How did Canada become multicultural, multi-racial, multi-national?

“Most developed countries tolerate plural identities.
But what they struggle to accommodate, Canada embraces and proclaims.” So I wrote four years too early. “T
his is
partly the result of necessity: ours is a country of minorities. But it derives
also from historical timing.”

In the introduction to 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, published by HarperCollins Canada in 2013, I then clarified and elaborated. The original thirteen colonies of the United
States of America adopted a constitution in 1787. Inevitably, that document
reflected eighteenth-century ideas about the nation state: one nation, one
state, one national identity.

As a result, the United States became proudly one
and indivisible, and it fought a civil war to stay that way. Citizens of the
U.S. have a single, over-riding identity: they are Americans. 
Canada, by comparison, did not even begin to emerge
as a state until late in the nineteenth century. The country reached a
political milestone in 1867 with Confederation. But even then Canada remained
subject to the British North America Act, a document that Britain could repeal
at any time.

Only in 1982, under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, did this country gain
control of its own constitution. By then, Canada was too complex to fit into an
eighteenth-century constitutional mould. Trudeau recognized that the country
had become pluralistic: regional, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-national.

But wait!  I’m sparing you quotation marks, but I’m drawing from the book. And 50 Canadians Who Changed the World can still be found in better bookstores, among them Chapters-Indigo (which carries the paperback online at this link.) So maybe the timing is right for a few quick hits from the book. In the introduction, I continued:

Trudeau realized that, as a pluralistic state, Canada
could become “a brilliant prototype” for the civilization of tomorrow. He
convinced Canadians to reject the ethnocentric model (one nation, one state)
championed by Quebecois nationalists — and adopted in the 1700s by Americans
— and recognize that freedom is most secure when two or more nations co-exist
within a single state. This pluralistic vision, rendered into reality by the
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, makes Canada unique among developed
nations. That reality means individuals have room to grow, no matter their
roots, no matter their complexities. It explains why so many Canadians have
changed the world.

It also explains why, instead of arguing ideas, I
decided to focus on individuals. That, I reasoned, is where the stories are. I
quickly discovered a multitude of extraordinary individuals — far too many.
And so I adopted two basic criteria. First, because I hoped to paint a portrait
of contemporary, cutting-edge Canada, I confined my selections to Canadians
born in the twentieth century. This meant excluding remarkable figures from an
earlier era, but opened up space for those changing the world today. Second, I
wanted to focus on Canadians who have made a difference globally. This ruled
out people who have worked miracles here at home, but have had little impact in
the great wide world. A third criterion emerged as I wrote. 

But I’ll produce examples as we approach Canada Day.


  1. Margie Taylor on February 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    A good read, Ken. 50 Canadians should be required reading for students. And schools should buy the book, rather than just photocopying the pages they want! Grrrr.

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