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Diversity is a Fact; Inclusion is a Choice

Keynote Speech for the Conference Inclusive Societies?
Canada and Belgium in the 21st century
co-organized by the Université libre de Bruxelles and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven,
Palais des Académies, Brussels, September 22, 2017

Stéphane Dion
Ambassador of Canada to Germany and Special Envoy of the Prime Minister to the European Union and Europe

The organizers of this conference have chosen a topic that is crucial for the future of our societies: Will they be inclusive, welcoming, and based on trust, or exclusive, mistrustful, and driven by populism, xenophobia and violent extremism?

Diversity is a fact. In Canada, first- and second-generation immigrants now make up nearly 40 percent of the population, and more than two thirds in Vancouver and Toronto.1 The immigrant population has grown by a third in OECD countries since 2000.2 Our societies are becoming more and more diversified with respect to ethnicity, culture and religion. They’re aging, and their birthrate is too low to prevent a population decline. Soon, if it hasn’t already, population growth will rely solely on immigration—Statistics Canada projects this will happen in Canada by 2030.3 The workers that our economies need come increasingly from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Our countries have signed international agreements committing them to taking in those fleeing war, terror, and persecution. There are currently 60 million refugees and displaced persons in the world, and that figure is likely to rise, in part because of disturbances such as climate change.  

Diversity is here and will only become more widespread. We can try to contain it and avoid it as much as possible, or we can mould it so that it becomes a strength, a source of enrichment. The second choice is the right choice.

Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice. This maxim, expressed by Prime Minister Trudeau, is central to my presentation today. I will add to it the rallying cry of Chancellor Merkel and Vice-Chancellor Gabriel: “Wir schaffen das.” We’ll make it. There are reasons for being hopeful and optimistic. But it means that we have to choose the right policies, the right philosophy.

The organizers of this conference are absolutely right when they say that inclusion—what they call the management of cultural and ethnic diversity— makes the experience of our two countries especially relevant.

First, because Belgium and Canada are two of the most diverse countries according to the OECD’s ranking.4 Also, because they are federations—decentralized federations, compared with others. And at the heart of the federal idea is the wager of unity in diversity, of cooperation through the plurality of viewpoints and experiences. Finally, because Belgium and Canada are both bilingual countries that have always had to learn to turn their diversity into a strength.

Some people wrongly oppose the old bilingual Canada with the new multicultural Canada. The shared experience of British and French Canadians, in Quebec and throughout Canada, was not always easy, not by a long shot. But on the whole it led them to conceive their diversity as a tangible asset that has enabled them to, together, build one of the most envied countries in the world, and on that basis, to welcome more and more non-Christian immigrants from far-flung lands. Enshrined in our Constitution and in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our official bilingualism and our multiculturalism have supported each other in the past and must continue to move forward together.

Our history reminds us that rejecting diversity is not inspired solely by an instinctive reaction of mistrust toward difference. The problem we need to overcome is not associated only with the fear of strangers. If that were the case, our task would be less complicated. Rejecting diversity is also based on the belief that uniformity is preferable for the efficiency of a society, the cohesion of a country, and the equality of its citizens’ opportunities. In the 19th century, liberal minds advocated the active assimilation of minorities as a good thing. Although Lord Durham, in his famous 1839 “Report on the Affairs of British North America,” recommended the assimilation of French-Canadians, it was not out of contempt for French culture—his report contains some very complimentary passages about France.   He thought that to be French in France was good, but was committing a grave error in believing that to be francophone in the British Empire was a handicap, a sterile isolation, and so these people, for their own good and for the future of their children, had to become British like the others.  

Thankfully, Canada did not become a uniform country, and by following a different path than the one set out by Durham, it is today one of the best equipped to capitalize on the extensive intermingling of populations in the 21st century.

Right now, throughout the world, there is indeed a real fascination for Canada’s immigrant integration model. People have raised it with me constantly since I arrived in Europe. Our European friends are especially interested in the Canadian point-based system that we use to select our immigrants.  

