Education, Ethnicity and Racism:

A European-Canadian Perspective.

By: Chris Bagley

From: Currents Fall 1984 pp.8-12
© 1984 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

Introduction: European-Canadian Comparisons

Only in the 1950s did Canada develop an ideology of race and ethnic relations which was distinctly different from that of the white, Protestant English speaking group which had dominated the Empire for a century.(1 ) Change took place because of new patterns of migration; the assertion of power by migrant groups from Southern and Eastern Europe and Ireland; and through the assertion of Francophone consciousness. Today Canada in its multicultural policies is a dramatically changed society, unique in its policies which coincide with (but which have not created) a society in which racism's impact seem, on the face of thing, less dramatic than in many other ethnically mixed societies.

European comparisons make these Canadian developments seem even more interesting. For example, at one time Dutch race relations were regarded as the prime example of good practice: a very large number of ethnically different refugees from Indonesia had been successfully absorbed in the Dutch plural society, as had other minorities.(2 ) Yet in only a decade race and ethnic relations in the Netherlands deteriorated dramatically as large numbers of black Dutchmen arrived from Surinam and the Antilles, and the bonds of pluralism, coincidentally, began to crumble. The result has been the development of an alienated, despairing and rebellious black youth culture which could not be accommodated in Dutch society.(3)

The Dutch situation and its deterioration is worth stressing for it illustrates how a seemingly racist culture (as in the Canadian case) or a non racist (as in the Dutch case) can change rapidly in relation to structural factors independently of policy formation and action by governments. Hubert Campfens of Wilfred Laurier University illustrates this in his important comparative study of the "integration of ethno-cultural minorities" in Canada and the Netherlands.(4) In his conclusion, Campfens points to an interesting paradox. Despite a strong tradition of central and local government involvement in everyday affairs, Dutch public policy has played a relatively small part in assisting the integration of minorities. Yet in Canada, which lacks a tradition of strong government involvement (within a laissez faire, capitalist mode) both federal and provincial levels of government have taken significant initiatives to foster elements of cultural autonomy through both policy and fiscal support.

The reasons for Dutch inaction are related to moral confusion in a declining capitalist society in which the structural cement provided by religious bonds has decayed. The ground for Canadian action can be traced to self-interest - a desire to palliate potentially disruptive minorities following radical accommodations to Francophone interest and to the desire to incorporate minorities into a healthy capitalist economy. Canadian multicultural policy has developed in ways which obscure the lines of class and economic exploitation within a complex and seemingly attractive mosaic of vertical rather than horizontal stratification.(5) Paradoxically too, the accommodation of the cultural aspirations of diverse ethnic groups in Canada seems to be paralleled by a decline in ethnic commitment, as evidenced by an increase in inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriage.6

In truth, Canadian ethnic policies work because the population has been highly selected in terms of its commitment to the social relations required by capitalism. Canada is generally liberal in its treatment of the aspirations of ethnic and cultural minorities, but is racist in its policies towards "illegal" citizens.(7) Moreover, one ethnic group - the aboriginal peoples - are rigidly excluded from this multicultural policy, since Native cultural aspirations are fundamentally threatening to the capitalist aspirations of the white settlers, and those they have chosen to assist them in the exploitation of Canada's resources.(8 )

For legal immigrants to Canada, committed to economic advancement within a capitalist frame work, Canadian social structure offers many advantages. In this, Canada differs profoundly from Britain, where ethnic minorities are treated with discrimination rather than accommodation, despite their assimilationist aspirations.

In Britain, and to some extent in the Netherlands the frustration of legitimate aspirations of ethnic minority groups by a racist social structure has led to profound states of alienation.(9) We can best illustrate this by the comparative study by the Jamaican social geographer, Elizabeth Thomas-Hope.(10) Thomas-Hope compared the adjustment and satisfaction with achieving the goals of migration of similar groups of Caribbean migrants to Britain, Canada and the United States. She interviewed several hundred Caribbean respondents in London and other centres in U.K.; in New York, Hartford and Boston in the U.S.; and in Toronto and Hamilton in Canada. The highest levels of satisfaction with achieving the goals of migration were reported by West Indians in the U.S. centres, closely followed by those in Canada; but levels of satisfaction were dramatically lower in respondents in the U.K.

The goals of migration were quite simple: to advance occupationally and materially, and to achieve both for themselves and their children. These goals were most easily met in Canada and the U.S. which are"open" capitalist societies, used to accommodating the upwardly mobile aspirations of migrants in largely non-racist ways. Britain has no such tradition, and continues to discriminate against black people in jobs, housing schools and colleges The racism of the blue collar and many white collar segments in Britain is profound and deeprooted, and British people have still not accepted the reality that a significant minority of the British population consists of the previously exploited colonial peoples, who now have the affrontery to compete directly with the indigenous population in the job and housing market.(11) This discrimination extends to the second and third generation of Caribbean settlers in Britain, in profound contrast to the United States (and to some extent Canada) where second generation Caribbean migrants are largely absorbed into the black middle class, from whom they are indistinguishable.

