Canada: A Social Context - Organization of American States

Canada: A Social Context
A Presentation to the Organization of American States by
Eileen Sarkar
Assistant Deputy Minister
Department of Canadian Heritage
Good morning, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to be here with you today. To
help set the context for our discussions I plan to briefly outline the social context within
which Canadians live.
I will describe the historical and modern-day geographic, linguistic and cultural
challenges that present themselves. You will see a snapshot of Canada’s diversity
reflected in our young population. And finally I will leave you with a picture of how we, as
a country, intend to address the challenges we face.
Since before the first Europeans made contact with the people who inhabited this land,
Canada has faced geographic, cultural and linguistic challenges. While great progress
has been made - much remains to be done.
Long before the Internet revolution and globalization, Canada’s forefathers ushered in a
new era of connectivity for Canadians.
A Transnational railway made it possible for Canadians to travel from coast to coast in
relative ease. But more importantly, these people brought with them ideas and cultures
that reflected their own personal experiences - born of their primarily European roots and
shaped by the land they now lived in.
A federalist nation divided into ten provinces and three territories encompassing just
under 10 million square kilometres of area, Canada is the second largest country in the
Despite the vast area from which Canadians can choose to live, 51 per cent of all
Canadians can be found in four urban areas: Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver and the
Calgary-Edmonton corridor. As you can see by the areas marked in yellow on this map,
much of Canada is sparsely inhabited.
This trend of moving to urban areas is intensified among new arrivals to Canada: 86 per
cent of all immigrants live in Canada’s largest cities. In particular 62 per cent of all
immigrants and 87 per cent of all visible minorities call Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal
home. More than jobs, immigrants are drawn to these urban areas for the network of
family, friends and community they offer.
Two provinces - Saskatchewan and Newfoundland - have reported net losses of rural
population in the last three censuses. This depopulation of Canada’s rural areas,
coupled with an immigration influx, poses significant policy and service challenges for
Canada’s cities and towns.
Transportation and communication is an issue for any nation but is exacerbated by the
immense size of Canada. The progress begun by the railway continues today - the
Internet has played an enormous role in overcoming these geographical challenges - in
bridging cultural differences by allowing Canadians to share their diverse stories.
Linguistic diversity has been an overarching theme in our national narrative from precontact, through British and French settlement and exploration, to today.
This is another of our essential characteristics, inseparable from cultural diversity and
based on our linguistic duality in English and French. Francophones account for 6.8
million of Canada’s more than 30 million people; the clear majority -- 5.8 million -- of
Francophones live in the province of Québec.
The official languages of Canada, English and French, are enshrined in our Constitution
and protected by the Official Languages Act of 1969. Pressures on Canada’s official
languages are mounting. Since 1996 alone, the number of people whose mother tongue
is neither French nor English rose 12.5 per cent, more than three times the growth rate of
the population as a whole.
Language groups from Asian and Middle Eastern countries make up the largest
proportion of these numbers. Also of note is that, outside the Province of Québec,
minority official-language communities are being reinforced by an influx of Frenchspeaking immigrants, primarily from Africa and the Middle East, but also from South-East
Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Cultural diversity is not a new phenomenon to Canadians. From the period of settlement
and through the development of our society and it’s legal and political framework, to the
present day, the principles of mutual accommodation, respect and equity reflect a reality
that the Government of Canada embraces and works to bring into all of its policies and
One of the cornerstones of Canadian diversity is the existence of Multiculturalism, a
policy first formally adopted in 1971 and legally enforced in the Multiculturalism Act in
1988, and which is featured as an interpretative clause in the Constitution.
We believe that diversity is to be valued, and that citizens can have multiple attachments
and identities while having a strong attachment, and a sense of belonging, to Canada.
This model can only work when we have both diversity and inclusion - a society where all
Canadians can participate fully in, contribute to, and benefit from Canada’s social,
economic, civic, cultural and political life.
Only in Australia was the proportion of population born outside the country higher than it
is in Canada. New data from the 2001 Census show that the proportion of Canada’s
population who were born outside the country has reached its highest level in 70 years.
Over 5 million people, or 18 per cent of the total population, were born outside the
We see diversity as an advantage, not a barrier; in a knowledge economy, every mind
matters. Diversity is a source of creativity and innovation and we believe that our
approach makes Canada a magnet for talent and investment.
Our record is not perfect; we have learned some difficult lessons from our history and we
have seen the costs of exclusion. We are conscious that we must make deliberate
efforts to reinforce our approach to address risks of fragmentation.
When the first settlers arrived, Aboriginal communities thrived from coast to coast to
coast. These settlers found complex cultural and linguistic communities that were as
varied as the landscape.
Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples continue to live throughout Canada: with the largest total
numbers living in Western Canada. This group is the fastest growing population group in
Canada. One third of the Aboriginal population is aged 14 and under.
The urbanization trend in Canada is also true for Aboriginal people, with almost half of
them now living in urban areas. However, their employment rate is still significantly lower
than that of the non-Aboriginal population, with salaries 34% lower than the national
Canada’s youth are reaching higher levels of academic attainment than ever before. 61
per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 34 have achieved some level of post-secondary
credentials. This is 12 per cent more than in 1991. But while higher education may be a
gateway to higher earnings, it is no guarantee. Youth have not experienced increases in
average earnings over the last two decades. In some cases, they have even lost ground,
and are on a lower earnings track than older more experienced groups.
This may be a contributing factor to the disaffection many Canadian youth are feeling
today. Only 38.8% of Canadian youth, age 18 to 24, voted in the last Federal election,
which in fact had the lowest overall voter participation rate in Canadian history (61.2%).
More than ever, youth appear to be choosing non-traditional forms of political
participation. There is a greater propensity to join activist-type political movements rather
than formal political parties and institutions.
However, while activism appears to be providing a viable avenue for youth to engage in
public life, youth appear to remain on the “outside” of the major institutions of power.
Canadians have clearly demonstrated that they value diversity and the benefits that it
brings. They have called it one of our “Core Canadian Values”.
As such, they demand that the government promote and strengthen the foundations that
already exist.
Through programs like Exchanges Canada, youth are given the opportunity to
experience this vast country and learn more about the natural and human elements that
make us all Canadian.
Young Canada Works is another program that sponsors summer work experience for
students and internship opportunities for unemployed or underemployed university and
college graduates. These are but two of the ways the Government of Canada is working
to promote a sense of shared citizenship among Canadians to build a society that is
inclusive of all.
Unlike many other societies, Canadians cannot rely on symbols such as a single
common language, culture or ethnic origin to create a sense of citizenship.
In the Canadian Shared Citizenship model, each individual defines for him and herself
what it is to be Canadian. This identity is in turn shaped by interactions with fellow
Research has shown that the building blocks of this identity are threefold: that people
require trust in each other and in Canada’s institutions; that shared experiences and
stories build a sense of pride and attachment to this country; and finally, that commitment
to democracy and to legal instruments such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and
Freedoms create a sense of common purpose characterized by mutual accommodation,
collective responsibility and respect for diversity.
But this is not something that can be done by the federal government alone. The
federalist structure of Canada clearly divides responsibilities between the federal
government and its provincial counterparts.
Of particular importance is the responsibility the provinces bear for educating our
children. The federal and provincial levels of government must forge strong links to
ensure that “Core values of Citizenship” are learned in much the same degree as we
learn math or grammar.
The vibrancy and creativity of our communities is also a key contributor to ensuring that
every Young Canadian has the opportunity to achieve their full potential in a harmonious
and cohesive society.
I have only scratched the surface of the very real challenges of this ongoing process.
Engaging diversity and working toward equity is a continuing project. We are working
very hard to help Canadians on this journey.