We are willing to provide all the necessary technical information about our point-based system. To sum it up, I would say that the system’s strength is that it takes the immediate needs of employers into consideration, but it does not stop there. The selection criteria also include applicants’ human capital, along with their professional and linguistic skills. But it is noteworthy that the Canadian model does not depend entirely on this specific immigrant selection policy, as if it were designed as a sort of easy recipe that on its own will deliver all the benefits of the Canadian system. Instead, the Canadian immigration model forms a whole, a vast intake policy that involves all of society, which certainly encompasses what the conference organizers have called the political management of diversity, but reaches beyond that to include a genuine philosophy of community living, enshrined in a constitutional principle: multiculturalism. I’ll come back to this.

“Liberty moves north: Canada’s example to the world,” proclaimed the October 2016 edition of The Economist. High praise indeed, from all quarters! And yet, we Canadians would be wise to avoid complacency despite the compliments that we have earned because of our intake capacity and the fact that major populist and xenophobic parties have not emerged in Canada. Our model for integrating newcomers can be improved upon, and we can learn from other countries. You would have to be deaf and blind not to hear and see the xenophobia that is too present in our country, along with hate crimes, hate speech, and discrimination, as a timely report from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reminds us.5  The problems experienced by Canada’s indigenous populations are indicative of the additional efforts we need to continually make to bring our country closer to the model of openness and tolerance that the world sees us as.

One consideration that should keep us modest and curb any desire to lecture other countries is the comparative advantage that our geographic location gives us. To come to Canada, you have to either cross an ocean or cross through the United States, two obstacles that limit irregular immigration. This geographic isolation facilitates not only the selection of immigrants, but also their integration, since remoteness from their country of origin is a psychological factor that motivates newcomers to integrate into their host country. In addition, immigration to our country is truly diverse and multicultural, not only from a single region. This also facilitates integration. Our geographic location has helped us to select one of the most educated immigrant populations in the world—indeed, the most educated, according to OECD data.6 This in no way takes away our merit of being a relatively welcoming and tolerant country. But we need to recognize that our capacity to keep selection and the pace of immigration under control makes our job easier.

When Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada would take in 25,000 Syrian refugees, Canadians enthusiastically rallied together. However, they knew that the operation would remain under control, and that the number of arrivals would not increase tenfold.

That is an enormous advantage, since it is often the feeling of a loss of control over immigration that triggers waves of xenophobia and populism. Recently, the Germans demonstrated admirable generosity when they took in hundreds of thousands of migrants. But the feeling that the flow of arrivals would only accelerate and create a tidal wave and that the authorities would be overwhelmed—in addition to the assaults of women in Cologne—amplified economic and identity anxiety, which xenophobic organizations and a populist party seized on.7 In the United Kingdom, two studies suggest that the main factor that influenced the Brexit vote stemmed from concerns about immigration and the belief that the country had lost control over its borders.8

In Canada, in recent months, changes to US policy that led to the arrival of some thousand irregular migrants at our borders triggered a national debate similar to what we are hearing in Europe, with the opposition and the government trading accusations of complacency and alarmism, while many Canadians became concerned.9  As Prime Minister Trudeau rightly recognized, Canadians are more welcoming when they have faith in the integrity of the immigration system.

Having said this, Canadians have designed an integration model that stands up to scrutiny. Comparative data compiled by the OECD in 2015 in an extensive report on immigrant integration reveal that almost all of Canada’s indicators surpass the OECD average with respect to access to employment, the percentage of new arrivals who claim they are victims of discrimination, access to citizenship, personal or family income compared with the total population, the level of health compared with the rest of the population, and so on.10

These good results are backed up by effective policies, as indicated in a comparative study published in 2015 by the Migration Policy Group and the Barcelona Center for International Affairs.11 According to this Migrant Integration Policy Index, Canada ranks 6th out of 38 countries.12 Three rather average results cost Canada a spot on the podium. First, Canada is ranked only 18th with respect to access to health care, a poor result stemming from restrictions imposed on undocumented migrants and refugee claimants (legal migrants have the same access rights as Canadian citizens).13 Second, Canada ranks 20th with respect to political participation, essentially because non-citizens do not have the right to vote, even at the municipal level.14 The third result that costs Canada a few ranks relates to a series of difficulties caused by a recent increase in the number of temporary foreign workers, a problem that the current federal government is striving to solve.15

I think that these three relative weaknesses of the Canadian model stem from the premise that newcomers will have rapid access to citizenship and the rights that come with it, including for voting, access to health, and the labour code.

