Canadian Culture And Ethnic Diversity

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Culture And Ethnic Diversity/

The relationship between ethnicity and Canadian culture is pervasive. In a number of ways, the evolution of Canadian culture has been away from a centred, unitary vision, and ethnic diversity has contributed in important ways to this centrifugal pattern.

It is difficult to define categorically three of the words in this entry’s title: “Canadian,” “culture,” and “ethnic.” The term “Canadian” is elusive in any but the most legalistic sense, the search for its essence having been a kind of national obsession, at least in English-speaking Canada, since Confederation. Culture is also a difficult word to define, particularly in this context, because both its primary meanings – the inclusive, anthropological sense of the totality of a particular group’s ways of living and the more exclusive one that connects culture with artistic expression – are relevant to our discussion.

“Ethnic” is also elusive because recently it has been used to mean a variety of things. It is, moreover, a politically sensitive term, in part, because of its derivation from the Greek word ethnos, or “heathen,” which continues to be felt in the negative connotation that it carries for many. Nevertheless, whether defined as “otherness,” in the sense of designating the outsider; as ancestry (descent); as group membership (self-proclaimed, ascribed, or both) or, as anthropologist Frederik Barth has argued, a marker of the boundaries between groups; or as a fluctuating combination of all these, “ethnic” – or “ethnicity” – has been a key shaper of Canadian culture. But it has not been the only, or even the primary, influence; rather, it has acted in combination with other factors such as geographic and economic imperatives, the legacy of a dual colonialism, class, and the proximity of the United States. What follows is an overview of broad patterns and an interpretation of some of the fundamental ways that ethnicity has influenced, and continues to influence, the diversity of Canadian culture. (See also CULTURE AND IDENTITY IN FRENCH CANADA)

Since 1971 Canada has had an official cultural policy, its complexities encapsulated in the phrase “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.” That the federal government found it necessary to proclaim such a policy, and that it took this form of uneasy compromise, reveals two fundamental and interrelated features of Canadian life: first, ethnic and cultural diversity has had a profound impact on the country’s evolution as a nation, and second, providing an uncontentious description of Canadian culture is not easy. The inevitable pressures in a pluralistic nation, on the one hand, to preserve old connections – ethnic, linguistic, and national – and, on the other, to create a new consensus have been complicated by the country’s dual colonial inheritance. These forces have shaped its political history and contributed to its strong regionalism. They have also determined artistic expression in Canada.

As heir to a French-English colonial struggle that interacted in manifold ways with the indigenous peoples, eventually usurping the latter’s legitimate place in North America, Canada is a product of the clashing and mingling of different cultures. Even before the arrival of Europeans, North America had a diverse population. Each major region was home to a particular aboriginal group, and the six major divisions of Canada’s native peoples – Arctic, Eastern Woodlands, Northwest Coast, Western Plains, Northern Plateau, and Subarctic – were composed of a variety of linguistic and tribal groups. So, even before the French and the English began to colonize the land that we now call Canada in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its people were diverse in language and custom.

The French and the English, as competing colonizers, became the major shapers of the country’s political and social institutions, as well as its cultural life. But they were not homogenous either. The French by the 1760s were divided between the Acadians and the Canadiens. And as the west was settled, there emerged not only the French-speaking Metis – the offspring of French fur traders and aboriginal peoples – but also a number of French-Canadian westerners with their own sense of identity. The “English” were from the outset heterogeneous, consisting of peoples from all parts of the British Isles. Immigrants from England, Ireland, Wales, and the Scottish lowlands, highlands, and islands had a strong sense of their distinctiveness, which they brought to Canada. Like the French, the English-speaking fur traders mixed with aboriginal peoples to produce another Metis group.

Thus, even without the fourth main element in Canadian society – immigrants to Canada and their descendants whose origins were neither British nor French – Canadian culture would have been the product of a diverse mix of peoples. The fourth strand, which had been present in small numbers since the earliest days of European exploration, but began to arrive in larger numbers from the mid-nineteenth century onward, virtually guaranteed the complexity of the process. Not surprisingly, this story has been inseparable from the larger struggles of these various groups for political, economic, and social power. Consequently, the cultural artefacts produced by Canada’s diverse peoples have been valued to some considerable extent in terms of the socio-economic/ethnic hierarchy referred to by sociologist John Porter as the “vertical mosaic,” rather than in purely artistic terms. In addition to the barriers created by language or by the difference between the primarily oral tradition of aboriginal literatures and the long-written history of those of western Europe, there have been less obvious, but nevertheless significant, barriers implicit in the “two nations” vision of Canada.

For example, only in the last twenty years have the canons of Canadian literature in either English or French included the work of writers whose backgrounds were neither. Native writers are only now being accepted by literary critics, anthologists, teachers, and other gatekeepers of the culture as contributors to bona fide Canadian literature. The same is also generally true of authors whose ancestral backgrounds are other than that of the “founding peoples.” The sense that there is a mainstream English-Canadian literature and that anything else is peripheral has been slow to dissipate. However, the literary landscape of anglophone Canada and to some extent its francophone counterpart has gradually been transformed, in many ways paralleling the country’s political evolution from a colonial outpost to a multicultural nation. The definition of what constitutes Canadian literature is now much more inclusive than it was even as recently as the 1970s, thus reflecting a growing awareness and acknowledgment of the country’s increasing cultural diversity. Similarly, the art world has been democratically broadening its parameters beyond the fine arts traditions of Anglo-Canadian culture. Folk art, for example, which is often informed by ethnicity, has acquired a significant place in Canadian arts and letters since the early work of J. Russell Harper.

This evolution towards greater inclusiveness corresponds to the broad pattern one sees in other aspects of Canadian society, a pattern woven out of the seemingly contradictory, but fundamental impulses underlying intergroup relations. One is the inclination to create protective boundaries around one’s particular group, thereby fostering traditionalism; the other is the impulse to move across barriers and embrace eclecticism. This complex interaction has long been a fundamental feature of Canadian life. While characterized by inequalities and rigidities that have privileged some cultural expressions over others and promoted a kind of balkanized cultural landscape, it has ultimately been transformative, producing an increasingly synthetic national culture that is unique, multi-layered, and continually evolving.