​November 2003


Earlier this fall the Department of Canadian Heritage with Statistics Canada released the results of the Ethnic Diversity Survey, a pan-Canadian study which between April and August 2002 surveyed 42,500 Canadian residents 15 years of age and over. The object was to provide information on the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of people in Canada, and how these backgrounds relate to their lives today.


While some of findings of the study were predictable, they are no less interesting. Among the more salient discoveries is that, "immigrants were more likely than people born in Canada to report a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic or cultural group." Also, "immigrants, especially those who arrived recently, were more likely to indicate that their ethnic or cultural ancestry was important to them."


Among Italian Canadians, 62% of the first generation, compared with 54% of those in Canada for two or more generations, expressed a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic group. This is among the highest of any ethnic group, according to the survey. The difficulty with conducting studies about "ethnicity" is the troublesome notion of defining who is and who is not an "ethnic." The fact is that we are all members of an ethnic or cultural group - Italian, Chinese, French, English, etc - whether we are aware of it or not. The distinction, in terms of how the terminology is understood, lies in the numbers; that is, in majority versus minority. We have become accustomed, by now, to hearing of ethnic, racial, cultural or linguistic "minority" groups referred to simply as "ethnic groups." This, perhaps, stems from a desire to be expedient, politically neutral (thereby avoiding the explicitly belittling word "minority") or both.


But the larger implication is that this institutionalized terminology, even when used benevolently, in reality muddles the genuine distinctiveness of clearly defined linguistic or racial groups by assembling all the so-called ethnics on one side, and away from the majority group. Instead of creating a more refined paradigm by which to better understand the dynamics of Canadian society, it merely sanctions a new terminology on top of the existing structure. Getting back to the survey, it would be surprising if people who reported British or Canadian as their ancestry (as did 46%) had responded that their heritage wasn't important to them. However, that question wasn't asked of "non-minority" Canadians. Instead, the survey merely reports that "Canadian identity increased with generations in Canada." This is not surprising, and perhaps even reassuring, to those who might worry about the integrative powers of Canadian society!


Italian Canadians like other minority Canadians are, needless to say, no less Canadian for sensing strong ties to their cultural institutions and heritage. They, like others, demonstrate that it is possible to integrate into Canadian society, yet maintain their customs, traditions and lifestyle. It is by integrating yet remaining diverse that we can truly contribute to the ideological wealth and practical well-being of our country.


The efforts by the Department of Canadian Heritage to better understand the constantly evolving conundrum that is multiculturalism should be applauded. However, caution should be exercised in devising the tools and interpreting the data used to understand this issue which is so fundamental to the Canadian reality.



Domenic Cusmano




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