Featured Culture and Identity Briefings

Canada: Onwards to the Past

Decolonizing Design
Written by Jack Foster

On his return to Vancouver where he taught English at the University of British Columbia for many years Professor Foster finds a different Canada undergoing what he calls its second social revolution. The multiculturalism project, he says, has entered a startling new phase called Decolonization & Indigenization.

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John Wilson Foster

I’ve returned to live in British Columbia to find it in the early stages of a second social revolution. The first began when the federal Ministry of Multiculturalism was established in 1973, but it was the campaign leading up to the Quebec independence referendum of 1980 that gave impetus to Multiculturalism as a social philosophy and policy with a capital M, the aim of which was to create a new Canadian culture. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1985 was a watershed in the history of Canada.

Multiculturalism was formulated and enacted without serious debate in the 1980s and 1990s. Opposition to the concept was construed as racist so that the Canadian people and their political representatives quickly learned to edit their public opinions in fear of the censoriousness that lay in wait. They were enjoined to wade only in the shallows of public opinion. Multiculturalism became virtually the state religion of Canada; the apotheosis of Diversity had begun.

Justin Trudeau’s Prime Minister father, Pierre Trudeau, of mixed French and British heritage, was Multiculturalism’s most prominent champion for whom it had a huge political utility. To solve the hitherto intractable problem of the Two Solitudes – the self-segregation and mutual distrust of Francophone Quebec and the Anglophone Rest of Canada – the idea was to diversify Canadian culture by mass immigration, by which the Two Solitudes would be diffused and assimilated to the new Canada. Because the new immigration policy favoured non-European countries, Immigration joined Multiculturalism as a taboo subject to avoid charges of racism.

Trudeau père succeeded in muffling the Quebec Question over the ensuing forty years or so. This was quite an achievement, but it required leaving one Solitude intact; multiculturalism was imposed only in the Rest of Canada. In 1993 a Quebec legate in the UK told me in Belfast after I had given a conference paper on the implications of Multiculturalism that Quebec would never accept Multiculturalism and so it has proved.  Trudeau awarded Quebec many of the attributes of nationhood and kept his distance. Quebec has its own immigration policy, is officially unilingual while the Rest of Canada must be bilingual, and makes its own trade arrangements; the Canadian commentator Rex Murphy recently described Quebec as a nation for daily intents and purposes.

Meanwhile, the Rest of Canada has been culturally diffused according to plan. But perhaps not in the way the architects of Multiculturalism envisaged. What have emerged in the larger towns and cities are cultural enclaves with little of substance to say to one another on important issues. A recent example: more than 50% of truck drivers in Vancouver and Toronto are South Asian, and in British Columbia more than 34%: none took part in the truckers’ Freedom convoy which they saw as an alien cultural event.

Under Multiculturalism, newcomers to Canada are encouraged to retain their own cultures. Having come from Northern Ireland in the 1970s, I pricked up my ears when in 1983 I listened to the citizenship commissioner’s advice to new Canadians from 22 countries (including mine) to enjoy Canada but keep their own culture intact. I knew first-hand, which she clearly didn’t, that relocated old cultures are resilient and retain vices as well as virtues, keep alive ancient quarrels, religious beliefs and value-systems and dubious customs, and often their intense engagement with the old country they were happy to leave; I knew well, for example, the century-old power of Irish republicanism in the United States.

Yet Justin Trudeau believes that the first goal of Multiculturalism – the globalisation of Canada – has been achieved. In 2015, he told the New York Times: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” and consequently that “makes us the first post-national state.”  If there once was a core identity but no more, Trudeau fils can thank Trudeau père since Multiculturalism was intended to replace one identity with many, the precise opposite of the American melting-pot (E Pluribus Unum); multiculturalism is, instead, the former Canadian mosaic but minus the British heritage that was the adhesive between the tiles.

Trudeau is gratified with some Peter Pan-ish notion of a country existing in an eternal present and as eternal foreground without a history. (The teaching of history, especially colonial and military history, became fraught in the multicultural classroom, for Multiculturalism privileges pacifism and immigrant histories.)  Trudeau’s Canada is a country that needs neither Robert Putnam’s rich social capital nor high culture of European origin. Even for the woke CBC, Trudeau’s half-baked notion of Canada is alarming.

“Diversity is our strength!” Trudeau chants, Animal Farm-like, at the drop of a hat. Is it? Diversity in Canada and elsewhere in the expressly multicultural societies might indeed have intended the strength that comes from the muscular exercise of tolerance of difference, of free speech, open debate, but as we know it means in fact censoriousness and the imposition of an orthodoxy. This we could call the Diversity Paradox. Strength surely comes from unity earned over time and through custom and shared events, not through the multiplied experiences of subcultures?  Strength derives from the very core identity Trudeau dismisses, especially when a country is threatened from without.


