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Multiculturalism or cultural pluralism is a policy, ideal, or reality that emphasizes the unique characteristics of different cultures in the world, especially as they relate to one another in immigrant receiving nations. The word was first used in 1957 to describe Switzerland, but came into common currency in Canada in the late 1960s. It quickly spread to other English-speaking countries.


Descriptive Multiculturalism a theory (albeit vague) about the foundations of a culture rather than a practice which subsumes cultural ideas. (Harrison, 1984)

On the large scale, the term is often used to describe societies (especially nations) which exhibit a range of distinct cultural groups, usually as a result of immigration. This can lead to anxiety about the stability of national identity, yet can also lead to cultural exchanges that benefit the different cultural groups. Such exchanges range from major accomplishments in literature, art and philosophy to relatively tokenistic appreciation of variations in music, dress and new foods.

On the small scale, the term can also be used to refer to specific districts in cities where people of different cultures co-exist. The actions of city planners can result in some areas remaining monocultural, often due to pressure groups active in the local political arena. This term is especially current in the UK.

Official Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism can also be a prescriptive term which describes government policy.

In dealing with immigrants groups and their cultures, there are essentially three approaches-

  • Monoculturalism: In most Old World nations, culture is very closely linked to nationalism, thus government policy is to assimilate immigrants. These countries have policies aiming at the social integration of immigrant groups to the national culture. This is typical of nations that define themselves as one and indivisible and do not recognize the existence of other nations within their midst.
  • Melting Pot: In the United States the traditional view has been for a melting pot where all the immigrant cultures are mixed and amalgamated without state intervention. However, many states have different language policies within the union.
  • Multiculturalism: In comparison to the above two approaches, multiculturalism is a view, or policy, that immigrants, and others, should preserve their cultures with the different cultures interacting peacefully within one nation. Today, this is the official policy of Canada and Australia. Multiculturalism has been described as preserving a "cultural mosaic" of separate ethnic groups, and is contrasted to a "melting pot" that mixes them.

No country falls completely into one, or another, of these categories. For example, France has made efforts to adapt French culture to new immigrant groups, while Canada still has many policies that work to encourage assimilation.

Some, such as Diane Ravitch, use the term multiculturalism differently, describing both the melting pot, and Canada's cultural mosaic as being multicultural and refers to them as pluralistic and particularist multiculturalism. Pluralistic multiculturalism views each culture or subculture in a society as contributing unique and valuable cultural aspects to the whole culture. Particularist multiculturalism is more concerned with preserving the distinctions between cultures.


"Multiculturalism" became incorporated into official policies in several nations in the 1970s for reasons that varied from country to country.

In Canada, it was adopted in 1971 in the aftermath of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, a government body set up in response to the grievances of Canada's French-speaking minority (concentrated in the Province of Quebec). The report of the Commission advocated that the Canadian government recognize Canada as a bilingual and bicultural society and adopt policies to preserve this character. Biculturalism was attacked from many directions.

Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker saw multiculturalism as an attack on his vision of unhyphenated Canadianism. It did not satisfy the growing number of young francophones who gravitated towards Quebec nationalism. While many Canadians of British descent disliked the new policies of biculturalism and official bilingualism, the strongest opposition to biculturalism came from Canadians of neither English nor French descent, the so-called "Third Force" Canadians. Biculturalism did not accord with local realities in the western provinces, where the French population was tiny compared to other groups such as the Ukrainian Canadians, the group that was arguably most important in modifying the policy of biculturalism. To accommodate these groups, the formula was changed from "bilingualism and biculturalism" to "bilingualism and multiculturalism."

The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau passed the Official Multiculturalism Act in 1971. Symbolically, this legislation affirmed that Canada was a multicultural nation. On a more practical level, federal funds began to be distributed to ethnic groups to help them preserve their cultures. Projects typically funded included folk dancing competitions and the construction of community centres . This led to criticisms that the policy was actually motivated by electoral considerations. After its election in 1984, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney did not reverse these policies, although they had earlier been criticized by Tories as inconsistent with "unhyphenated Canadianism." This policy has been supported by every subsequent government and was added to Canada's 1982 constitution.


Around the world, important government multicultural policies can include:

  • dual citizenship
  • government support for newspapers, television, and radio in minority languages
  • support for minority festivals, holidays, and celebrations
  • acceptance of traditional and religious dress in schools, the military, and society in general
  • support for arts from cultures around the world
  • programs to encourage minority representation in politics, education, and the work force

While multiculturalist policies oppose cultural assimilation, countries such as Canada do support structural assimilation. Immigrant groups are still encouraged to participate in the larger society, learn the majority languages, and enter the labour force.

Official multiculturalism around the world

The other country to have most fully adopted Canada's view of multiculturalism is Australia where many of these policies related to multiculturalism are pursued, for example the formation of the Special Broadcasting Service.

In the United States multiculturalism is not an official policy at the federal level. At the state level, it is sometimes associated with English-Spanish bilingualism. However, the government, in recent years, moved to support many multiculturalist policies. In some ways, the United States has gone even further than Canada and Australia with such policies. For instance, California drivers can take their exams in a number of languages and gerrymandered districts to guarantee minority representation in government.

In the United Kingdom multiculturalism has been the subject of extensive debate in recent years. Under the Conservatives (1979-1997), multiculturalist rhetoric and policies were confined to left-leaning councils. Since the election of the Labour government in 1997, these ideas have crept in the government policies and statements.

