Ties that Bind?

Social Cohesion and Diversity in Canada

Stuart N. Soroka, Richard Johnston and Keith Banting December 12th, 2006

Growing ethnic diversity has generated two interesting policy agendas in Western democracies. One agenda celebrates diversity; another is concerned with the potential difficulties diversity poses for social cohesion or social integration. Until recently, these latter concerns have had limited resonance in Canada, but cracks in Canadian equanimity seem to be appearing. Do Canadians have reason to worry about social cohesion? Is immigration adding new fault lines in the fabric of Canadian life?

This paper begins by summarizing two different interpretations of the sources of social integration in diverse societies: one that emphasizes the importance of a common sense of national identity and shared values; and a second that puts the emphasis on widespread participation in the processes through which we manage diverse identities and values. The paper then explores differences across eight categories (including the founding peoples of Canada as well as more recent newcomers – see p. 5) in a variety of sensitive social linkages associated with both of these interpretations. The authors employ a series of measures of social cohesion: pride and sense of belonging in Canada, levels of interpersonal trust, the balance between liberal and socially conservative values, the extent of engagement in social networks that bridge cultural divides, and participation in our electoral processes (for further details, see pp. 9-11). For its analysis, the paper draws on two opinion surveys: the second wave of the “Equality, Security and Community Survey” (conducted in 2002-03) and the 2004 “Canadian Election Study.”

The various measures produce rather different pictures of the prospects and challenges of social cohesion in Canada. There are persistent ethnic differences in the levels of trust Canadians have in each other, for instance, with francophone Quebecers, Aboriginal people and some visible minority groups evidencing lower levels of trust. In contrast, there are virtually no differences in the balance of liberal and conservative social values across ethnic groups. Perhaps most notably, many of the differences associated with ethnic groups of relatively recent arrival are a product of exactly that: recent arrival. For immigrant Canadians, it is the length of time in Canada that drives what at first glance appear to be strong ethnic differences. The longer new immigrants are in Canada, the more their sense of pride and belonging comes to equal – and in some cases exceed – that of the largest ethnic group. The integrative power of Canadian life for “newcomers” is in some ways quite impressive.

There are nevertheless limits to the integrative power of time. Although newcomers from southern and Eastern Europe eventually come to feel they belong almost as much as those with ancestry in the United Kingdom and Northern Europe, racially distinctive minorities remain less confident they fully belong. And of course, the groups that are least integrated are, as often as not, the ones that have been here longest. Indeed, the greatest challenges to social cohesion in Canada may not be rooted in the attitudes, beliefs and attachments of relative newcomers. According to the measures employed in this paper, the historic tensions among the founding peoples remain central, as large proportions of francophone Quebecers and Aboriginal people seem somewhat less integrated into Canadian society.

What can be concluded then about diversity and social cohesion as a whole, incorporating both “new” and “old” Canadians? The two theories of social integration point in different directions. If social cohesion is well rooted only in a common sense of national identity, then Canada faces enduring challenges. Indeed, faith in the future of Canada as a single state assumes that this theory is simply too narrow to capture the strengths of multicultural societies. The second theory of social integration generates a more optimistic view. If the true source of social cohesion in today’s multicultural world is to be found in the engagement of ethnic groups in social and political life, Canada seems better positioned for the future.