8.1.1 The Canadian School of Thought

Arjun Tremblay

The Canadian school of thought’s central tenet is that, as individuals, our quest for meaning and fulfillment in life does not and cannot take place in complete isolation from other human beings. In fact, according to Will Kymlicka, each and every one of us belongs to a distinct “societal culture.” To begin with, Kymlicka defines a “culture” – in the now classic Multicultural Citizenship (1995) – as “an intergenerational community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and history” (p. 18). A “societal culture”, therefore, is a type of “intergenerational community” that provides individuals with a set of values, a sense of the purpose in one’s life as well as an understanding of what the good life constitutes. Along similar lines, Charles Taylor argues in the equally important Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (1992) that human beings are not “monological” subjects; this means that our individual identity, while “inwardly generated” (p. 34) and disassociated from one’s social position, is actually never fully realized in complete independence from other human beings. Rather, according to Taylor, humans are “dialogical” subjects. We define ourselves (i.e., understand our identity, who we are, our “authentic” self) through the use of a range of “rich human languages of expression” (p. 32) and in dialogue with other people.

On the Good Life…

Trying to understand what “the good life” constitutes is something that preoccupied Ancient Greek and Arab philosophers and it continues to be a key question for contemporary philosophers and political theorists. What binds most of these inquiries together is the shared understanding that mere existence is not enough and that human beings need fulfillment, satisfaction, and meaning to truly live. Scholars differ in their perspectives on the means to achieving fulfillment, satisfaction, and meaning and what a life beyond mere existence should actually look like.  Consequently, there are competing visions of “the good life.”

The Canadian school of thought’s second tenet is that modern democratic states are “multicultural.”  This means that these states contain a variety of cultural groups – by which I mean groups with distinct societal cultures – within their territorial borders. Every multicultural state contains both a majority cultural group as well as one or several minority cultural groups within its territorial boundaries.

A majority cultural group – which can also be referred to as a “majority nation” – is one whose members’ shared language, history, customs, religion, values, and/or conception of the good life is reflected in and embodied by the state’s institutions, its ideals of citizenship and political participation, and its national symbols. In addition, the language of the majority group is most often also the language of commerce in the state.

Minority cultural groups emerge as the result of processes of voluntary immigration, the colonization of Indigenous peoples, and the forced incorporation of territorially concentrated nations (such as the Catalans, South Tyroleans, the Basque People, the Scottish, and the Québécois). Due to these processes, the languages, customs, religion, and values of minority cultural groups do not enjoy the same degree of institutionalization and public recognition as those of the majority nation; they may in fact not be institutionalized or recognized at all.

Most modern liberal democratic states consist of a majority nation as well as one or several “polyethnic” groups. The term “polyethnic” is used in studies of multiculturalism to describe minority communities that emerge as by-products of individual and familial immigration. Some countries, such as Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain, contain both polyethnic minorities as well as one or several territorially concentrated (non-Indigenous) political communities that once had some degree of political autonomy but were then forcibly incorporated into a state. These communities are known as “minority nations”. There are only a handful of modern liberal democratic states that encompass polyethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples as well as a minority nation within its territorial boundaries. Canada is one of these states.

The Canadian school of thought’s third tenet is that Indigenous peoples, minority nations, and polyethnic groups face challenges that the majority nation does not. For instance, the processes of colonization and forced incorporation threaten the continuity of the societal cultures of Indigenous peoples and minority nations because it is usually the majority nation’s societal culture that is institutionalized and embodied in national symbols and the official language. Additionally, the extent to which the majority nation’s customs, language and values naturally pervade private and public spheres means that polyethnic minorities must, to some degree or another, abandon their own societal culture and adopt and internalize the majority nation’s societal culture if they are to have any chance of fully participating in these spheres.

Charles Taylor brings to light another critical challenge that minority cultures face. One of the key implications of Taylor’s understanding of dialogical human existence is that, since our identity is defined by our dialogue with those around us, our understanding of who we are is also in part contingent on how others recognize us. If we extend the understanding of dialogical human existence to examine the relationship between majority and minority cultural groups, this means that a minority group’s fulfillment is in part contingent on being recognized by the majority nation. In turn, the non-recognition or misrecognition of members of minority societal cultures by the majority can have deleterious effects: it can stunt, impede, or altogether prevent an individual member of a minority cultural group’s quest for meaning and fulfillment. More precisely, Taylor argues that the non-recognition of minority cultures means that only the majority culture’s vision of the good life is seen as legitimate while the misrecognition of minority’s societal culture means that “people or society mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” (1992, p. 25).

