May 122014

Dominant cultures everywhere tend to overemphasize their homogeneity, yet Canadians love to boast about their diversity. Exploring the reasons behind this anomaly has led University of Ottawa sociologist Elke Winter to develop a whole new paradigm for “multiculturalism,” which she writes about in a book which won the Canadian Sociological Association’s 2012 John Porter Award. Winter summarizes her thesis in a paper titled Us, Them and Others, just published in the Canadian Review of Sociology.

Winter argues that Canadians live in a triangular rather than a binary society because Canada is comprised of “us, them, and others” instead of the typical “us and them” paradigm typical of most countries, where the dominant culture constitutes the in-group, or “us,” and everyone else is one of “them.” The triangular model, Winter says, “helps us to better understand pluralism as a negotiated compromise.” In other words, viewing the tapestry of Canada’s diverse subcultures through the lens of Winter’s triangular model helps develop understanding of the cultural give-and-take that underpin this nation.

The more typical, binary “us-them” model helps groups and societies to define themselves in terms of who they are not. It’s different in Canada, Winter shows, because Canadians define themselves strongly in terms of who they are not, but also show that they are conscious of sharing society with others in their midst. These cultural interrelationships create a dynamic that, to survive, must continually be in flux.

Winter quotes from her analysis of Globe and Mail articles to underscore this point. She shows that “traditional” Canadian national identity is often opposed to presumed outsiders. As one Globe and Mail article puts it, “No one rationally is going to suggest that Canada establish Islam’s sharia law alongside the English common law, the Quebec Civil Code and whatever the nation’s aboriginal justice systems evolve.”

There is an increasing openness towards cultural diversity, specifically in the 1990s, while Quebec, however, is portrayed as everything that Canadians don’t want to be. As a different Globe and Mail article said it: “Quebec separatism is an essentially 19th-century nation-state movement in a late 20th-century ‘community of communities’ called Canada that has effectively set the standard for statehood in the modern world.”

Winter concludes that “opening the ‘lens’” in this manner – viewing Canadian multiculturalism as a dynamic system that is continually in flux – “allows for a more meaningful interpretation of reality” than could be attained through the traditional static, binary model.

Access the Winter study

See the latest issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology