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  • The Challenge of Ethnic ConflictCanada-From Bilingualism to Multiculturalism
  • Hugh Donald Forbes (bio)

Mass migration has created Canada's problems of ethnic conflict and accommodation, as it has those of the United States. From the seventeenth century to the present, large numbers of Europeans have migrated to the New World, displacing its aboriginal inhabitants and thus creating a more or less cohesive native or indigenous minority. Migrants from Africa and Asia forced in the past, voluntary more recently—have added other ethnic minorities distinguished by "visible" or "racial" differences. The numerically dominant European population is itself, of course, ethnically divided—in the Canadian case, primarily between the English and the French, but secondarily between the older migrants from Northern Europe and the more recent "New Canadians" from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Canada's parliamentary democratic institutions have been successful so far at managing the tensions associated with these divisions, and Canadians are rightly proud of their success. Indeed, one common purpose or ambition of Canadians—beyond simply consuming the fruits of the highest technology applied to the most abundant natural resources—is to show the world how to manage ethnic conflict, so as to avoid the horrors of the past century. But Canada's status as a model of skillful management is threatened by the growing racial tensions in Canada's large cities and by the separatist movement among French-speakers in Quebec. To understand the lessons that Canada may have to teach, one must begin by noting the historical and institutional background to the current situation.

The golden age of ethnic accommodation in Canada lasted a little over a century, from the 1840s to the 1950s. The most important [End Page 69] division during this period, as more recently, was the division between English and French.

Modern Canada is the result of the sudden, trans-Atlantic imperial expansion of the British and French peoples, resulting in a series of clashes between their empires throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Canada took form as a result of "The Conquest" (of the French by British forces under General James Wolfe in 1759) and then the northward migration of British Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution two decades later. Two groups of colonists, one English-speaking and Protestant, the other French-speaking and Roman Catholic, but both defined in part by their opposition to the American colonists to the south, came together under the sovereignty of the British Crown.

The nature of British rule in Canada—its monarchical and confessional character—was at odds with the liberal and democratic tendencies of the age. The Catholic clergy in Quebec and the Tory Loyalists and officials elsewhere checked these tendencies for a time, but no such feeble dikes could long withstand the flood.

The Rebellions of 1837 marked the end of the attempt to give the Canadian colonies "balanced" constitutions with established churches. An investigation was conducted by a leading British politician, Lord Durham, whose report advocated "responsible government" (i.e., local democratic self-government within a quasi-federal imperial structure) and "assimilation" (i.e., the absorption of the French population within a commercial society of a modern English or American character).

In the Province of Canada (meaning what are now Ontario and Quebec), responsible government was achieved in 1848 by an alliance between English and French "moderate reformers" who rejected "assimilation" by restoring the official use of French in the legislature. Over the following decade, these politicians and others like them worked out practical arrangements—with respect to the sharing of power, the role of the churches, landholding, schools and universities—that are still the basis for Canadian life. They relied upon two main devices, federalism and "brokerage" (or multiethnic) parties, to overcome English-French rivalry.

Even before the drafting and adoption of a written federal constitution (the British North America Act of 1867), they practiced an informal federalism involving dual ministries and separate legislation for the English-Protestant and French-Catholic parts of a formally united province. In 1867, the enactment of Confederation divided Canada into Ontario and Quebec and joined these new provinces to the Maritime Provinces and British Columbia, under a written federal division of powers. Canada counts its...


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