The Canadian school of thought’s fourth tenet is that the American intellectual tradition of liberalism – perhaps the most widely-known tradition of liberalism due in large part to its preeminent position in legal, philosophical, and political scholarship – provides insufficient remedies for addressing the challenges that minority cultural groups face. According to Taylor (1992, pp. 56-58), this tradition embraces an understanding of liberalism based on a “procedural” moral commitment. This particular understanding of liberalism values only the enshrinement of basic rights and liberties and does not believe that it is the state’s duty to describe and institutionalize a single conception of the good life; individuals should be free to abide by their own conception of the good life, albeit within constitutional and legal limits. Therefore, within a context of procedural liberalism, minority nations would not be allowed to institutionalize their societal culture as the common public culture at the sub-national level (i.e., at the provincial or regional level) even though this might ensure its proper recognition and its continuity.

Figure 8.3. John Rawls (1921-2002).

John Kymlicka, by contrast, critiques liberal scholar John Rawls’ theory of justice. Rawls’ theory provides a rational justification for a polity built on “a social democratic principle of economic redistribution to supplement a classically liberal principle of equal individual rights” (Forbes, 2019, p. 105). Kymlicka argues that Rawls’ theory is based on the assumption that societies are mono-cultural (ibid.) and that societal cultures are not “primary goods” akin to rights and liberties. Therefore, Rawls’ theory of justice cannot provide an adequate theory of justice for multicultural democracies.

The Canadian school of thought’s fifth tenet is that there are, nevertheless, remedies for the misrecognition and non-recognition of minorities as well as solutions to the challenges that minority groups face. According to Taylor, one potential remedy for the misrecognition and non-recognition of minorities is the adoption of a “politics of difference” based on a “substantive” (rather than procedural) moral commitment. This substantive liberalism would allow for the potential institutionalization of multiple conceptions of the good life within the same liberal democracy.

In Multicultural Citizenship (1995), Kymlicka describes a “politics of multiculturalism” for liberal democracies. Kymlicka’s “politics of multiculturalism” provides three sets of “group-differentiated rights” for minorities that build upon, but do not replace, the protection of individual rights. Table 8.1 below highlights these three sets of group-differentiated rights (i.e., “self-government,” “polyethnic,” and “special representation”), the specific minority groups to which they apply (i.e., national minorities, Indigenous peoples, and polyethnic groups), how minorities have claimed these rights in liberal democratic states (i.e., “Nature of the rights claim”), and how some states have responded to these claims (i.e., “Mechanisms for recognizing rights claims”) through the adoption of a range of policies, measures and institutions.

Table 8.1.The Politics of Multiculturalism

Group-differentiated rights Groups that claim these rights Nature of the rights claim Mechanisms for recognizing rights claims
Self-government National minorities

Indigenous Peoples

“Self-government claims…typically take the form of devolving power to a political unit substantially controlled by the members of the national minority, and substantially corresponding to their historical homeland or territory.” (p. 30) 1. Federalism, where boundaries between subnational units are drawn such that the national minority is a majority within its unit.

2. Asymmetrical federalism

3. Devolution of powers to tribal/band councils.

Polyethnic Polyethnic groups “…demanding the right freely to express their particularity without fear of prejudice or discrimination in the mainstream society.” (p. 30)

“…[demanding] various forms of public funding of their cultural practices.” (p. 31)

“…[demanding] exemptions from laws and regulations that disadvantage them, given their religious practices.” (p. 31)

1. Anti-racism measures

2. Recognition of history and the contributions of polyethnic minorities in curricula

3. Funding of ethnic associations, magazines and festivals

4. Exemptions of dress codes and Sunday closing laws

Special Representation National minorities

Indigenous Peoples

Polyethnic groups

“Throughout the Western democracies, there is increasing concern that the political process is ‘unrepresentative’, in the sense that it fails to reflect the diversity of the population. Legislatures in most of these countries are dominated by middle-class, able-bodied, white men.” (p. 32) 1. Making political parties more inclusive by reducing barriers to minority participation

2. Proportional representation electoral rules

3. Other forms of “political ‘affirmative action’” (p. 32)

Source: Kymlicka, W. (1995). Multicultural citizenship (pp. 10-33). Clarendon Press.

