Adams and Parkin: Canadians aren’t just adapting to diversity – there’s data to show we’re embracing it

Of note, the general consensus with relatively few exceptions (CPC views on CBC and official bilingualism, Quebec differences):

This past year offered Canadians plenty of reasons to question their national identity. The angry occupation of Ottawa last winter, on the edge of Parliament Hill, clashed with our stereotype of Canadians as polite compromisers. Day-long emergency room wait times quashed any urge we might once have had to brag to Americans about our public health care system. Provincial governments started behavinglike our beloved Charter of Rights and Freedoms was merely a suggestion, not a set of binding rules. Even the death of Queen Elizabeth II had a disruptive effect, as some of us balked at swearing allegiance to a new heir.

Other signs of change came from the steady stream of new census numbers published over the course of 2022 by Statistics Canada. We learned that a greater proportion of our population than ever before (23 per cent) is made up of immigrants – people who are increasingly from Asia and Africa rather than Europe. More than one in four of us are now racialized, and one in 20 is Muslim. Our Indigenous population is growing almost twice as fast as the non-Indigenous population and will soon surpass two million.

It would be reasonable to assume that the combination of change, anxiety and conflict we have experienced in the past year is straining the common bonds that have previously held us together. Our research shows some evidence of this, if we look at the popular appeal of the traditional symbols of the Canadian state, such as our flag or national anthem. Both are a little less likely than they were 20 years ago to be seen as very important to the Canadian identity.

Other iconic institutions, such as the RCMP and the CBC, have also lost some of their appeal as symbols of a shared identity. Even the game of hockey has been declining in its importance to the Canadian sense of self since it hit a peak in 2010, the year of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

But in actuality, the Canadian identity is not weakening – it is shifting. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms now appeals to more Canadians than any other symbol or institution. The concept of multiculturalism has become more popular than ever: Almost two in three Canadians now say this uniquely Canadian concept is very important to our identity (30 years ago, it was closer to one in three). And in just the past decade, there has been a striking increase in the extent to which Canadians see Indigenous peoples as being very important to the country’s self-image.

This last finding may stir controversy. Some Indigenous peoples may object to their being positioned as a symbol of the country whose existence their own nations predate by many thousands of years. And framing our relationship with Indigenous peoples in terms of Canadian identity might strike some as papering over the long list of injustices that remain to be addressed.

But it is also possible to interpret the survey in a more positive light. The events of recent years – from the disruption of the railways in early 2020 in support of the land claims of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, to the discovery of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools, to the prevalence of violence inflicted upon Indigenous women and girls – have not prompted Canadians either to turn their backs or cover their ears. They have led instead to a concept of what it means to live in a country that puts learning from our mistakes ahead of tradition, and that is thereby becoming more inclusive than ever before.

Significantly, these shifts in the Canadian identity are most pronounced among younger generations. But older Canadians themselves are hardly clinging to an image of the country that their children or grandchildren find outdated. The fact is that Canadians in all age groups are increasingly framing their sense of national identity in terms of diversity. The proportion of Canadians over the age of 60 who say that multiculturalism is very important to the Canadian identity has never been higher than it is today; the proportion in the older age group who say the same of the Canadian flag has never been lower.

Other historic cleavages, however, remain. Almost all the traditional symbols of the Canadian identity have far less appeal to Quebeckers than to Canadians living in the rest of the country (the main exception being bilingualism, which naturally is much more popular among francophones). It is no surprise that the monarch and O Canada, for instance, stir fewer hearts in Quebec than elsewhere.

The fact that a growing proportion of Quebeckers – about twice as many as 25 years ago – recognize multiculturalism as very important to the Canadian identity, may be more of a surprise (it might certainly be news to the province’s Premier). The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Indigenous peoples, are also at the top of the list in Quebec in terms of importance to identity, just as they are in the rest of Canada.

There are also gaps between the views of new Canadians, and those who were born in this country. Predictably, immigrants are more likely to value multiculturalism as part of their new country’s identity. But notably, almost everything associated with Canada has more appeal to immigrants than to “old stock” Canadians, including the flag, the national anthem, the monarchy – and even hockey. What distinguishes immigrants from other Canadians is not so much the appeal of the value of diversity. Rather, it is their level of enthusiasm for the country that has welcomed them.

It would also be a mistake to attribute the growing popularity of multiculturalism in Canada to the growth in the country’s immigrant population. Regardless of whether they were born here or abroad, Canadians are increasingly likely to see multiculturalism as an important part of their shared identity.

The one divide that is more jarring is between supporters of different political parties. There is no doubt that the more traditional symbols of Canadian identity, such as the flag and the national anthem, have more appeal to Conservatives than to Liberal and NDP supporters (which has some irony, as the flag was procured by a Liberal government over Conservative opposition in the 1960s). Importantly, this is not because Conservatives are reverting toward tradition or turning away from diversity; it is rather because the attitudes of non-Conservatives are evolving more quickly. Today’s NDP supporters, in particular, embrace a very different image of the country than they did 20 years ago.

What is revealing, though, is the comparison between those who back today’s unified Conservative Party, with those who backed either of its preunification parties in the 1990s. The views of today’s Conservatives on multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are closer to those of yesterday’s Progressive Conservatives (that is to say, today’s Conservatives hold what would have been considered somewhat progressive views on these matters a few decades ago). But on two other symbols – the CBC and bilingualism – the conservative movement’s 1990s Reform Party heritage shines through. In fact, today’s Conservatives are even less likely than past Reform Party supporters to say that the CBC is very important to the Canadian identity – something which bodes well for the Conservative Party’s new Leader, Pierre Poilievre, and his promise to defund the public broadcaster.

The fact that the base of the united federal Conservative Party looks a little more like the old Reform Party on official bilingualism, however, presents a bit of a problem. Mr. Poilievre speaks French well, but today’s Conservatives are less likely than their Brian Mulroney-era predecessors to see bilingualism as important. This could make it difficult for Mr. Poilievre to make a breakthrough with voters in Quebec should francophones sense that the Conservative Party doesn’t see official bilingualism as an important part of the Canadian bargain.

These differences notwithstanding, we are emerging from a period of unparalleled, pandemic-induced strain with a sense of Canada that is much more unifying than divisive. Nine in 10 of us express at least some pride in being a Canadian. The strength of this pride is weaker in Quebec, but it is not absent. There are pockets of anger: Among those who are dissatisfied with the way the country is going, the proportion who are not proud of being a Canadian reaches 16 per cent; among supporters of the Bloc Québécois, who dream of living in a different country, it reaches 20 per cent. That still leaves most of us feeling that there is a lot to celebrate.

What is most important about these trends, though, is that our image of the country, and its demographic reality, are evolving in the same direction. Diversity has become more important to us as we have become more diverse. Canadians are not only adapting to change, they are embracing it.

As we look to the new year, Canadians can prepare to engage in arguments over very Canadian things, such as the appropriate size of the Canada Health Transfer. And there will be clashes over serious problems that affect people’s livelihoods, such as interest rates and carbon taxes. But most of us won’t be arguing about who belongs here. We will leave xenophobia to others. In Canada, we will be feeling our way forward toward xenophilia.

Michael Adams is the founder of the Environics Institute and the author of Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Multiculturalism. Andrew Parkin is the institute’s executive director.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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