Governing Diversity – Democratic Solutions in Multicultural Societies page – 3

Governing Diversity – Democratic Solutions in Multicultural Societies

Edited by Razmik Panossian, Bruce Berman and Anne Linscott

The Global Diffusion of Multiculturalism

– Will Kymlicka

Executive Summary

While multiculturalism has faced a backlash in many Western democracies, particularly in Europe, it remains a popular idea at the international level, actively promoted by influential international organizations. On any given day of the year, somewhere in the world, an international organization is sponsoring a seminar or publishing a report intended to publicize the ideals and practices of multiculturalism. These activities often involve sharing knowledge about best practices in various countries, formulating norms and standards for the treatment of ethnic diversity, building transnational networks of experts and advocates, creating space for the safe expression of politically sensitive topics, and training local educators, bureaucrats, NGOs and media personnel in the challenges of accommodating a multiethnic and multicultural population.

Canada has played a vital role in this process of diffusing multiculturalism in at least two ways. First, Canada is widely viewed as a place where multiculturalism exists and works reasonably well, and hence as a potential source of best practices for other countries to emulate. Second, Canada has actively encouraged and financially supported multiculturalism promotion activities, on the grounds that diversity and tolerance are fundamental Canadian values worthy of “export.” However, efforts to promote multiculturalism internationally have run into a number of dilemmas and difficulties.

Promoting fairer accommodation of ethnic diversity around the world is a legitimate goal of international organizations, and of Canadian foreign policy, but current efforts may be naïve, or worse — politically dangerous. This policy paper explains why the sort of multiculturalism that is most worth defending and diffusing internationally may be rather different from the sort that Canada is currently promoting.


For most of the period between 1945 and 1990, international organizations took little interest in the question of how states dealt with their ethnic minorities, and made few efforts to promote pro-minority policies in the field of education, language, citizenship, political participation, and so on. On the contrary, it was widely assumed that the key to successful development and state consolidation in the Global South was some form of centralizing and homogenizing “nation-building:” the various ethnic, linguistic, regional or religious identities within a state should be submerged and replaced with a larger pan-ethnic national identity. “Kill the tribe to build the nation” was a popular expression in many post-colonial African countries. International organizations actively encouraged this process by promoting policies of national development that replaced pre-existing forms of ethnic or regional autonomy in the field of education, law or property rights with strongly centralized models of nationhood.

Ethnic minorities have often been able to take advantage of the neo-liberal shift of powers away from central governments, since groups that are excluded from power at the central level may nonetheless be able to effectively self-organize at the local level or in civil society associations. Indigenous peoples in Latin America, for example, who have historically been excluded from the central state, have been able to take control of local governments established under neo-liberal policies of state restructuring and decentralization.

Since 1990, however, we have seen a dramatic shift in the attitudes of international organizations in a more “multicultural” or pro-minority direction. This shift is the result of several converging factors.

In part, it is an unintended byproduct of a broader international trend towards neoliberalism, which seeks to shift power away from central states to lower levels of governments, civil society groups, and markets.

The main reason for the shift to multiculturalism, however, is the recognition that older models of nation-building simply have not worked. International organizations increasingly came to the view that “kill the tribe to build the nation” is simply not a politically viable or morally acceptable model of development.

The Failure of Traditional Nation-Building

Forty years of attempts to “kill the tribe” in post-colonial states largely failed. Many post-colonial states remained deeply ethnically divided, and the inability of states to find constructive ways to deal with their ethnic diversity was clearly inhibiting efforts at development and democratization.

Moreover, the experience of post-communist Europe in the early 1990s showed that this was not a problem limited to Africa. When post-communist states attempted to impose a hegemonic national identity on their minorities, the result was often an exacerbation rather than a reduction of ethnic divisions, leading in some cases to brutal civil wars, as have been witnessed in the Balkans and Caucasus. Around the world, the model of unitary and homogenous nation-building was failing, and there was a desperate search to find new models premised on accommodating rather than suppressing ethnic diversity.

At the same time that international organizations were becoming increasingly pessimistic about the viability of old nation-building models, they started to notice the apparent success of countries like Canada in developing more “multicultural” models of the state and society. Canada indeed offered a rich palette of pro-minority institutions and policies – whether in the form of bilingualism and federalism for francophones, land claims and self-government for Aboriginal peoples or multiculturalism for immigrant groups – without endangering its status as a peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy.

One can argue that Canadian multicultural policies have helped to deepen democracy. Historically, ethnocultural and religious diversity in Canada and other Western countries has been characterized by a range of illiberal and undemocratic relations — including relations of conqueror and conquered; colonizer and colonized; settler and indigenous; racialized and unmarked; normalized and deviant; orthodox and heretic; civilized and backward; ally and enemy; master and slave.

