Skip links

Multiculturalism: Crossed Perspectives on a Concept

Visuel de l'article de blogue Concepts et savoirs 3

We are already introducing the last blog post of the 2022 edition of the Concepts and Knowledge project!

This initiative aims to highlight the value of the collection of research available on the platform, and focuses on the definition of notions and concepts around a central theme, using an educational approach to share this knowledge with a broader public.

The 2022 topic on identity was coordinated by Michelle Edwige Jeanne Martineau, a PhD student in political science at the Université de Montréal.

Read the other posts here.

Enjoy your reading!

Over the last decades, the subject of multiculturalism has often been in the news in Québec, Canada and the rest of the world. It appeared on the Canadian political scene in the mid 1960s, and, just like language, multiculturalism was framed as a way to assert a nation’s identity. This national assertion would operate through the recognition of ethnic and cultural diversity existing on a territory, as a way of encouraging the coexistence of these different cultures.

As a foil for biculturalism, multiculturalism became more politicized over the years, notably, for example, by the creation in 1973 of the Ministry of Muticulturalism and the Canadian Ethnocultural Council. There was also the application of the Multiculturalism Policy to other Canadian provinces, but also to the Supreme Court of Canada through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But how did multiculturalism become such an integral part of Canadian politics? How is it defined and what questions surround it? This third and last blog post looks back at the theoretical and empirical aspects of the notion of multiculturalism through the lens of identity, as it continues to shape modern Canadian politics as a whole.


Promoting the Cultural, Ethnic and Racial Diversity of a Nation

While the meaning of the term “multiculturalism” tends to shift, we can generally define it as “a political program or system aimed at the enhancement and the promotion of cultural pluralism within a given society” (Bénichou 2006).

The Larousse dictionary defines multiculturalism notably as an American school of thought that questions the cultural hegemony of White social groups over minorities (ethnic, cultural, etc.). Seen as a progressive political program synonymous with openness and modernity, Canadian multiculturalism opposes biculturalism, defined as a political regime allowing for the coexistence of two national cultures on a same territory. Multiculturalism has been a model for political integration through the recognition of a cultural pluralism at the national level, emphasizing the existence of identity-based particularisms.

However, the presence of this notion in public debate has a long history. In the literature, multiculturalism is tied to the question of ethnicity and the construction of a modern nation. In the analysis proposed by Miroslav Hroch (1995), studying multiculturalism is synonymous with studying the process of modernizing a nation. This occurs through the ethnicization of the nation whereby the members of the ethnic community engage in a process of “national unrest” that unsettles the antimodernists (who support a traditionalist social and/or politic movement), while also hoping to create a new national identity (Hroch, 1995).  It is in this modernist framework that multiculturalism raises the question of identity or citizenship.


Multiculturalism, The Political Sphere and Identity

Beyond its own definition, multiculturalism is strongly tied to the notion of the political sphere, but also the notion of identity. For example, the work done by G. Nootens makes us question the notion of citizenship in the context of a postnational identity, with modernity as a backdrop (Nootens 2008). Based on the concept of territoriality (the application of a rule limited to a territorial space), the author questions the scope of citizenship and its meaning in a modern national state. The author revives the questioning around the redefinition of political identities, in the case, for example, of post-national identity (based on the work of Habermas).

Beyond this analysis, the point here is to defend the idea that globalization and other elements favour the appearance of multiple and complex identities that have an impact on the national political scene of a territory: “[…] the appearance of transnational actors as well as of certain subnational logics (decentralization, regionalization, associative mobilization) and the increasing mobility of individuals within the international system seem to have an impact on citizen allegiance.” (Nootens 2008, 100).

On the question of citizenship, J.-L. Gignac (2008) generated a comparative analysis of three authors, namely Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Will Kymlicka, by attempting to establish the place occupied by multiculturalism and the politics of identity-based difference in the framework of modern democracy. The author expressed reservations about the idealism often associated with multiculturalism, which is not necessarily synonymous with “identity-based emancipation.” He insists on the fact that the politics around the recognition of cultural pluralism also represented a form of control: “Discussing identity can just as well contribute to surveillance, control and discipline of social relationships, as it can to their emancipation. Speaking of the other in order to define and assign rights can also be a way of neutralizing and limits this other’s power. It risks limiting the other by restricting their agency to their identity.” (Gignac 2008, 65).


Multiculturalism Versus Interculturalism: The Case of Québec

Multiculturalism has been the subject of various studies: Canada, and notably Québec, are generally favourable grounds for field studies for researchers interested in these issues. That is the case for S. Courtois, whose article’s abstract couldn’t be clearer: “Is multiculturalism compatible with Québec nationalism?” Arguing that Québec nationalism is not in any way opposed to a policy of multiculturalism, he does note that Québec nationalism has been wary of the type of multiculturalism promoted by the Canadian confederation on its territory, as this multiculturalism has itself struggled in recognizing the multinational composition of Canada, and therefore, the existence of a Québécois nation” (Courtois 2010). The author states that the idea according to which Québécois nationalism and multiculturalism are opposed in nature is something to be put aside, as Québec has promoted cultural diversity, as it is a “liberal, democratic and pluralist culture”, and that the linguistic policies put in place are adapted to multiculturalism, highlighting that the national identity being defended by Québécois nationalism “is not different from the one being promoted by most liberal democracies in the world” (Courtois 2010, 72).

