Social impact of diversity: Potentials and challenges in Canada

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jeffrey G. Reitz, University of Toronto
Guest Contributor

Multiculturalism has been a cornerstone of Canadian policy for almost 40 years, but internationally, particularly since 9/11 and in light of inter-ethnic conflicts in Europe resulting from immigration, there has been something of a ‘retreat’ from multiculturalism. Should Canada keep multiculturalism despite problems elsewhere?  Or should our multiculturalism policies be changed, or perhaps even abandoned?

Debate over multiculturalism is partly a question of political principle, as discussed by, for example, Canadian philosophers Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor.  But today, the debate is mostly about the social impact of diversity. Is there ‘unity in diversity,’ as advocates say, or does diversity lead to isolation, mistrust and disunity, as critics suggest?

There are many questions for social and psychological analysis based on the evidence. My co-authored book Multiculturalism and Social Cohesion: Potentials and Challenges of Diversity examines some of these questions based on evidence from a unique and comprehensive source: Statistics Canada’s 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey of over 40,000 Canadians representing all cultural groups across the country.

Some of our basic findings are these.

First, the maintenance over time of attachments to an ethnic minority community – strong ethnic identity and involvement in the ethnic community – have both positive and negative effects on social integration, depending on different dimensions of social integration.

We find positive effects of strong ethnic attachments are found when we look at a person’s sense of belonging in Canada, and their overall life satisfaction. There are positive effects of ethnic attachments also on voting, a telling indicator of social integration.

However, we find negative effects of strong ethnic attachments on rates of citizenship acquisition for immigrants, and on acquisition of a sense of Canadian identity. There is also a clear negative effect of strong ethnic attachments on feelings of trust in others.

These positive and negative impacts show that the impact of diversity on social cohesion is mixed; the answer depends on the dimension of integration.  The two opposing views of the social impact of diversity are not contradictory. Rather, they capture different aspects of reality.

A second finding shows that inequalities experienced by visible minorities are an important challenge for policy. Visible minorities in Canada experience significant inequality and often report instances of discrimination. Visible minorities have the lowest household incomes and the highest poverty rates – about double the rates for whites.  Of course, the economic status of visible minorities definitely improves with time in Canada, and the children of visible minority immigrants have high levels of education and much improved household income levels.

However, it is troubling that many visible minority respondents report experiences of discrimination in Canada, and their concerns appear to intensify with greater time in Canada.  For recent immigrants, 34 percent of visible minorities reported experiences of discrimination in the previous 5 years, compared to 19 percent for whites. Visible minorities also more often report discomfort in social situations, and even fear becoming the target of an attack. And over time, these concerns become more frequent for visible minorities, whereas among white immigrants, reports of discrimination decline.  For the children of immigrants, the rate of reported experiences of discrimination among visible minorities is up to 42 percent – and over 60 percent for blacks – whereas among whites the rates decline to about 10 percent.

Partly as a result of experiences of discrimination and a sense of exclusion, visible minorities are less socially integrated into Canadian society than their white counterparts. They are clearly slower to acquire a ‘Canadian’ identity. Most indicators show more negative trends for racial minorities than for whites.  For example, among recent immigrants racial minorities actually express a stronger sense of belonging in Canada than do whites; among the children of immigrants it is the reverse.  A positive outlook of newly-arrived racial minority immigrants fades considerably with experience in Canada.

Our findings also address the question of religious diversity, since the debate over multiculturalism has focused increasingly on religion. Recent immigration from Asia and the Middle East has increased the numbers of Muslims, now almost 2 percent of the population.  There has been considerable debate about whether specific Muslim values, beliefs or practices such as regarding gender equality and the enforcement of religious codes, may undermine social cohesion because they clash too much with mainstream Canadian society.  In the Ethnic Diversity Survey data, the social integration of Muslims can be compared to that of other religious groups, including Christians and Jews, and other new religious groups such as Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who each now comprise about one percent of the population.  In this comparison, Muslims do not stand out as experiencing distinctive problems of integration.  In fact, for the new religious groups, problems of integration arise not from religion but from the fact that most of them are visible minorities.

Muslims also do not stand out if we focus only on those who have the strongest religious beliefs.  Greater religiosity seems to reflect greater ethnic affiliation and community involvement, and Muslims are not different from other religious groups in this regard.

The conclusion underscores that fears about Muslim integration based on individual cases publicized in the media are not reflected in broad-based survey data.

It is also noteworthy that we find little difference in the social integration of minorities in Quebec compared to the rest of Canada. In fact, most ethnic, racial and religious minorities report somewhat lower rates of discrimination in Quebec.

These findings carry important implications for future policy. Our findings suggest that multiculturalism policies should not only emphasize the potential strengths of diversity, but also address some of its challenges. Multiculturalism policy should embrace a more authentic and socially active commitment to developing positive relations between groups.

It is worth recalling that these issues were emphasized in Pierre Trudeau’s original speech on multicultural philosophy in 1971. Multiculturalism, he said, involved supporting minority communities.  But it also required resources for integration, including equal access to full participation in Canadian society, as well as learning an official language. And he added a fourth objective: to “promote creating encounters and interchange among all Canadian cultural groups, in the interest of national unity.”

Regarding equality, existing policy promotes the idea of racial equality, but the impact has been small. I say this because minority concerns about inequality grow with greater experience in Canada, and yet equity policies evidently have been insufficient to counter this trend.  Many Canadians simply discount reports of discrimination as unimportant. Yet minorities with greater experience in Canada become more concerned about the issue, and as a Canadian-born generation of racial minorities emerges, the issues of equality will become more significant. Inter-group exchanges could help Canadians address a range of issues not only including cultural practices and beliefs, but also inequalities.

Overall, we conclude that while Canadians celebrate the value of diversity, we also should have a more open, frank, and authentic discussion of some of the challenges we face as a multicultural society. Left unaddressed these challenges may become greater and more difficult to address in the future. We need to explore various ways to bring groups together for this more authentic discussion.

Minority communities may now tend to be isolated from each other but this is not necessarily so. They could play a more positive role in integrating immigrants and members of minorities into the larger society. They can act as a sort of “social bridge” between the two. In further discussion we may want to explore various ways to foster more effective inter-changes among members of Canada’s ethno-cultural groups in various domains of social and community activity – both as groups and individually among citizens who are members of groups.  We think that these challenges are worth meeting, because of the positive benefits of diversity which are also evident in our data and in the everyday lives of most Canadians.

Jeffrey G. Reitz, FRSC, is R.F. Harney Professor of Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies at the University of Toronto. Email: 


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