Since the Rest of Canada, and especially British Columbia, owes its origins and identity largely to Britain, the Britishness of Canada was bound to be a major casualty in the Multicultural Project. In this regard I have arrived back in British Columbia, the California of Canada, to find that the Project has entered a startling new phase called Decolonization & Indigenization.

The former was always implicit in Multiculturalism but is now flagrant in the guise of cultural activism. We are no longer talking about merely diffusing the former  Anglo-Canadian mosaic or even seeking cultural redress (surely a good thing), for now the subtext is reparation and radical revisionism in a zero-sum game. Vancouver City Council called in 2019 for a “colonial audit”, by which those who could be found guilty of racism or anti-Indigene utterances or policies during the settlement of Vancouver would be cancelled and their public memorials removed.

From this justifiable beginning to advance reconciliation with the native peoples, things have mushroomed beyond the city and beyond memorials.  There is now a war on the past; ideally the war is to be politely waged by committee, but there have been topplings and removals of statues in Canada, including those of John A. Macdonald, a Father of Confederation and Canada’s first Prime Minister, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. The politest warfare is renaming streets (a literal overwriting of history), but it might become more robust if the current campaigns to rename Victoria, the capital of BC, and British Columbia itself, gain traction.

“Decolonization” is also the decision of the Royal British Columbia Museum to empty its galleries of the much-loved information, dioramas, and exhibits about the making of British Columbia, its towns and people, and restock them with – what? No one knows yet; the urgent response to complaints was to get rid of the British, including the depictions of early Victoria and the full-scale replica of George Vancouver’s HMS Discovery, as quickly as possible. Decolonisation refers exclusively to British colonialism; recent Chinese economic and cultural expansionism in Canada sorely harmful to Vancouver neighbourhoods will assuredly not be depicted and deplored.  Objections in letters to the editor were dismissed by the Museum administrators with the peremptory self-righteousness we now associate with the Woke agenda.

We can bet the Museum will no longer celebrate the story of how the gleaming city of Vancouver and the towns and villages of the province historically arose from the ingenuity of British and European newcomers in exploring and surveying, naturalising, trading, logging, mining, fishing, ranching, railroad-building, bridge-building and dam-building.

In one major Canadian university history department of 47 teachers, more than a third list their research area as “Empire and Colonialism”. Decolonisation is now the rage.  University humanities departments are turning into social injustice institutes; hiring and the choice of subject areas to be staffed are now driven by the decolonisation project. This is huge in itself, but something even more epochal is going on.

Some university-educated Euro-Canadians’ envy of the colonial oppression heritage others seem to enjoy always baffled me, and they brushed aside my reminder that their ancestors were the British and European settlers, not, like colonial Americans or Indians under the Raj, unhappy subjects of Albion. Is it cynical to see the current ardour for Indigeneity as a proxy way of achieving that sense of historic victimhood? I hope the Indigenous people are not being exploited to advance the middle-class Euro-Canadian cause of decolonisation.

In any case, the programme devised by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, “Indigenization of Post-Secondary Education”, is so ambitious that if implemented would help revolutionise Canadian society still further within a generation or two. At its core is not just new hiring protocols or even a broadening of Canadian culture through the welcome and overdue addition of Indigenous culture – which would be achievement enough. No: “The work of Indigenization must be holistic and address all parts of the institution and community”.  That includes ensuring that knowledge as we accumulate it through the pursuit of fact and truth by observation, logical argument and experiment is to be demoted in the lecture-room to become the equal of multiple ethnic (and by definition unfalsifiable) “lived experiences”; “Indigenous knowledge” is to be the equal of western science and art and the latter to be subordinated to the non-epistemological goal of social justice.

Those intending to replace as far as possible western with pre-Columbian ways of knowing do not seem to be social anthropologists, major writers or philosophers. The giant Anglo-Australian mining corporation, Rio Tinto, has pledged $1.5million for research on the indigenisation of higher education in Quebec, an example of corporate intervention in culture that we have seen elsewhere in the Anglosphere.  Now, as in the UK, corporations, unions, museum and gallery curators, heads of heritage organisations, high-school teachers and non-faculty university administrators (and in the UK, the BBC) have arrogated to themselves the role of national culture-givers, all singing from the same hymn-sheet, a development that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. University professors do not lead, they follow.

Canada pioneered the theory and practice of Multiculturalism. (The transgression of cultural appropriation, for example, was officialised thirty years ago by the Canada Council.) We know already the impact of multiculturalism on the social cohesiveness of England; the jury is still out on its role in strengthening or weakening the identity and unity of the kingdom. I now suspect that Canada’s pioneering Decolonisation & Indigenisation project might prove as exportable as Multiculturalism and its strictures. If so, what new form might this project take in the UK and what might the implications be for British culture?



John Wilson Foster is Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia; his latest books are The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland, co-edited with William Beattie Smith (2021), and Midnight Again: The Wartime Letters of Helen Ramsey Turtle (ed. 2021).

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Jack Foster