The task for all liberal democracies has been to turn this catalogue of uncivil relations into relationships of liberal-democratic citizenship, both between the members of minorities and the state, and amongst the members of different groups. I would argue that Canada’s various diversity policies – for francophones, aboriginals and immigrants – have all been an important step in this direction.

These, and comparable pro-minority policies in other Western states, have been held up by international organizations as evidence that there is a multicultural alternative — one that makes room for peaceful and democratic ethnic politics, seeks to fairly accommodate the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity of citizens within the state, and takes advantage of the cultural heritage, institutional capacities, and social capital that ethnic groups possess.

The Dilemna

For a variety of reasons, then, international organizations since the early 1990s have wanted to promote the message that there is a multicultural alternative. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. What does it mean to promote multiculturalism, and what tools are available to the international community to do so?

Whenever international organizations seek to promote a good cause – from gender equality to AIDS prevention to environmental protection – the first strategy is invariably to publicize examples of “best practices,” in the hope that these will inspire countries around the world to seek to emulate these success stories.

And so, not surprisingly, the first impulse of international organizations in the early 1990s was to commission a number of reports and manuals compiling examples of the successful accommodations of ethnic diversity, and then to organize workshops and training sessions to publicize these “inspiring” examples.

Unfortunately, this strategy has been an almost complete failure. Very few if any countries have been inspired to emulate these best practices — and for good reason.

In general, those countries (like Canada) that have successfully adopted policies of bilingualism, federalism or multiculturalism, were able to do so because of their fortunate circumstances: the preconditions for success were already present. In most developing countries, however, these preconditions are absent.

The Preconditions for Successful Multiculturalism

Consider the use of federalism as a tool to accommodate territorially-concentrated ethnonational groups, such as the French-majority province of Quebec and the Inuit-majority territory of Nunavut. This is widely – and, in my view, rightly – viewed as a success in Canada, enabling groups with a powerful substate national identity to govern themselves as part of a larger federal liberal-democratic constitutional order. But should we be encouraging other countries to adopt this approach? I would argue that the use of federalism to accommodate substate ethnonational groups is most likely to work if two conditions are met:

  • The rule of law and human rights protection must be firmly established, so that “internal minorities” within the self-governing region are confident that their individual human rights will be respected. For example, anglophones, aboriginals and allophones in Quebec have firm assurances that they will not be expelled, fired from their jobs, stripped of their property or citizenship, systematically harassed on the street, etc.

  • The self-governing national group must be an ally of the larger state on issues of geo-political security, and hence unlikely to collaborate with enemies of the state. For example, if Canada were to be invaded, we would expect Quebec not to collaborate with the invaders.

Where these two conditions are met, using federalism to enable self-government for ethnonational groups is a relatively low-risk move — it is not a threat to either individual rights or state security.

Unfortunately, in most parts of the world, these two conditions do not hold. Internal minorities in most countries have no confidence that their individual human rights will be respected by self-governing ethnonational groups (think of the fate of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo); nor do states have confidence that self-governing ethnonational groups will choose not to collaborate with neighbouring enemies (think of Estonia’s reluctance to grant autonomy to its ethnic Russian minority, out of fear it would collaborate with Russia, one of Estonia’s historic enemies).

In short, when human rights protections and geo-political security are absent, it is unlikely that states will voluntarily adopt Canadian-style bilingual federalism, no matter how much this is promoted as a “best practice.” Indeed, in the absence of these preconditions, adopting the Canadian model is unlikely to have the desired effects: it may serve not to deepen democracy but, rather, to exacerbate preexisting relations of enmity and exclusion.

Canadian Multicultural Success Rests on Good Luck as well as Good Policy

The same can be said for other “best practices,” such as Canada’s multiculturalism policy for immigrant-origin ethnic groups, first adopted in 1971. Here again, this is widely and rightly viewed as a “success story,” and hence promoted internationally as a model to inspire other countries with sizeable immigrant populations. But I would argue that Canada’s success with multiculturalism is tied up with a number of rather unique and fortuitous circumstances:

  • It was initially demanded by well-integrated, white ethnic groups, such as the Ukrainians and Italians, who had been living in Canada for decades, if not generations. Canadians were there-fore already familiar and comfortable with the idea of multiculturalism by the time large numbers of non-European immigrants arrived in the 1980s.

  • It was part of a larger political bargain (“multiculturalism within a bilingual framework”) that was intended primarily to accommodate Quebecois nationalism. Ethnic groups were able to take advantage of a larger power struggle between English and French, and bargain for multicultural recognition.

  • It is seen as benefiting legal immigrants who had been selected under a deliberate immigration policy, not illegal immigrants who entered Canada uninvited. The facts of Canadian geography have made it easy to control its borders, and hence to determine the nature and composition of its immigrant population.

Here again, these circumstances lowered the risks associated with adopting multiculturalism. In the absence of these conditions, it is unlikely that Canada would have adopted a multiculturalism policy, or that it would have taken root in the way it has.

