It has been elastic enough to withstand the pressures that have hounded it from birth: the skepticism of Quebec, the racial tensions brought on by non-white immigration.
Yet for multiculturalism, the rise of religion in the public sphere poses a new and more daunting challenge. Criminal prosecutions for honour killings, reports of genital mutilation and incidents of female repression have rocked many Canadians' sense of tolerance. Across Europe, multicultural policies have crumbled as a result of deepening public suspicion of newly assertive religious groups.
Can multiculturalism stretch again to integrate newcomers who define themselves by a force that cuts across lines of ethnicity or national origin?
The numbers tell the tale of an important demographic shift. More than 40 per cent of the people who landed here between 1982 and 2001 have a high degree of religiosity, according to Statistics Canada's General Social Survey, compared with 26 per cent of native-born Canadians. Many of those immigrants, especially from Latin America and such countries as the Philippines and South Korea, are bolstering congregations at long-established Christian denominations. Others, from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, are primarily Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims, religions that have been practised here since before Canada was a country, but never in such large concentrations. Muslims, for example, are the fastest-growing religious group in Canada. They make up a little more than 2 per cent of the population, but that number is expected to grow to nearly 8 per cent by 2031.
It's a reality most Canadians would prefer to ignore: Although we think of ourselves as a secular, tolerant society, Canada is becoming increasingly religious because of immigration.
Dealing with that change will require a sustained effort to accommodate one another. But compromise may not come easily. Religious beliefs are protected in the Charter of Rights, which must be interpreted in a manner "consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians." But what if those values clash with the principle of equality of men and women? Since there is no established hierarchy of rights, could the right to religious and cultural practice supersede the right to gender equality enshrined in sections 15 and 28?
It's that kind of multicultural anxiety that has reverberated across Europe and is now increasingly visible in Canada. Following France's lead, Quebec Premier Jean Charest introduced anti-niqab legislation earlier this year. If passed, Muslim women will be required to remove face coverings if they want access to government venues including schools, hospitals and government buildings. And yet, Quebec also voted to retain the crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly as a historical rather than a religious symbol.
Religious arbitration courts were encouraged for generations in the Christian and Jewish faiths to deflect Family Law disputes from the costly and adversarial legal system. Ontario banned them outright in 2005 rather than allow an Islamic version, popularly described as sharia law, because of the outcry that questioned whether principles of gender equality would be threatened.
The Myth of Tolerance
Canadians have watched the uproar in Europe - where multiculturalism has been roundly condemned for fostering difference and damaging national cohesion - comforted by the thought that their own society seems so much more tolerant. The story we tell ourselves about multiculturalism is a tale of inherent Canadian virtue. The trouble is, it's not true.
According to Will Kymlicka, a leading philosopher at Queen's University, Canada's version of multiculturalism has benefited from unparalleled historic and geographic advantages.
First, Canada does not share a border with a poor country that produces thousands of illegal migrants. Nor does it have an empire-colony relationship, as France does with Algeria, nor a long-term guest worker policy like Germany's, that creates an isolated, ethnic underclass or an unstable pool of resident non-citizens. It doesn't, as in the Balkans, have a large ethnic minority population with homeland ties to a regional rival. If any of those were true, the debate in Canada would be entirely different, Prof. Kymlicka says.
As well, Canada has had the luxury of choosing its immigrants, which it has done in such a way that no single identity group predominates. It has also chosen highly skilled, highly educated applicants, who could be expected to manage the cultural transition with relative ease.
Finally, Canada was founded in a spirit of pragmatic accommodation between French and English, Catholic and Protestant, and has always had competing national cultures.
By the time Canada's immigration became overwhelmingly non-white in the 1980s, the idea of multiculturalism had become a Canadian institution. Schoolchildren were brought up with it. The multiculturalism of sari and song was celebrated.
The backlash began in the 1990s when the economy soured, creating tension around immigration. Critics such as author Neil Bissoondath and an emerging Reform Party eviscerated multiculturalism for encouraging a shallow citizenship and for defining people based on their differences.
It was around the same time, according to British multicultural theorist Tariq Modood, that a new phase of multicultural history began, when religious groups started to edge out national-origin groups in the public arena. Their signal moment was the outcry among Muslims in the West over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
The prevailing fear was that multiculturalism would provide cover for barbaric practices, such as female circumcision and domestic "honour" crimes. Even liberal defenders of multiculturalism began to have second thoughts about their cherished ideal. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 stirred suspicion about Islam in the West. Countries with the highest proportion of Muslim immigrants also tended to be most highly opposed to multiculturalism, Prof. Kymlicka writes.
From as early as the 1930s, when Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir told an audience in rural Manitoba, "You will all be better Canadians for being also good Ukrainians," Canada has held to the belief that immigrants will integrate more successfully if they are not forced to shed their existing identities. Being a hyphenated Canadian, for many, acts as a kind of way-station on the path of adaptation. But religious difference places new stresses on that understanding.
When they conducted their 2007 commission of inquiry on reasonable accommodation in Quebec, commissioners Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard were struck by how the debate over accommodation tapped a powerful vein of fear in the public. One response in Quebec has been support for an extreme secularism that would scrub all traces of religion from the public sphere, a solution that strikes many as too heavy-handed.
Religious Guarantees and Biases
Before we condemn the religious and cultural baggage that newcomers bring with them, we could profit from an inward look at our own ambiguous record of religious guarantees and biases, says Janice Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. Discrimination against women is an "obvious fault line" not just in mosques but also in churches and synagogues. "There is a sniff of smugness in our celebration of our successes as a multicultural society," she writes in "Living Better Multiculturally," in The Literary Review of Canada.
That smugness tolerates the Catholic Church's refusal to ordain female priests, the Quebec government's decision to retain the crucifix in the National Assembly, and the strictures that exclude women from the 10 people who must be present before prayers can begin in many synagogues.
Do we tackle all compromises and inconsistencies that have been blended into the Canadian mosaic in a probably futile attempt to create the perfect society? Or do we muddle along, as we have always done? Honouring our traditions and values as a tolerant, inclusive country, respecting hard-won equality rights - these are by now familiar steps in a well-trod multicultural path. The hard part is "the conscious support of individual freedom of choice," as Pierre Trudeau put it, by encouraging others - no matter how alien their religious beliefs - to feel free to be themselves, in private and in public.