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A Comparative View of Diversity in the United States and Canada

July 31, 2008

Cherry McGee Banks while teaching.
Cherry McGee Banks while teaching.

by Cherry A. McGee Banks, Professor, Education, UW Bothell

As nation-states throughout the world experience globalization, technological change and increasing mobility, their demographic profiles are changing and reflecting increasing levels of racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity (Sassen, 1999). For example, Canada as a result of political changes during the 1990s, experienced an increase in the number of people immigrating from Hong Kong and other parts of the British Commonwealth (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2007). During that same period, the United States also experienced an increase in the number of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean (US Census Bureau, 2008). As democratic nations such as Canada and the United States experience increasing levels of immigration, they must face the challenge of finding ways to maintain national cohesion while creating inclusive societies where people of all groups can experience a sense of belonging and have opportunities to fully participate in the social, economic and political spheres of their societies (Banks, J. A., 2007). In this paper, readers will learn about some of the ways that the United States and Canada have responded to the challenges and opportunities of diversity.

Diversity is embedded in multiple contexts. Those contexts can illuminate nuanced as well as salient ways in which diversity can impact people’s lives. Three contexts, the political, legal, and historical, are discussed in this paper. While these contexts do not represent an exhaustive list of contexts in which diversity can be examined and discussed, they provide a template for identifying important issues that can frame a thoughtful comparative analysis of diversity in Canada and the United States. By using a comparative approach to explore how Canada and the US have respond to diversity, students can deepen their understanding of diversity in their own country while gaining new insights on the challenges and opportunities of diversity from a global perspective (Banks,, 2004). A comparative approach can also result in insights and perspectives that can help students become more effective citizens in a changing and challenging global society. When doing comparative analysis of diversity, it is always important to take note of the terms that are used to describe it. For example, even though the term multicultural education is used in Canada and the United States to describe efforts to address diversity, other terms are also used. The term anti-racism is used in Canada, in some ways in opposition to multicultural education, to capture a stronger statement on culture as well as methods and perspectives for reducing racism and promoting tolerance. That term is rarely used in the United States. Instead terms like diversity and inclusion are frequently used in the US as synonyms for multicultural education.


Context is important when exploring issues of diversity because diversity and the issues related to it do not occur in a vacuum. Discussing race, class, gender, religion, culture, language, and other elements of diversity without identifying and acknowledging their multiple contexts can be misleading and result in superficial understandings that do not address their deep meaning. Identifying the contexts that highlight, influence, and shape diversity is an important step in understanding the nature of multicultural education within a nation-state. With that understanding in hand, educators can look beyond their national borders and learn from the experiences that others have had in organizing, implementing, and maintaining multicultural education programs. Exploring global perspectives on diversity without an understanding of its multiple contexts will likely result in frustration, confusion and a sense of being overwhelmed with its complexity. Context grounds discussions on global perspectives on diversity and adds to their authenticity.

Political Context

The response of Canada and the US to the linguistic diversity within their borders is an example of how the political context can influence public policy on diversity. While there were Native American languages as well as a variety of European languages spoken during the early settlement of colonies in North America, English eventually became the dominant language in modern day Canada and the United States. However, Canada unlike the United States developed an official language education policy that includes self-contained, withdrawal, transitional, and mainstream programs that enable students to maintain their mother tongue (Ashworth, 1992) They also have an official bilingual policy that requires that all official documents are made available to the public in both English and French. The United States has a very different official response to language diversity. Many US politicians fiercely defend speaking English as a marker of an individual’s commitment to the United States and their legitimacy for being in the country (King, 1997).

On the surface it would appear that there are stark differences between language policies in the United States and Canada. A close analysis, however, reveals a more complex picture. Students should be encouraged to examine power as a key concept and the following generalization to uncover nuanced elements of language policies in the US and Canada: Economic as well as political power can influence a nations’ response to language diversity. In investigating the validity of that generalization students could research Canada’s bilingual policy to determine the extent to which it is embedded in concerns about reconciling its linguistic duality brought about in part by the political power exercised by officials in Quebec, where a majority of French speaking Canadian citizens live (Moodley, 2001). They could also investigate the extent to which what is actually happening on the ground in the United States reveals a much more accepting climate for language diversity than statements by politicians suggest. Students could look at the ways in which economic factors are driving businesses in California and the southwest part of the US and Florida to print signs and provide brochures in Spanish, as well as hire bilingual staff. They could also look at the extent to which businesses in Hawaii are providing services in Asian languages.