On inspection, virtually all of the “best practices” identified by international organizations – from bilingualism in Finland, to cantonisation in Switzerland, to Maori treaty rights in New Zealand – turn out to be dependent on a number of fortunate circumstances and unique contingencies. And so publicizing these best practices without taking their context into account is almost inevitably doomed to fail. Most countries, particularly in the Global South, do not feel that they are in the same fortunate circumstances, and hence do not believe that adopting these policies will have the intended effects.


Does it follow that international organizations and specific countries such as Canada should abandon the promotion of multiculturalism? Not at all. Old models of centralized and homogenizing nation-building are unjust, and increasingly untenable, and we need to find viable multicultural alternatives. The international community has an important role to play in helping states find ways to respond constructively to the challenges of ethnic diversity. This is an issue on which Canada can play a leadership role, partly because of its wealth of experience with the issue, and partly because it is seen as having no external agenda in promoting values of tolerance and diversity. Yet, Canada needs to rethink our aims and strategies in promoting multiculturalism. Currently, the main strategy for diffusing multiculturalism is to publicize accounts of Canadian policies and institutions, often in an idealized and self-congratulatory way.

Given that Canada’s policies have depended on a set of fortunate circumstances that do not exist in much of the world, we should not expect other countries to be inspired by the best of what we have achieved. Rather, we should be more modest, and think about what are the minimal standards that we can reasonably expect all states to meet in their treatment of ethnic minorities. Put differently, we should focus more on identifying minimum floors below which no state should fall, no matter what their circumstances, rather than focusing on the highest standards that have been achieved in the most fortunate circumstances.

The goals of the international Metropolis Canada project on immigration, or the international Forum of Federations, both partners of the Ethnicity and Democratic Governance Project, were largely established at the initiative of the Canadian government — in part to increase the international exposure of the ‘Canadian model’ of diversity.

Policy Implications

There have been considerable efforts made at the international level in formulating legal norms and minimum standards of minority rights. There is, for example, the UN’s 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities; UNESCO’s 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity; the Organization of American States’ 1997 draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and the series of Recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the language, education and political rights of minorities, adopted between 1996 and 1999.

  • Although these international organizations’ documents establish only modest and minimal standards for states to comply with, identifying minimum standards is, in many ways, much more important for the global diffusion of multiculturalism than the trumpeting of “best practices” which may work only under fortunate circumstances.

  • Many of these documents are in a state of legal limbo, and whether they come to play a constructive role will depend in part on whether countries like Canada actively champion them, and encourage their more active monitoring and implementation. Canada has, regrettably, been virtually absent in international debates on establishing and monitoring legal standards on minority rights, except to oppose the passing of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN in 2006. Too often Canada has preferred to toot its own horn, publicizing its own practices; instead, it must think in a collective and collaborative way about advancing international standards.

  • While minimum standards are an important first step, the long-term goal should be to encourage and enable countries to build up from the minimum floor, and to work towards more robust forms of multicultural democracy. For example, as human rights protection is strengthened, as democracy is consolidated, and as regional geo-political security is established, we can hope and expect states to move towards the highest standards and best practices of accommodating substate ethnonational groups, perhaps through Canadian-style forms of bilingualism and federalism.

  • The best way to encourage this long-term development is to focus on the preconditions that enable multicultural democracies to emerge and flourish. It may be that the best way to encourage multiculturalism in South Asia or East Africa, for example, is to focus on building regional geo political security to develop the regional equivalents of the EU and NATO so that minorities are no longer seen as fifth-columnists working for neighbouring enemies.

  • In other contexts, democratic consolidation and the strengthening of domestic and international human rights protection will be the key precondition for enabling multiculturalism, by lowering the stakes involved in granting rights and powers to ethnic groups or regions. If people are confident that both the central state and self-governing minorities will respect human rights and democratic rules, then debates about the distribution of power and resources between centre and region are no longer matters of life and death. Once democracy and human rights are consolidated, citizens will know that, no matter how debates between states and minorities are ultimately resolved, they will not be subject to discrimination, persecution, harassment or expulsion. As a result, these debates become a matter of normal negotiation and bargaining, not a matter of existential threat.

  • It is not, however, that we should replace concern with multiculturalism with concern for geo political security or democratization and human rights, (the two policy implications addressed above) or even that we should defer multiculturalism until these conditions are in place. This might simply lead us back to traditional models of development based on centralized and homogenizing nation-building. Rather, we should address issues of regional security, democratization and human rights in light of our concern for multiculturalism. We should be asking what models of security, democratiza tion and legal reform can help initiate and sustain a long-term process of multicultural reforms.

We are only at the first stages of thinking through these issues. And if we are to make progress, it will require rethinking the way we promote the Canadian model of diversity abroad. There is nothing wrong with occasionally trumpeting Canadian success stories. But the more important and challenging task is to think, at a global scale, about minimum standards of minority rights and about the preconditions of multicultural democracy.