This is the context which saw the appearance of the notion of interculturalism, opposed to multiculturalism, and which proposes that shared values be established within a society. There would be no promotion of ethnic groups on the territory, as there would be in a multiculturalist framework (Bouchard 2011).  Following the consultations that were organized for the Québec Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in 2007, Bouchard proposed a reflexive analysis around the notion of interculturalism, presented as a model for integration and management of ethnocultural diversity which would be specifically suited to the province. The author ends his article by stating that one of the chief objectives of interculturalism is to promote, through the notion of democracy, “the capacity to come to consensuses on formulas for peaceful coexistence” between citizens of different ethnic and cultural origins. The preference for interculturalism over multiculturalism is based notably on the objective of preserving the use of French in Québec which, according to the author, “cannot be allowed to weaken through the creation of lasting divisions within the nation. It needs all of its strength; its future depends on a form of integration that respects diversity.”

Creolization, language, multiculturalism, all notions and concepts related to identity. For several years, this subject has been at the heart of political, social and cultural news, in Québec as well as in the rest of the world. The media have had numerous opportunities to present these issues, although without diving deeper into the details surrounding them. There is no doubt that identity raises a number of questions which brings together researchers working on issues related to these notions and which will continue to generate research interest. The political stakes linked to the creation of a nation-state, the promotion of its culture or the place of visible minorities within it remain vital but sensitive subjects. It remains important to address these issues, all in a spirit of pedagogy to allow the dissemination of knowledge around these issues, with the depth required.


Read the other posts from the Concepts and Knowledge project here.


Hroch, M. (1995) De l’ethnicité à la nation. Un chemin oublié vers la modernité. Anthropologie et Sociétés, 19(3), 71–86.

In this article, the author questions the way ethnic groups have been transformed into nations in modernity. He proposes that this phenomenon cannot be studied without first analyzing modernization and the breakdown of ties, values and identities that it brought to the world of yesterday.


Gignac, J. (1997)  Sur le multiculturalisme et la politique de la différence identitaire : Taylor, Walzer, Kymlicka. Politique et Sociétés, 16(2), 31–65.  

Through the concepts brought forth by Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Will Kymlicka, the aim of this article is to situate multiculturalism and the politics of identity-based difference within the framework of modern democracy. Beyond these three thinkers, the article goes on to show that multiculturalism contains some pitfalls, as it can lead to particularist pressure groups and resentment-based ideologies.


Adam, H. (1995). Les politiques de l’identité. Nationalisme, patriotisme et multiculturalisme. Anthropologie et Sociétés, 19(3), 87–109.

This article presents several theories of nationalism, including primordialist and sociobiological perspectives on ethnic solidarity as well as political mobilization by nationalistic elites. Socio-historical causes of real and imagined resentments explain more accurately the reasons why identification to a group wins out in some situations, while cosmopolitan individualism prevails in others. Civic patriotism with no reference to origins remains the safest foundation for equality and loyalty in multi-ethnic states.


Courtois, S. (2007). La politique du multiculturalisme est-elle compatible avec le nationalisme québécois? Globe, 10(1), 53–72.

Based on the example of Canada and Québec, the author argues that Québec nationalism is not in any way opposed to a policy of multiculturalism, but that it is wary of the type of multiculturalism promoted within the Canadian confederation, as this multiculturalism has itself struggled in recognizing the multinational composition of Canada.


Nootens, G. (1999). L’identité postnationale : itinéraire(s) de la citoyenneté dans la modernité avancée. Politique et Sociétés, 18(3), 99–120.

The purpose of this article is to highlight some of these processes influencing the role of the state and the allegiance of its citizens, thereby helping to redefine political identities. A brief presentation of the Habermasian thesis on postnational identity allows for some considerations related to the emergence and articulation of postnational identities in this context.


Bénichou, Meidad. Le Multiculturalisme. Éditions Boréal, 2006.

Reference work. The author analyzes the notion of multiculturalism by studying the case of France. He details the relationship between multiculturalism and various concepts, including identity, the republican principle of equality and individualism.


Bouchard, G. (2011). Qu’est ce que l’interculturalisme ? / What is Interculturalism? McGill Law Journal / Revue de droit de McGill, 56(2), 395–468.

The author presents interculturalism as a model of integration and management of ethnocultural diversity. He takes inspiration from the path followed by Québec since the 1960s and 1970s, but also from the reflections and experiences done in Europe where interculturalist philosophy has major roots. In Québec, interculturalism currently enjoys broad public support (as demonstrated by the public hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission), but is also subject to significant criticism.