In fact, Canada ranks well with respect to access to citizenship, albeit less well than in the past because of reforms in 2012 and 2014, which have, according to the authors of this study, prolonged and bureaucratized the process.16   The authors believe that efficient processes and simple access to citizenship is the principle factor that explains the success of the Canadian model.    Furthermore, Canada obtained favourable scores for its immigrant support policies, including labour market adjustment, the specific needs of immigrant families and their children—including struggling students—and help with learning the country’s official languages. Canada ranks first for its anti-discrimination and intercommunity dialogue policies.17 Overall, according to this study, Canada appears to be one of the most receptive countries for immigrants and the best equipped to ensure their successful integration.

But Canada’s strong performance is not only rooted in effective policies. It is also inspired by a community-living philosophy: multiculturalism. This makes Canadian diversity as a source of pride and inclusion a permanent national objective, at the core of the national identity. Multiculturalism has become one of the most popular identity symbols among Canadians, even more than hockey—or even the Queen!18

In Quebec, the term interculturalism is preferred, to emphasize the need to encourage newcomers to learn French and adopt cultural traits that distinguish Quebec. But studies that compare Quebec’s immigration policy with that of the rest of Canada have revealed numerous similarities.19 One might almost say that interculturalism is French for multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is an intake and integration policy that engages all of society, not only governments and public institutions, such as schools and hospitals.

It also includes the private sector, especially since it is increasingly apparent that it’s profitable for businesses to embrace diversity.20

Multiculturalism largely depends on communities, where groups of residents share the same origin. The goal is not to create ethnic ghettos or parallel societies, as is too often claimed. Rather, it is to maintain, over the course of generations, knowledge of the cultural traits of the country or region of origin, to the benefit of other Canadians. It is also to facilitate the adaptation of newcomers. They can thus benefit from the advice and assistance of Canadians who have gone through the same integration process. They can give them warmth and comfort and guide them in their search for training, a job, a school, a neighbourhood. They can help them adjust to the habits and customs of their new country, including its harsh climate!

This is how I described the integration process when I spoke to communities in the highly multicultural electoral district in Montreal where I served as Member of Parliament for 21 years. I told them that the first generation of immigrants are supported by their community of origin, the second generation has access to the education system, and the third generation brings home a boyfriend or girlfriend from another community. Parents who were listening would often get tears in their eyes while telling me, “Mr. Dion, that is exactly how it happened, except that with us it started with the second generation!”

This kind of multiculturalism ensures that integration is gradual and successful. People do not have to renounce what they were to become Canadian. On the contrary, newcomers are expected to share the universal traits of their culture with other Canadians. According to the work of Professor Kymlicka and other researchers, the results speak for themselves: newcomers identify very strongly with Canada and are proud of their new country, as much as if not more so than other Canadians.21 Precisely because they have felt accepted and welcomed, they adhere even more to the liberal values of democracy, solidarity, and gender equality.

The positive impact of multiculturalism is evident among Canadians of all origins and faiths, including Muslims, who are often wrongly accused of being unable to adapt.22

However, the success of multiculturalism must never be taken for granted. It needs to be a constant commitment. In my 21 years as Member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, I had very few weekends to myself, and I was no exception. Elected municipal, provincial and federal representatives are active in their communities and attend meetings, festivals and celebrations. They attend citizenship ceremonies, seen as a momentous occasion, like a wedding, celebrated with parents, friends, and the community. When a community encounters difficulties, elected officials must encourage others to show their support, especially in the case of communities whose countries of origin are in conflict. For instance, when a library in my Jewish community was targeted in a hate crime, I made sure that representatives of all communities attended a vigil to show their solidarity.

In conclusion, I reject the claims made in some countries that multiculturalism is a failure. It is doubtful that those countries have really put it to the test. Multiculturalism cannot exist in countries where citizenship is difficult to obtain and part of a long, complicated process. As said by John Ralston Saul, multiculturalism is, rather, a celebration of citizenship.23 With multiculturalism, the entire immigration process is designed to ensure that people come into the country to become full-fledged citizens, not only to find good jobs. And when you walk down the street, including in big cities, almost all the people you see are your fellow citizens, not zombies in the eyes of the state, with complicated, temporary or uncertain status.