In Britain, alienation and the knowledge that educational achievement is unlikely to bring success has led to two contrasted outcomes for minority youth. On the one hand, significant sectors of black youth have retreated from educational goals, and are labelled as "deviant" by teachers and the educational system;(12) on the other hand, significant numbers of Asian youth have become ritualistically attached to education and enroll in yet further courses to postpone the ultimate (and usually unsucessful) job search.(13)

At an official level, British policy has passed through a variety of phases. The first phase (beginning around 1960) involved an unsuccessful assimilationist policy coupled with harsh immigration restrictions which specifically discriminated against people of colour and kept families divided, through a rigid immigration system. The second phase (since 1970) made the immigration system still harsher, but began to develop a "multicultural" policy which involved a limited and largely ineffective palliative directed to the accommodation of minority aspirations.(14) But the central problems of racism and racial discrimination have not been addressed in British society, and with the advent of massive structural unemployment problems of racism have become significantly worse.(15 )_The facile use of the terms "multiculturalism" and "pluralism" have ignored the gross imbalances of power between ethnic groups. A description of the separateness of ethnic groups as a plural condition without reference to imbalances of power is to mask the racism inherent in such a situation: the most extreme example of this is the South African case,(16) but the separation and gross equality of aboriginal people in Canada comes uncomfortably close in similarity. We have recently proposed the concept of "interculturalism" rather than "multiculturalism" to accommodate this problem (taking due account of problems of power imbalance).(17)

We have become profoundly dissatisfied with the trivialization of the idea of multiculturalism by many British educational writers and practitioners: "multicultural education" has become for many a synonym for minor curriculum accommodations to the needs of some ethnic groups, without beginning to address the problems of racism, and the need to educate all ethnic groups (including whites) for intercultural living in a non-exploitive world.

The Canadian Experience

We have argued that marked differences in the emerging social structure of Canada have meant that problems of race and ethnic relations are generally not so profound (or rather are different) from those observed in a number of European countries.

Canada, as a successful capitalist economy has an openness in its accommodation of immigrants (including ethnic minorities) who have been specially selected for their combination of professional experience, education, youth, linguistic ability, and their willingness to fit in with a social structure based on individuality and individual enterprise.(18)

Educational institutions in Canada, as the servants of the economy, generally socialize ethnic minorities, without overt discrimination, to undertake successful roles in a free enterprise system. Such a process of selection through careful immigration, education, socialization, and training for successful participation in a capitalist society has served the needs of the selected immigrants well, but it is not in an absolute sense fair or unbiased. The Canadian system leaves unchallenged the world's most profound system of stratification, that between rich and poor countries.(19) Recruiting certain of the educated class from countries of Asia and the Caribbean is, for Canada a policy of self-interest, not of enlightenment. The recruitment of Vietnamese refugees is a case in point. Canada smartly entered the camps, and recruited younger, healthy, educated people who spoke French or English Canada's "generous" quota of immigrants was rapidly filled.

The ideologies of Canadian social structure are implicit rather than explicit. The ruthless self-interest of Canadian capitalism is rarely discussed, and multicultural and immigration policies are either rarely analyzed, or are seen as autonomous and even enlightened aspects of policy development, without reference to their wider economic and social policy connections. Coy phrases such as "visible minorities" replace the harsher British emphasis on "racial minorities". Yet the question of who is a "visible minority" remains undefined and undiscussed in Canada. Is one a visible minority because of the possession of non Anglo-Celtish surname? If not, why not? Does minority status depend on the accuracy with which the average Canadian can pick you out in a crowd? Are children of mixed parentage "visible minorities"? If "visible minority" is a synonym for being black, why not say so?

Other issues fail to reach the multicultural agenda in Canada. We have little data on the educational achievement of ethnic minority students in Canada. The writer has been unsuccessful, for example, in persuading School Boards to identify students by ethnicity in a comparative study of self-concept and achievement.(20) The nature, extent and social and psychological correlates of prejudiced beliefs in young people, and the extent of which these might be changed by curriculum methods of school organization is largely unexplored in Canada.(21) And we have no reliable or valid data on discrimination against ethnic minorities in Canada.(22)

The most perplexing issue which is not on the agenda of Canadian ethnic relations is the massive exploitation of the conquered aboriginal nations,(23 )the denigration and suppression of their culture, and an oppressive educational system which fails to address the cultural, affective or cognitive needs of Indian and Metis children.(24 )