Kymlicka expands on his definition of polyethnic rights (see table 8.1) in Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship (2001). Here, he describes multiculturalism as “fair terms of integration” for polyethnic minorities and argues that “fairness” in the immigrant integration process requires not only that governments engage in the “ongoing, systematic exploration of our common institutions to see whether their rules, structures and symbols disadvantage immigrants” (p. 162) but also that they take active steps to lower barriers to immigrant participation in the private and public spheres of the receiving society. In other words, Kymlicka argues that governments must “accommodate” polyethnic minorities. Table 8.2 provides a list of the 12 policies identified by Kymlicka that liberal democracies have implemented with the aim of making the integration process fairer.

The Canadian school of thought’s sixth main tenet is that there are limits to minority recognition and to minority accommodation. Taylor draws from the case of Québec’s language laws – adopted to protect a minority nation’s societal culture – to establish what can and cannot be done in implementing a politics of difference. He argues that the implementation of a politics of difference can allow the state to curtail “privileges and immunities that are important” (Taylor, 1992, p. 59) in the pursuit of collective rights; this is consistent with his understanding of liberalism founded on a substantive moral commitment. However, Taylor is also clear that this is where things must stop: a politics of difference cannot and does not allow governments to curtail or do away with fundamental liberties and individual rights.

Table 8.2 - Multiculturalism as Fair Terms of Integration

1. Adopting affirmative action programmes which seek to increase the representation of immigrant groups (or women and the disabled) in major educational and economic institutions.
2. Reserving a certain number of seats in the legislature, or government advisory bodies, for immigrant groups (or women and the disabled).
3. Revising the history and literature curriculum within public schools to give greater recognition to the historical and cultural contributions of immigrant groups.
4. Revising work schedules so as to accommodate the religious holidays of immigrant groups. For example, some schools schedule Professional Development days on major Jewish or Muslim holidays. Also, Jewish and Muslim businesses are exempted from Sunday closing legislation.
5. Revising dress-codes so as to accommodate the religious beliefs of immigrant groups. For example, revising the army dress code so that Orthodox Jews can wear their skullcaps, or exempting Sikhs from mandatory motorcycle helmet laws or construction-site hardhat laws.
6. Adopting anti-racism educational programmes.
7. Adopting workplace or school harassment codes which seek to prevent colleagues/students from making racial (or sexist/homophobic) statements.
8. Mandating cultural diversity training for the police or health care professionals, so that they can recognize individual needs and conflicts within immigrant families.
9. Adopting government regulatory guidelines about ethnic stereotypes in the media.
10. Providing government funding of ethnic cultural festivals and ethnic studies programmes.
11. Providing certain services to adult immigrants in their mother-tongue, rather than requiring them to learn English as a precondition for accessing public services.
12. Providing bilingual education programmes for the children of immigrants, so that their earliest years of education are conducted partly in their mother-tongue, as a transitional phase to secondary and postsecondary education in English.

Source: Kymlicka, W. (2000). Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship. Oxford; Oxford University Press; pp. 152-176.

Kymlicka outlines “limits of tolerance” to multiculturalism understood as “fair terms of integration” for immigrant minorities. He too is very clear about these limits, stating that: “the logic of multiculturalism involves accommodating diversity within the constraints of constitutional principles of equal opportunity and individual rights” (2001, p. 174; emphasis added). Consequently, Kymlicka embraces what he calls a “a liberal egalitarian form of multiculturalism … that respects individual autonomy and responsibility” (2018, p. 81).

In sum, the Canadian school of thought on multiculturalism brings to light the great cultural diversity present in modern liberal democratic states as well as the importance of recognizing and accommodating minority groups, albeit within the limits of the protection of individual rights and liberties. As we shall see, the Canadian school of thought converges with the newly emerging Bristol School of Multiculturalism in one key way, however, both schools also differ in important respects.

The Canadian School of Thought: Six Tenets

Media Attributions



Share This Book