Multiculturalism cannot thrive in countries that do not allow dual or multiple citizenship. You are not required to renounce who you are to become a citizen. Rather, you are called on to share the universal traits of your culture and to be open to the contributions of others.

With multiculturalism, newcomers are not left to their own devices. A full range of policies are in place to support them at every stage of their integration. Private businesses also find it is to their advantage to develop their own inclusion policies.

Of course, multiculturalism is doomed to fail if community living is seen as suspicious and equated with a refusal to integrate. On the contrary, communities need to be supported and encouraged as vital links to the success of gradual integration.

And finally, multiculturalism cannot succeed when the national identity is set in stone. Whether your ancestors have been buried here for centuries or you just became a citizen, equality for all citizens under the law must be reflected in people’s attitudes. We must all be accepted for what we can contribute.

These are the lessons that can be learned from the Canadian experience, with both its successes and its shortcomings. It is based on the idea that diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice: the right choice. It is a choice that must be open to the experiences of other countries, including Belgium, of course. So I will now listen carefully to the discussions among Belgian and Canadian experts gathered here today. I will report to the Government of Canada on the findings of your research and deliberations, which, I have no doubt, will guide us on the path toward more inclusive societies.

Inclusion is the right choice.   Wir schaffen das.    We’ll make it.     Nous allons y arriver.               

We zullen er geraken!


1 Naël Shiab, “Un Canada sans immigrants : Que se passerait-il si le Canada arrêtait tout d’un coup d’accueillir des immigrants,” L’actualité, June 28, 2017,

2 OECD/European Union (2015), Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In, OECD Publishing, Paris,29.

3 Canada, Statistics Canada, Population Projections for Canada, Provinces and Territories 2009 to 2036, Catalogue no. 91-520-X, Ottawa, 2010, 43.

4 OECD/European Union (2015), Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In, OECD Publishing, Paris, 17.

5 United Nations. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Concluding observations on the combined twenty-first to twenty-third periodic reports of Canada. 93rd session, 2017.

6 OECD/European Union (2015), Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In, OECD Publishing, Paris.

7 Dietrich Thränhardt, “From Welcome Culture to Welcome Realism. Refugee Integration in Germany,” in Refugees and the Media in Germany, eds. Giovanna dell'Orto and Irmgard Wetzstein (Austria and Greece, 2017).

8 Meleady, Rose, Charles R. Seger and Marieke Vermue, “Examining the role of positive and negative intergroup contact and anti-immigrant prejudice in Brexit,” The British Psychological Society (2017) ; Roger Harding, Key Findings: A kind-hearted but not soft-hearted country, 2017, The National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes 34.

9 Angus Reid Institute. Half of Canadians say their country is ‘too generous’ toward illegal border crossers, September 2017.

10 OECD/European Union, Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In,2015,OECD Publishing, Paris.

11 Thomas Huddleston, Özge Bilgili, Anne-Linde Joki and Zvezda Vankova, Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015.

2015, CIDOB and MPG, Barcelona/ Brussels.

12 Ibid, 85.

13 Ibid, 87.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid, 86.

17 Ibid, 87.

18 Jeffrey Reitz, “Pro-immigration Canada: Social and Economic Roots of Popular Views,” IRPP Study, 20 (2011):15.

19 Eike Winter (with research assistance from Adina Madularea), Multiculturalism Research Synthesis 2009-2013, 2014, A CERIS Report Submitted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ottawa.

20 Bessma Momani and Jillian Stirk, Diversity Dividend: Canada’s Global Advantage, 2017, Special Report by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, Canada.

21 Will Kymlicka, Multiculturalism: Success, Failure, and the Future, 2012, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC. ; Eike Winter (with research assistance from Adina Madularea), Multiculturalism Research Synthesis 2009-2013, 2014, A CERIS Report Submitted to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ottawa.

22 The Environics Institute for Survey Research, Survey of Muslims in Canada 2016, April 2016.

23 John Ralston Saul, “Immigration and Identity,” IAI TV, February 28, 2017,


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