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Multiculturalism at 50

Image credit: Tim Mossholder

By Zachary Paikin

This article was first published by Open Canada.

“A shifting international order requires that Canada adjust its understanding of multiculturalism from an inward-focused value to celebrate to an outward-focused cause to rally around.”

This year marks a half-century since Pierre Trudeau announced Canada’s policy of multiculturalism in the House of Commons in 1971. Much has changed in Canada and the world since then. So, too, should multiculturalism’s place and purpose in our national make-up.

Stephen Marche, writing for Open Canada in 2018, explains what makes Canadian multiculturalism unique: In contrast with societies throughout history that have encouraged cultural openness “to find unity, a common humanity, or even a larger truth,” the purpose of multiculturalism in Canada is “diversity for its own sake. Differences are to be respected, not overcome.” Yet the adoption of multiculturalism was not merely about the ideal of ethnic tolerance. Given the political context in which Canada found itself 50 years ago, it was also a policy with pragmatic and strategic aims.

Increasingly, the strategic rationale that initially underpinned Canadian multiculturalism appears outdated, challenged by the arrival of a post-American world and the shift of global power toward Asia. If it is to retain its purpose as a vehicle for advancing the country’s national interests, multiculturalism in Canada must become more than just a celebration of diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, Canada’s political leadership should reconceive multiculturalism as a core instrument of national strategy aimed at growing our population, increasing our international clout and rebalancing Canadian foreign policy to reduce our current overdependence on the United States.

*  * *

When first enacted, multiculturalism allowed Canada to advance two core aims: secure national unity and develop a distinct identity from the United States. These goals have been mutually reinforcing throughout Canadian history. Canada was founded as a political project bringing together conservative British Loyalists and French Catholics in opposition to the liberal universalism expressed by its southern neighbour. Multiculturalism built on both objectives. By promoting the notion that cultural minorities should be accommodated, it fostered a pan-Canadian framework for addressing Quebec’s grievances. It also articulated an image of Canadian society as a “mosaic” — a clear contrast to the American “melting pot.” Yet if these remain the two metrics by which to judge multiculturalism’s effectiveness, then its continued usefulness could be in doubt.

The demographic and economic rise of Western Canada has gradually shifted the structure of Canadian federalism away from its 19th-century, Laurentian-centric compromise of “two founding peoples.” Taking its place is a heavily decentralized federation featuring a system of competing regionalisms. While multiculturalism may still hold a privileged place in the social fabric of the country’s English-speaking provinces, its role in advancing national unity has waned given the nature of Canada’s new political cleavages.

Perhaps more importantly, Canada has become more Americanized in recent decades, not less. The 1990s saw the advent of continental free trade, along with a U.S.-led effort to expand the liberal international order beyond the western Cold War bloc. In both economic and ideological terms, Canada’s dependence on its southern neighbour deepened. The 9/11 attacks reinforced this trend, forcing Ottawa to focus even more vigorously on how to maintain access to the U.S. market at a time when Washington’s pursuit of global hegemony was sharpening through the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror” and “freedom agenda.” Today, the growth of protectionist impulses within both major U.S. political parties will continue to pull our focus southward, even as the increasingly multipolar character of world politics suggests that our attention should be directed elsewhere.

This process of Americanization has coincided with a period of decline in Canadian foreign policy. Perceived as too close to the United States and not invested enough in key components of multilateralism, Canada has lost not one but two consecutive bids for a UN Security Council seat, even as fellow G7 countries Germany, Japan and Italy continue to serve as non-permanent members with regularity. Relations with major players in some of the world’s most strategically relevant regions — China, Russia, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even the U.S. itself — have reached new lows under governments of both stripes. This almost exclusive foreign policy focus on the U.S. border was epitomized in a 2018 episode when Chrystia Freeland — then serving as foreign affairs minister, not minister of international trade — postponed her speech before the UN General Assembly to pursue NAFTA renegotiation talks with Washington.

It is perhaps not coincidental that the past two decades have also been accompanied by the abandonment of Canada’s traditional national unity debates, or by a six-election-long stretch dating back to 2000 in which no federal political party has managed to rally more than 40 percent of the voting electorate behind it. Rather than pursue the lofty but crucial mission of reimagining the future of Canada’s national community, governments have focused on the managerial and mundane task of tending to the continental trading relationship.

