Much ink has been spilled over the topic of Canadian multiculturalism. As Lori Beaman (2015) writes, while multiculturalism is undeniably a demographic reality in Canada, a lot of ambiguity remains as to what exactly a “multicultural policy program” or a “multicultural ideology” involves. [1] Despite this general ambiguity, Daniel Weinstock (2014) proposes an elegant explanation concerning the theoretical underpinnings of both multicultural ideology and multicultural policy programs. He explains that these concepts result from the direct application of principles of liberal-democratic justice to a context of ethnocultural diversity. What multiculturalism strives to do is to provide members of minorities with an institutional space to express their cultural identities. Weinstock believes this to be a straightforward requirement of liberal fairness. [2]

Indeed, it is a requirement of liberal justice that individuals, notwithstanding their cultural background, be treated as equal citizens. Weinstock (2014) argues that in so far as multicultural ideology is an application of liberal principles of equal citizenship and fairness, viewing neutrality as equivalent to the equal application of laws is a flawed approach. Indeed, an important component of multiculturalism is that it recognizes that so-called “neutral” laws and policies may negatively affect members of ethnic minorities, thereby threatening their rights to equal citizenship. For example, statutory holidays that correspond only to the days of worship of the majority may implicitly burden minority groups. These laws prevent individuals belonging to minority groups from engaging in economic activities on these days, without compensating them with times of rest that comply with their own non-majoritarian belief systems. This case illustrates how “neutral policies” may have unequal consequences. If we think of neutrality as equal respect for the rights of all citizens, then neutrality, in this case, may require different treatment for individual groups. Indeed, liberal fairness actually requires differential treatment, because the neutrality of liberal norms may be more illusory than factual: Neutrality is not always ensured by the equal application of the law, as the law’s contents may unequally affect different groups.

When considering policy, it is thus important to keep these goals in mind. We want to be able to assess whether our conceptual framing of issues is the most conducive to achieving the goals of multiculturalism, that is, a liberal conception of justice.

A topic where these concerns are particularly relevant, and that has been generally been at the center of multiculturalism debates, is that of religious diversity. More narrowly, the idea of reasonable accommodation has become an equivocal topic. The idea of reasonable limits on rights has long been an ideal in Canadian jurisprudence. Entrenched in Section 1 of the Constitution in 1982 is a guarantee of “the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Section 27 also states that the interpretation of the Charter should be “consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” Consequently, judges have developed a number of tests to determine what counts as a reasonable expression of rights and, inversely, when the state is justified in infringing on those rights.

That said, reasonable accommodation has only recently entered mainstream discourse. Barras (2017) argues that it was the Multani Decision that made it a concern to the public imagination. [3] Multani was a Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decision that struck down the decision of a Montreal school board to prohibit a Sikh student from bringing his kirpan to school (a kirpan is a small dagger that must be worn at all times according to Sikh scripture). The SCC justified its decision on the grounds that the school illegitimately infringed on the student’s religious freedom. This decision captures questions that surround the debates of reasonable accommodation: When is accommodation necessary for equality and justice? What qualifies as “reasonable” accommodation? Does accommodation go too far?

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Beaman (2015) argues that it is the framing of these questions themselves that has prevented us from achieving equality. Indeed, it is not that accommodation questions are difficult to resolve, but it is the framework of accommodation itself that is skewing the debate in a counterproductive way. She writes “Tolerance and accommodation are trapped in a hierarchical positioning which always implicates an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’” [4] Unequal power relations are embedded in the framework of accommodation itself, where the majority dominates. It frames the debate in terms of how much the benevolent majority is ready to “permit” the minority to exercise their basic rights, thereby leaving the minority vulnerable to the whims and desires of the majority. Moreover, Beaman argues that this framework cannot acknowledge how “neutral” institutions are tilted in favor of the majority, as seen in the aforementioned case of religious holidays. In cases that are of religious nature, this flawed framing of issues erases the historical privilege of Protestant and Catholic Canadians. Accommodation thereby frames the requests of minorities as capricious, when they are actually demanding equality. As such, this framing of such issues completely distorts our understanding of justice.

In conclusion, Canadian multiculturalism commits Canadian society to goals of equality and fairness. However, before attending to concrete policy programs, it is important to frame questions in ways that are conducive to the achievement of these goals. Insofar as the framework of accommodation entrenches unequal power relations and distorts the requirements of justice, we should abandon it. Instead, we should adopt a theoretical approach that will allow us to frame the debate more productively for the achievement of the goals of liberal justice.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by William Cho via PixaBay


[1] Beaman, Lori G. “Policy, Integration, Action, and Social Inclusion in Canada.” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 25, no.2 (2015): 181-198.

[2] Weinstock, Daniel. “What is really at stake in the multiculturalism/interculturalism debate,” in Debating Identity in 21st Century Canada, ed.  Jack Jedwab (Toronto: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014), 187-201.

[3] Barras, Amélie. “Reasonable Accommodation.” in Exploring Religion and Diversity in Canada: People, practice and responsibility, ed. Catherine Holtmann (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 183-205.

[4] Beaman, 2015, p.190.