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Donald Wright teaches at the University of New Brunswick and is the author of Canada: A Very Short Introduction.

Fifty years ago today, on Oct. 8, 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt what Pierre Trudeau described as a “vigorous policy of multiculturalism.” Canada’s identity “will not be undermined by multiculturalism,” Mr. Trudeau told the House of Commons, because “cultural pluralism is the very essence” of its identity.

In practice, multiculturalism has meant a series of government programs to fund research, support curriculum development, launch anti-racism initiatives, integrate immigrants and refugees, and promote intercultural and interfaith understanding. It has also translated to continued support for immigration: as written in a Migration Policy Institute study, “Canada may be the only Western country where strength of national identity is positively correlated with support for immigration, a finding that is difficult to explain except by reference to multiculturalism.”

How did such a policy come to be? In broad strokes, it was a product of the post-1945 rights revolution that saw historically disenfranchised groups dismantle inherited hierarchies and demand basic citizenship rights. But in order to exist, the notion of biculturalism first had to be dispelled. Indeed, Trudeau’s policy departed from the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, appointed by Lester B. Pearson in 1963. “For although there are two official languages,” Mr. Trudeau insisted, “there is no official culture.”

From the moment it was constituted, the commission was criticized by non-English and non-French Canadians for incorrectly framing the country it had been tasked to study: Canada was not bicultural, they said, and never had been. Demographically, it had always been multicultural, something Commission co-chair André Laurendeau quickly learned. In his diary, he recounted a January 1964 dinner in Winnipeg, by any definition a multicultural city. Seated next to an Icelandic doctor and a Ukrainian war hero, he found himself “exposed to a veritable assault of multiculturalism” – so much so that he and his colleagues almost missed their plane.

And so it went, in hearing after hearing, especially in Western Canada: bilingualism was one thing; biculturalism was quite another. In its preliminary report released in 1965, the Commission indicated as much when it summarized the views of what it called Canada’s other ethnic groups: “If two cultures are accepted, why not many?” It was a compelling question, but not one the Commission could answer. Four years later, in 1969, it made a series of recommendations – for example, that the National Museum of Man, now the Canadian Museum of History, be given sufficient resources to carry out projects related to “cultural groups other than the British and French” – but it stopped short of recommending official multiculturalism, believing that was outside its mandate.

Mr. Trudeau, however, was not bound by the Commission’s mandate. Nor were the leaders of Progressive Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party. For his part, Robert Stanfield applauded the prime minister’s “excellent words” while David Lewis – who had been born David Losz in a Russian shtetl and who knew the sting of anti-Semitism – struck an eloquent and, perhaps, personal note, referring to cultural diversity as “a source of our greatness as a people.”

To its critics, however, multiculturalism was Liberal pandering to ethnic voters. The Globe and Mail referred to the portfolio of the Secretary of State for Multicultural Affairs as “an insulting political bone thrown at Canada’s ethnic communities” in a 1974 editorial, adding that it wasn’t sorry to see it folded into another portfolio.

But Mr. Trudeau’s commitment to multiculturalism wasn’t cynical. It stemmed from years of thinking about diversity and its accommodation. Federalism was one answer. Bilingualism was another. And multiculturalism yet another. He even included it as an interpretive clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Successive prime ministers followed Mr. Trudeau’s lead in non-partisan fashion. In 1988, Brian Mulroney passed the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. And in 2002, Jean Chrétien declared June 27 Canadian Multiculturalism Day, turning multiculturalism into a national symbol, like hockey and maple syrup.

After making his announcement fifty years ago, Mr. Trudeau flew to Winnipeg where, on Oct. 9, he spoke to the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress. The Canadian mosaic, he said, “and the moderation which it includes and encourages, makes Canada a very special place.” After all, “Every single person in Canada is now a member of a minority group.”

That was true in 1971. It’s even more true in 2021: Canada will welcome 401,000 immigrants this year, a number not seen since the record set in 1913.

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