In sum, Canada has apparently been relatively successful in absorbing certain highly selected immigrant groups whose aspirations fit in with the goals of a capitalist society, oriented to the fulfillment of individual needs for material advancement. However, full evidence to evaluate this proposition is lacking, largely because fundamental research and policy questions are not posed. Such radical questions, about Canadian ideologies on ethnicity, the exclusion of poor people from Canada, and the continued colonial exploitation of a dominated and excluded people within Canada, are not asked. The failure to ask these questions, we suggest, is an ideological matter, and relates to the presently unmasked nature of Canada's capitalist institutions. This silent ideological agenda may account too for the imprecise nature of multicultural policy in Canada, and the vagueness of official terms used to describe minority groups.(25 )

The aggressive and exploitive nature of settlement in Canada has been to the profound advantage of the white settlers, and the non-white minorities absorbed, through "multiculturalism", into the exploiting class. The exploitation of the
land and natural resources has been to profound disadvantage of the original inhabitants: their exclusion from both prosperity and autonomy, the denial of their land claims, and a continuation both directly and indirectly of a policy of cultural genocide against the aboriginal people is in our view the major but unaddressed issue in Canadian "race relations". It is no accident that the Ministry of Multiculturalism has no concern with, or responsibility to support aboriginal culture.

Chris Bagley is Professor of Child Welfare at the University of Calgary


1. H. Palmer "Patterns of Prejudice: A History of Nativism in Alberta." Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1982.

2. C. Bagley "The Dutch Plural Society: A Comparative Study in Race Relations." London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

3. C. Bagley "Dutch social structure and the alienation of black youth," in C. Bagley
and G. Verma (Eds) "Multicultural Childhood: Education, Ethnicity and Cognitive
Styles." Aldershot, U.K: Gower Press, 1983.

4. H. Campfens "The Integration of Ethno-Cultural Minorities: A Pluralist Approach - The Netherlands and Canada: A Comparative Analysis of Policy and Programs."
The Hague: Government Publishing Office for the Ministry of Culture and Social
Welfare, 1980.

5. K. Moodley, "Canadian ethnicity in comparative perspective," in J. Dahlie and T. Fernando (Eds) "Ethnicity, Power and Politics in Canada." Toronto: Methuen, 1981.

6. C. Bagley, "Inter-ethnic marriage in Britain and the United States from 1970-1977," "Sage Race Relations Abstracts," 4, 1-22.

7. An example: in Fall of 1983 police assisting immigration officers surrounded a black church in Calgary and checked all those leaving the service. Those who could not prove legal Canadian residence were detained, and six people were deported to the Caribbean without appeal. This incident, presumably a typical day in the life of the immigration police, was ignored by the local press. The Canadian government treats "illegal" people as harshly as any fascist govemment.

8. C. Bagley "Social policy in the Prairies to 2003: The future of the family, the plight of Native children, and the universal social wage," Paper given to Canadian Institute of Planners Conference: Life in the Canadian Prairies to the year 2003. Regina, Saskatchewan, October, 1983.

9. C. Bagley, "Sequels of alienation: a social psychological view of the adaptation of West Indian migrants in Britain," in K. Glaser (Ed). "Case Studies in Human Righls and Fundamental Freedoms," Vol.11, The Hague: Nijhoff.

10. E.Thomas-Hope, "Identity and adaptation of migrants from the English-speaking Caribbean in Britain and North America," in G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Self-Concept, Achievement and Multicultural Education." London: MacMillan, 1982.

11. C. Bagley, G. Verma, K. Mallick and L. Young, "Personality, Self-Esteem
and Prejudice." Farnborough, U.K: Saxon House, 1979; and C. Bagley and G.
Verma, "Racial Prejudice: The Individual and Society." Farnborough, U.K: Saxon
House, 1979.

12. C. Bagley, "The background of deviance in black children in London," in G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Race and Education Across Cultures." London: Heinemann; and C. Bagley, "Achievement, behaviour disorder and social circumstances in West Indian children and other ethnic groups," in G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Self-Concept, Achievement and Multicultural Education." London: MacMillan, 1982.

13. G. Verma, K. Mallick and B. Ashworth, "The role of attitude and experience in the transition from school to work in young South Asians in Britain," in C. Bagley and G. Verma (Eds) "Multicultural Childhood: Education, Ethnicity and Cognitive
Styles." Aldershot, U.K: Gower Press.

14. We offer commentary and prescription for these various changes in the introductory chapters in: G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Race and Education Across Cultures." London: Heinemann, 1975; G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Self-Concept, Achievement and Multicultural Education." London: MacMillan, 1982; C. Bagley and G. Verma (Eds) "Multicultural Childhood." Aldershot, U.K: Gower Press, 1983: and G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Race Relations and Cultural Differences." London: Croom Helm, 1984.

