On #multiculturalism, #diversity and the Canadian identity: “I am Canadian”

Valerie Knowles, in Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1997, assumes the following:

The prehistoric ancestors of Canada’s present-day Indians and Inuit become this country’s first immigrants when they journeyed to America by way of the Bering Strait, at a time when a land bridge, now vanished, still connected Asia and America. Centuries later, according to an unconfirmed hypothesis, Irish monks visited Newfoundland (p. 12).

Within Knowles’ assumption that all descendants within North America, or more specifically within Canada, originate from some other foreign region, one must examine who benefits from these kinds of dominant discourses. Judy Iseke-Barnes (2005) critically examines this Bering Strait “theory” and how these discourses seek to invalidate Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and truths as merely stories and beliefs (p. 151). Iseke-Barnes (2005) outlines that this Bering Strait theory “is often accepted as fact” (p. 151) and the intentions behind these discourses are concealed. Though rarely critiqued, the Bering Strait theory accepts the reasoning that “all those living on this land arrived from somewhere else and have equal rights to this land” (Iseke-Barnes, 2005, p. 153). It is this same reasoning that upholds the Doctrine of Discovery.

Overtime, the Doctrine of Discovery has lost its original meaning. But the hidden assumptions and intentions of this doctrine are omnipresent within Canadian discourses. Tracey Lindberg (2010), in Discovering Indigenous Lands, argues “that the Doctrine of Discovery has lost that meaning—of a first encounter—and that it has become subsumed in an understanding of ‘finding’ of land is difficult to understand unless you consider the intent and role of the Doctrine” (p. 94). As such, this paper will explore the intentions of the Doctrine of Discovery and its role in constructing a particular Canadian identity, and how the construction of this identity reinforces dominant discourses about Canada. Specifically, I will examine how immigration policies control the construction of particular identities across and within Canadian borders and how these policies have produced a specific identity at the expense of other identities, including Black and Indigenous identities. In closing, I will conclude the discussion in the importance of including various historical narratives, including oral histories, as a tool of resistance against these dominant discourses. Within an anti-colonial framework, this paper will contribute to the scholarly discussion of the importance of dismantling the dominant discourses and question the underlying motives in maintaining and sustaining a specific Canadian identity.

The notion that present-day Indigenous peoples are descendants from Asia needs to be critically analyzed. The Bering Strait theory, which is taught in both elementary and high school history classes, assumes that Indigenous peoples discovered America, by crossing over a land bridge, now vanished. Yet, this assumption also informs the premise of the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is based on a “largely racialized philosophy: those who were superior had superior rights to those who were inferior” (Lindberg, 2010, p. 94). Central to this notion of superiority is the positioning Indigenous beings as savages and following this assumption is the justification of settler invasion, including all of its concomitant violence (Lindberg, 2010, p. 95). The Doctrine of Discovery, in a broader context, also legitimizes the Bering Strait theory at the expense of invalidating Indigenous knowledge. It justifies colonialism, and thus, legitimizes the colonizer’s actions.

In the quotation within the introduction, Knowles posits that the Bering Strait theory is factual knowledge by defining Indigenous peoples as immigrants. But at the same time, Knowles dismisses other immigrants, like the Irish monks, as both unconfirmed and speculative. Ayla Raza (2014) highlights that an anti-colonial framework “among many things, looks to disrupt the taken-for-granted notions of power, privilege, imposed knowledge, and the categories of good (colonizer) and evil (“Other”)” (p. 136). The construction of the Indigenous identity as an immigrant, and then as a savage, seeks to marginalize Indigenous bodies in Canadian society and positions the Indigenous identity as the evil/“Other.” Essential to the construction of the Canadian identity, the Indigenous identity is displaced and eventually erased.

For Simms (1993), the ability to take up a Canadian identity functions on both legal and psychological levels (p. 335). Simms (1993) argues that statements like, “I am Canadian” suggest “the speaker subscribes to a certain set of values and even to a particular way of seeing the world” (p. 335). When imaging Canada, Theresa Smith (2014) is quick to highlight that one does not visualize an Indigenous identity; rather, one sees a White identity (p. 199). Raza delineates that “the concept of Whiteness is premised on dominance and aggression; without power and domination, Whiteness is threatened” (p. 145). To maintain this Canadian identity, one must maintain power and domination. To maintain power and domination, as a central to the concept of Whiteness, this defines who is included, Whites, and who is excluded, non-Whites, in the construction of the Canadian identity. Though the Canadian identity maintains this concept of Whiteness, one might argue Canada is a multicultural country that embraces diversity. But a closer examination reveals the contradictions within the construction of a Canadian identity, or the ability to unequivocally claim, “I am Canadian.”