Multiculturalism, along with other identity politics, has, in part, been so successful because it is a useful tool for politicians to win the votes of minority groups. Government money for cultural celebrations or ethnic-specific newspapers can encourage new immigrants to support the governing party.


There have been many criticisms of official multiculturalism from both the left and right. Criticizing the policies can be difficult, however, because they can quickly lead to accusations of racism and xenophobia.

Criticisms of multiculturalism can focus on the circumstances of one country or they can be more general.

Criticisms of Multiculturalism in General

One of the dangers of pursuing multiculturist social policies is that social integration and cultural assimilation can be held back. This can potentially encourage economic disparities and an exclusion of minority groups from mainstream politics. The political commentator Matthew Parris has questioned whether the pursuit of particularist multiculturalism is not apartheid by another name.

One of the most forceful critics of multiculturalism was Ayn Rand, who condemned the world-wide ethnic revival of the late 1960s as a manifestation of tribalization that would lead to an ethnic Balkanization destructive to modern industrial societies. Her philosophy considers Multiculturalism to be based on the same premise as Monoculturalism; this premise being Culturally Determinist Collectivism (being that individual human beings have no free choice in how they act and that they are conditioned by their society irreversibly). As a philosophical matter, Rand rejected this form of collectivism on the grounds that 1) Her philosophy embraces the concept of free will and 2) Since Rand's philosophy considers the human mind to be Tabula Rasa at birth, coupling this with free will, she concludes that we all can modify our actions volitionally, assuming we modify the premises we hold to support those actions (which is also volitional). Considering how this was also her basis for rejecting racism, Objectivists and Neo-Objectivists/Post-Objectivists consider multiculturalism to be akin to racism.

Country-specific criticisms

United States:

Diane Ravitch argues that the celebration of multicultural diversity in America is used to mask hostility toward the mainstream, as multiculturalists would claim that the mainstream has ignored blacks, women, American Indians, and so on in history.

In his 1991 work, Illiberal Education, Dinesh D'Souza argues that the entrenchment of multiculturalism in American universities has undermined the universalistic values that liberal educations once attempted to foster. In particular, he was disturbed by the growth of ethnic studies programmes, (e.g., Black Studies).


In Canada, the most noted critics of multiculturalism are Kenneth McRoberts , Neil Bissoondath and Reginald Bibby .

As a young man, McRoberts worked for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and his career as a political scientist has roughly coincided with the policy of multiculturalism. While some argue that the shift in official discourse from biculturalism to multiculturalism has had a neutral effect on relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada, McRoberts believes that it was, from a Canadian nationalism viewpoint, disastrous, as it offended Quebeckers and their a dualistic vision of Canada as a bilingual and bicultural society.

In 1971, when official multiculturalism was introduced by the federal government, separatism was fringe movement in Quebec, with less than a tenth of the population supporting the idea of being an independent country. The next few years saw the growth of separatist sentiment and the election of a provincial government committed to independence. To many French Canadians, multiculturalism threatened to reduce them to just another ethnic groups, along with the Greeks and the Vietnamese. In the 1995 independence election on separation from Canada, the advocates of Quebec independence lost by only a small margin.

Of all Canadian provinces, Quebec has been the least supportive of multiculturalism, welcoming people of all races, but insisting that they assimilate into Quebec's French-speaking society. Recently, the more assimilationist aspects of this policy have been tempered with a recognition that Quebec is a de facto pluralist society. The Quebec government has adopted a form of multiculturalism in French it denotes as an "interculturalism policy." This policy seeks to integrate immigrants to the mainstream French-speaking society of Quebec.

The government of Quebec understands pluralism as being a feature of modern Quebec society or any other society that welcomes immigrants. Because it considers itself the national government of all Quebecers, the Quebec government seeks to have all its citizens participate to a common civic culture. In order to accomplish this, it promotes French, the language of the majority, as the common public language of all Quebecers.

Whether as a first, second, or third language, French becomes the instrument which allows the socialization of Quebecers of all origins and forces interaction between them. Interculturalism is a policy that aims at fighting racism, misunderstanding of others, and ultimately bring about the solidarization of the multiethnic human collectivity the nation is supposed to be.

In his Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, the Trinidad and Tobago born Bissoondath argues that official multiculturalism limits the freedom of minority members by confining them to cultural and geographic ghettos. He also argues that cultures are far too complex and must be transmitted through close family and kin relations. To him, the government view of cultures as being about festivals and cuisine is a crude oversimplification that leads to easy stereotyping.

Bibby, in his Mosaic Madness: Pluralism Without a Cause, argues that official multiculturalism is a divisive force that is reducing national solidarity and unity.

United Kingdom:

In the UK, Supporters of the government's approach have described it as having defended the rights of minorities to preserve their culture, while also seeking to ensure they become fully particpatory citizens - ie integrating without assimilating. Critics say the policy fails on all accounts: If social conditions and racism become barriers to the integration of minorities, then multiculturalism does not properly function. There is now a lively debate in the UK over multiculturalism versus "social cohesion and inclusion", the current Labour government appearing to favour the latter. One of the foremost critics of multiculturalism is Trevor Phillips the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and a one-time black activist. Criticisms of the multiculturalism policy have also been made by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Uganda-born author in her seminal 2000 work, After Multiculturalism.

See also


M Harrison, cited in Sneja Gunew, Denaturalizing cultural nationalisms: multicultural readings of Australia in Bhaba, Homi K. (ed.) 1990, Nation and Narration, New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall Inc. (p.99)

External links

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Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13