15. G. Verma, "Consciousness, disadvantage and opportunity: the struggle for South asian in British society," in C. Bagley and G. Verma (Eds) "Multicultural Childhood." Aldershot, U.K: Gower Press,1983; and C. Brown, "Black and White in Britain: The Third PSI Survey." London: Heinemann for the Policy Studies Institute, 1984.

16. C. Bagley, "Pluralism, development and social conflict in Africa," "Plural Societies," 1972, 3, 13-32.

17. In the introduction to G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Race Relations and Cultural Differences." London: Croom Helm, 1984. Compare this with the interesting paper by Inez Elliston, "Multicultural centres: a focus for intercultural education," in R.Samuda et. al. (Eds) "Multuculturalism in Canada." Toronto: Allyn and Bacon, 1984.

18. A personal example may not be entirely trivial. When the writer applied to the
Canadian High Commission in London for the status of landed immigrant, he was
told by an immigration ''counsellor'': "You may have a job to go to, but that doesn't
mean we're going to accept you. We want to make sure you're the kind of person
we want in Canada." The subsequent interview and further documentation required
was directed to establishing whether the writer was or had been a communist or
radical trade union activist, and the degree to which he was likely to engage in
radical activity in Canada.

19. We develop this theme of international stratification more fully in: C. Bagley, "Social policy and development: The case of child welfare, health and nutritional services in India," "Plural Societies," 1979, 10, 3-26.

20. The results of this study of some 1500 junior high school students is consistent with the picture of Canada we have sketched: Canadian students have significantly
better self-concept than British students. In Canada, achievement and self-concept
were largely unrelated. However, poor achievement was a significant determinant
of poor self-esteem in the British students, reflecting a school system which is
highly stratified in terms of social class and ethnicity. See C. Bagley and G. Verma,
"Self-concept and long-term effects of teaching about race relations in British
schools," in G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Self-Concept, Achievement and
Multicultural Education." London: MacMillan, 1982; and C. Bagley and G. Verma
(Eds) "The Cross-Cultural Imperative:" London: MacMillan,1985.

21. The extent of Canadian knowledge in this field is ably summarized in the chapters by Berry, Kalin, Ijaz, Kehoe and Pratt in R. Samuda, J. Berry and M. Laferriere (Eds) "Multiculturalism in Canada: Social and Educational Perspectives."
Toronto: Allyn and Bacon, 1984.

22. N. Buchignani "Social science research on South Asians in Canada" Paper given
to the State of the A rt Symposium, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of
Toronto, January 1983 and published in the proceedings of that symposium. Note
that an earlier study has pointed to "considerable discrimination" against blacks in
Hamilton, Ontario - F. Henry, "The measurement of perceived discrimination: a
Canadian case study," "Race," 1969, 10, 449-461. The continued extent of that
discrimination is unknown. The only other relevant study has used indirect rather
than direct methods to assess amounts of discrimination. See G. Reitz, "Ethnic
Inequality and Segragation in Jobs." Toronto: Centre for Urban and Community
studies, 1981.

23. For an account of the cultural oppression of Native children through the social
service system see B. Morse, "Native Indian and Metis children in Canada: victims
of the child welfare system," in G. Verma and C. Bagley (Eds) "Race Relations and
Cultural Differences: Educational and Interpersonal Perspectives." New York: St
Martin's Press, 1984. On the thesis that the economic and health conditions of
aboriginal people in Canada are worse than those of many people in the Third
World, see C. Bagley, "The state of the world's children," "Canadian Children,"
1984, 9, 10-15.

24. We have argued that in general, the coincidence of cognitive style and ethnicity is
not strong enough to justify special programs addressed to the cognitive needs of
minorities - C. Bagley, "Cultural diversity migration and cognitive styles: a study of
British, Japanese, Jamaican and Indian children," in R. Samuda et. al. (Eds)
"Multiculturalism in Canada." Toronto: Allyn and Bacon, 1984. However, more
recent work on cognitive styles with children of the Blackfoot Nation in Southern
Alberta leads us to propose that a culturally and cognitively relevant educational
system, under the control of Blackfoot people themselves, is needed - C. Bagley
and G. Verma (Eds) "The Cross-Cultural Imperative: Studies of Personality, Social
Behaviour and Cognition." London: MacMillan, 1985.

25. See N. Buchignani "Culture or identity? Addressing ethnicity in Canadian
education," "McGill Journal of Education," 1980,15 79-93; and K. Moodley, "Canadian Multiculturalism as ideology," "Ethnic and Racial Studies," 1983, 6, 1-12.

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