As Canada’s interests on the world stage have come to rest disproportionately on the preservation of a stable trading relationship with its southern neighbour, Ottawa’s pronouncements concerning the rest of the world increasingly centre on partisan discourses directed at a domestic audience. This trend began in earnest under Stephen Harper, whose Conservative Party had the targeting of ethnocultural groups for electoral purposes down to a science. It has continued during Justin Trudeau’s tenure, exemplified by Canada’s ill-timed bid for a UN Security Council seat that was aimed more at strengthening the Liberal narrative that Canada was “back” as a multilateral powerhouse than advancing a long-term, non-partisan national aspiration. (Disclosure: I served on that bid in a minor capacity as a speechwriting consultant.) The recent appointment of Marc Garneau as Trudeau’s fourth minister of foreign affairs in just over five years (and Canada’s 14th since 2000) reflects the fact that the position has become more about domestic politics than actually crafting foreign policy. Co-opting foreign policy into a partisan struggle over national identity makes it difficult to assess Canada’s interests consistently, objectively and as ends worthy of being pursued in themselves.

Over the past half-century, Canada has succeeded in fostering internal diversity: welcoming the world within our borders to create a cultural mosaic, yet with the aim of building a society converging around a single set of principles and values. This goal reflected the aspirations of Canada’s population at the time of multiculturalism’s adoption. Canada’s initial settlers from France and the British Isles, as well as subsequent immigrant communities such as Jews, Italians, Germans and Ukrainians, had all left the Old World behind in search of a new beginning. By contrast, today’s immigrant communities — hailing largely but not exclusively from East, South and West Asia — are more cosmopolitan. They are, to a far greater extent than previous generations of newcomers, “at home in the world,” often retaining strong personal and cultural connections to their countries of origin.

Canada’s pursuit of multiculturalism must adapt to new strategic imperatives and the country’s changing ethnic composition. In an increasingly Asia-centric world, this requires Canada to embrace external diversity: marshalling the focus of its diverse population outwards, with the goal of securing a more substantive place in a politically and intellectually diverse Asian region.

For the bulk of the Cold War following the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as in the immediate post-Cold War years that featured unrivalled American hegemony, a special relationship with Washington and geographic isolation from the rest of the world served as the guarantors of Canadian security. By contrast, in a post-American world framed increasingly by great power conflict, Canadian and American interests are likely to diverge in important ways. In particular, the deterioration of Sino-American relations, now verging on a cold war, threatens the rules-based order and open global trading system on which Canada relies to assert itself as a sovereign international decision-maker. In this context, the struggle for an independent Canadian identity and role in the world will increasingly take place on the world stage rather than at home.

Given the threat posed by the U.S.-China rivalry to Canadian interests, the challenge for Ottawa will be to craft a role for itself as an autonomous, respected and engaged player in Asian affairs. This will require deep, consistent and sustained partnerships with all regional players and a long-term national strategy that transcends partisan politics. It will also necessitate a more active and independent Canadian role in shaping regional trade and security architecture. This does not imply neutrality between the United States and its rivals, merely greater equilibrium in Canadian foreign policy that prioritizes Canada’s unique interests.

In particular, the absence of the United States and India from the region’s two leading trade blocs — the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — presents an opening for Canada to assert its presence in Asia. Canada’s position as the second-largest economy in the CPTPP leaves it well placed to spearhead efforts to explore ways of harmonizing the two groupings, perhaps along with the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). This could reduce the potential for friction to emerge between rival regional orders — a dynamic that came with dire consequences last decade when Ukraine was forced to choose between moving toward the European Union’s regulatory orbit or aligning itself with the EAEU.

Multiculturalism will continue to provide Canada with the right framework for integrating a diverse range of newcomers in a peaceful fashion, growing its population to a point where it can play a more substantive role in securing its national interests and international peace. But a shifting international order requires that Canada adjust its understanding of multiculturalism from an inward-focused value to celebrate to an outward-focused cause to rally around. Much as the 19th-century risorgimento created Italy but not Italians, multiculturalism created Canada out of the ashes of British North America. But what it means to be Canadian beyond being a “kinder, gentler version of the United States” — in other words, not American, but like America — remains unresolved.

Marche’s essay laments that multiculturalism has thus far proven too “polite” and “hesitant” to produce an “art of respectful difference,” contrasting with beautiful artistic forms such as jazz that emerged from the “insistence of personhood” in more unjust societies. Increasing Canada’s international clout in the world’s central strategic theatre will indeed require Ottawa to navigate a region rife with moral ambiguity. Yet if Canada emerges from the coming decades as a leading international player in its own right, unrivalled in the uniqueness of its multicultural social fabric, then it will possess the heft, respect and visibility necessary to contribute to the debate over the nature of justice and tolerance in a diverse world. Perhaps, at that point, Canada itself would embody the art of respectful difference.

Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS).


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor