation that would more concretely recognize the rights of new immigrants in addition to preserving and developing their culture within Canada. On December 1, 1987, drawing on the recommendations of the standing committee, Secretary of State David Crombie introduced the Canadian Multiculturalism Act to Parliament. The Act received Royal Assent on July 21, 1988.

The Act itself is relatively short and relatively straightforward. Its preamble is arguably the most important part of the Act, formally articulating and spelling out the parameters of multiculturalism as a Canadian value, and its relationship to the Official Languages Act, the Citizenship Act, and the Canadian Human Rights Act, among others. Following the preamble and some preliminaries (i.e., the short name of the act and relevant definitions), it effectively makes elements of the longstanding multiculturalism into law, requiring the Government of Canada to support and promote cultural diversity in many of the ways it has been under the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy. The subsequent sections address the implementation of the policy in turn, naming a Minister for multiculturalism and their mandate, the possibility of provincial and international agreements, the potential establishment of a Canadian multiculturalism advisory committee, and other largely procedural provisions..

The first page of the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act including major portions of the preamble.

Critiques of the Act

There are a number of important critiques of multiculturalism policy and the Multiculturalism Act. First, multiculturalism policy and the Multiculturalism Act have been criticized for being  superficial and not working to create legitimate institutional change. In the Act, Canada fails to acknowledge its long history of xenophobic and racial discrimination such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and Head Tax, Ukrainian Internment during WWI, and Japanese Internment during WWII. By failing to substantively consider discrimination and exlusion throughout Canada’s history and present, multiculturalism conceals the colonial and racist legacies that the country was founded upon and instead constructs a cultural mosaic based on the false pretense of multicultural celebration. Many critics of this legislation argue that institutional change cannot occur through benign celebration of multiculturalism, without acknowledgement and reparations of the country’s past crimes.  

Second, multiculturalism is critiqued for operating within a bicultural framework of the British and French. To be considered multicultural subjects, ethnic minorities can only employ the traits of their culture that are considered acceptable within the Canadian bicultural framework. In the legislation, phrasing such as “preserve” and “heritage” denotes ethnic heritage as traditions of the past, while legitimate integration into Canadian society means exercising modern Western traits. Overall, this school of thought does not believe that the Multiculturalism Act establishes true multiculturalism as per its definition of equality between cultures. Rather, it perpetuates the superiority of a bicultural framework in Canada.

Third, Quebecois nationalists have long critiqued the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and related policy for delegitimizing their claim of a distinct society by reducing their rights to the same level as other minorities. One of the main drivers of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was to unite the country against the rising tides of Quebec nationalism. Yet, many Quebecois perceive this to be the reason that multiculturalism is inherently flawed and disingenuous in serving the Quebecois political doctrine of recognition of French rights. It is known as the Canadian government’s way of effectively “shutting them up” under the guise of federal minority celebration and unification.

Fourth, many Indigenous peoples are vocally opposed to the recognition of multiculturalism because it works to disregard their distinct history by considering them as “ethnic visible minorities”, when it has considered their voices, needs, and interests at all. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s as ideas about multiculturalism were becoming mainstream, adopted as policy, and eventually formalized in law, Indigenous people were being taken from their homes in the Sixties Scoop and in Indian Residential Schools, not to mention the long histories and ongoing practices of colonialism and marginalization that limited the autonomy of Indigenous peoples in other ways. While the Act was being considered and passed in Parliament, Indigenous children were still being sent to residential schools without the freedom to express their culture freely.


Multiculturalism as enshrined in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act is an important part of the Canadian imaginary. The Act, and its support for cultural preservation does work to some extent–multiculturalism in Canada fares better than the U.S.’s melting-pot approach in terms of naturalization as Canada has the highest proportion of foreign-born legislators and intermarriage has steadily increased since the 1970s. Yet there are continued concerns about how effective the Act is preventing discrimination, as well as ongoing concerns about the potential implications for the preservation of Quebecois culture, and support for Indigenous peoples.

Additional Resources

Contributors: Emily Everest, Hannah Iqbal, Ada Lee, Jahmoon Olembe, Aaren Pasupathy, Marcus Pereira, Ethan Rank, Carter Reid, Lidia Rodriguez Galan, Kieron Stephens