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Muslim Women in headdresses pass a church on multi-ethnic in Montreal.

IAN BARRETT/The Globe and Mail

On the 40th anniversary of Canadian multiculturalism, there is much to admire about the country's approach to diversity and pluralism. The model, articulated by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau on Oct. 8, 1971 and later enshrined in the Constitution, is a uniquely Canadian brand, and has allowed the country to adapt relatively well to the dramatic demographic change of the last four decades – especially compared with the social upheaval that has tarnished the concept of multiculturalism in Europe.

A new survey released by the Association of Canadian Studies shows that two-thirds of Canadians favour a country composed of people from different ethnic backgrounds, and three-quarters support the idea of young people preserving their cultural heritage.

However, the poll also reveals a troubling ambiguity, even a hypocrisy, about how Canadians actually live the multiculturalism model – most notably in Quebec. Of the 2,345 Canadians polled, 46 per cent believe immigrants should give up their customs and traditions and become more like the majority. Sixty-six per cent report that most of their friends share their ethno-cultural origin, and half say they prefer to live in a neighbourhood with people of the same background (the rate is lower in Ontario and among Anglophones overall, and higher in Quebec).

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"Canadians are divided," notes Jack Jedwab, the association's executive director. "We value diversity in theory but Canadians are more concerned about how transmitting a diverse heritage applies on a societal basis. There is still a hierarchy there."

The ambivalence is, perhaps, not surprising given the demographic transformation from a country of mainly white Europeans in 1971 to one with huge numbers of immigrants from China, India and the Philippines in 2011. Today, one in five Canadians is foreign-born.

To ensure that social discrimination doesn't prevail, however, Canadian society needs to understand how diversity works in practice, not just in theory.

Multiculturalism itself should be better defined. The country's unique history and democratic institutions exist alongside it, not in competition with it. The original model was understood as the need to respect diversity; engage in mainstream institutions; promote integration by having newcomers learn French and English; and participate in cross-cultural exchanges. The last goal may be the most difficult to fulfill. The survey found that allophones – whose first language is neither French nor English – were the least likely to opt for mono-cultural neighbourhoods, and least likely to have mainly friends of the same ethnic origin. In other words, they are open to joining the host society. The host society must practise what it preaches, and be open to receiving them.

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