When the political context of language policies is implicit, its connection to larger societal issues such as economic realities can be concealed and remain unexamined. In that sense, the complexity of language policies is difficult to fully analyze and understand. Examining the political context of language policies, where key concepts such as power can be used to illuminate them and generalizations can be used to compare and contrast policies in different nations states, can deepen students’ understanding of the implicit as well as the explicit elements of the issue and the policies related to it.

Legal Context

The Japanese internment in the United States and Canada is an example of the extent to which laws exist within a socio-political context, which can result in gaps between the letter of the law and the ways in which it is implemented. Students can learn how two nations, which pride themselves on being nations of laws, failed to protect the rights of individuals within their borders.

After the Japanese government bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 both the US and Canadian governments interned people of Japanese decent (Daniels, 1981). The internment, however, was not the first act of discrimination directed toward them. Japanese people living in the US and Canada did not have the full protection of the law long before World War II began (Okihiro, 2001). For many years Japanese immigrants were prevented, by law, from becoming citizens in both countries. There were also legal restrictions on their ability to immigrate to the US and Canada. In 1907, the Canadian government limited the number of Japanese immigrants to 400 people a year. The US also used legal measures such as the Gentleman’s Agreement to restrict Japanese immigration. In addition, the California Alien Land Law restricted the rights of Japanese to own and lease land. Students can use the key concepts such as prejudice and discrimination to reflect on the following generalization: When sanctioned by law, prejudice can lead to increasing levels of discrimination.


Leading up to the internment, people of Japanese descent living in British Columbia and the Western part of the US experienced increasing levels of discrimination (Okihiro, 2001; Scantland, 1986). Initially they were surveilled by their governments, later their governments required them to surrender cameras, radios, binoculars, and other items that were identified as contraband. Eventually motivated by fear, economic gain, and prejudice, the Japanese were sent to internment camps. Most of the Japanese who lived in Canada in the 1940s lived in British Columbia which was the site of eight internment camps. Sixteen internment camps were established in the US.

In some respects, people on the margins of society are most keenly aware of the gap between the law as an ideal and the reality of the law in daily practice. One way that students can get a sense of that gap is to examine how people on the margins of society as well as other groups describe their experiences with the law and with representatives of the legal system. The law and its enforcers can look one way from the margins of society and quite differently from the top (official) levels of society. Exploring that gap can provide some insights on the law and the ways in which various segments of society view it.

Historical Context

Canada and the US share an important history for people of African descent. During the Revolutionary War, Africans who were enslaved in the United States escaped to Canada in search of freedom. Between 1783 and 1785, Black Loyalists established communities in Nova Scotia where some of their descents remain today (Grant, 1973). Once in Canada some of the Africans left and established communities in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. The story of enslaved Africans who fought with the British during Revolutionary War highlights the importance of freedom for people who were enslaved and the lengths to which they were willing to go to achieve it. The story of these individuals and their experiences however, are not generally discussed in US and Canadian textbooks.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington, who would later become the first president of the United States, demanded that the enslaved Africans who had joined forces with the British be returned to their owners. Instead Sir Guy Carleton, the British Commander in chief, agreed to pay the Americans for their freedom and allow them to stay in Canada (Remembering Black Loyalists, 2001). Enslaved Africans had also joined Washington’s Revolutionary Army and fought against the British in hope of earning their freedom. The economic value of enslaved Africans coupled with the newly formed and fragile union, which supported slavery, allowed it to continue in the US for almost another 100 years. Students can use key concepts such as change, cooperation, and conflict to reflect on generalizations about the legacy of slavery and the ways in which the past is implicated in the present (Casiani, 2007).

Educators who have an understanding of the ways in which contemporary issues related to diversity are frequently be embedded in an historical context can engage their students in inquiry that can help them uncover and examine elements of their nation’s history related intergroup interactions (Banks, C.A.M., 2005). As educators review their curriculum, they should also consider the extent to which students are encouraged to understand and deal reflectively with intergroup conflicts and tensions in their nation’s history and in contemporary society. They can use questions such as: Were groups that are currently experiencing conflict in the US and Canada always involved in conflict? Were groups that are now part of the mainstream in the US and Canada always part of the mainstream? The answers to these and similar questions can give students a more complex view of intergroup interactions and provide teachers with some direction for curriculum revision.


The issues covered in this article can serve as a departure point for readers to engage their colleagues in discussions about multicultural issues in the US and Canada. The educational implications of examining issues of diversity in multicultural nation states such as Canada and the United States are complex and cannot be addressed instantaneously. They must be addressed over time. They also benefit from having diverse perspectives raised and examined. This can happen most effectively when a comparative approach is employed. Using a comparative approach for examining multicultural issues within the political, legal, and historical contexts that surround them can reveal important intersections, parallels, and connections between Canada and the United States as well as other nations.


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