In Knowles’ (2007) discussion on the Royal Proclamation of 1763, she attempts to describe the failures with the Proclamation by positioning it as an immigration policy. Knowles (2007) writes, “Canada saw little immigration in the years immediately following the Treaty of Paris and the issuing of the controversial Proclamation” (p. 35). Situating the Proclamation as an immigration policy ignores the contradictions within the policy itself. John Burrows (1994) highlights that the Proclamation was meant to resolve conflict between settlers and Indigenous nations, and “convince First Nations that the British would respect existing political and territorial jurisdictions” (para 27). However, all this is done at the expense of undermining Indigenous sovereignty (Burrows, 1994, para. 27). From an anti-colonial perspective, the intent behind the Proclamation was to “increase political and economic power relative to First Nations and other European powers” (Burrows, 1994, para. 27). Dismissing this intent behind the Proclamation and situating it as a failed immigration policy seeks to maintain the intentions behind the Doctrine of Discovery, invalidating Indigenous authority and sovereignty.

By 1867, the racist discourses within immigration policies became more prominent (Knowles, 2007, p. 69). At this same time, the confederation of Canada occurred under the Constitution Act of 1867 at the expense, again, of marginalizing Indigenous nations via the Indian Act, 1867 through forced assimilation into Canadian society—a discussion completely dismissed by Knowles. Then, on January 1, 1870, the Immigration Act was enacted and following this, immigration offices were established in the United Kingdom and Europe (Simms, 1993, p. 336). These offices’ mandates, however, were to prevent “paupers or destitute immigrants” from immigrating to Canada (Simms, 1993, p. 336). Establishing immigration offices in the United Kingdom and Europe with the intent to explicitly exclude poor or destitute immigrants is a direct connection to maintaining a Canadian identity centered on Whiteness. While there were numerous other policies enacted, this construction of the Canadian identity, centered on Whiteness, was sustained by such policies as above.

Following these immigration policies that focused on overseas recruitment, the Canadian government turned its attention to the south, the United States of America. William Duncan Scott, former Immigration Minister and also former Indian Affairs Minister, directed Immigration branches in the United States to “continue to solicit white only farmers” (Knowles, 2007, p. 118). Scott’s obsession in maintaining Canada’s Whiteness is concentrated on eliminating the evil/ “Other.” When the Other is located within colonial discourses, he/she is usually seen as a problem (Smith, 2002, p. 91). For Scott, he perpetually defined the Other as a problem: the negro problem, the Indian problem (Knowles, 2004; Leslie, 1978). These racist ideologies and construction of a Canadian identity are at the expense of both Black and Indigenous identities are rarely ever recognized within the history of Canada as much as the Bering Strait theory is acknowledged.

The construction of the Canadian identity has evolved from explicit to implicit aims of maintaining Canada’s identity of Whiteness. Canadian, for Gupta (1999) is defined as “white, middle or upper class, and Anglo or Francophone” (p. 191) and everyone else is an immigrant or non-Canadian, non-white. Then, in a lame effort to homogenize diverse Canadian identities, Prime Minister P. E. Trudeau enacted government policy specifically relating to multiculturalism in 1971 (Gupta, 1999, p. 192). To honour Canada’s effort to become more tolerant of its racial differences, the Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism and Citizenship chose to publish “a collective reflection on the question: What is a Canadian citizen?” (1987, p. x). A brief examination of these letters affirms Canada’s unseen racism when themes such as tolerance, assimilation, or homogenization of identities are revealed (Kong, 1987). Simms (1993) notes “when the concept of racism clashes with that of citizenship, racism, not citizenship, emerges victorious” (p. 339). Even when the discourses attempt to describe Canada as a multicultural country, racism is still a central tenet to maintaining the Canadian identity which is centered on Whiteness.

As I stated earlier, theories, like the Bering Strait theory, that have been undeniably accepted as fact, need to be critical examined. Specifically, what are the intentions behind these facts or truths? Iseke-Barnes (2005) states that the intention behind such truths “is to deny Indigenous peoples their history in this land” (p. 152). When discourses that inform the Canadian identity deny Indigenous peoples their history, one must question what other histories, and the identities attached to those histories, are being denied. Both Black and Indigenous identities, along with their histories, are sacrificed at the expense of maintaining this Canadian identity centered on Whiteness, and thus, the continued dominance and aggression over Black and Indigenous identities. One way to resistance such narratives, like the Bering Strait theory, is to include different types of truths. For Black and Indigenous peoples, oral history was central to the survival of both groups in a colonial context. Education, within a contemporary context, can seek to include oral histories, like Indigenous creation stories which are passed down orally from generation to generation. As Raza highlights, without the power and domination associated with the Canadian identity, Whiteness is threatened. Canada claims a stake in maintaining its identity when statements like “I am Canadian” conjures up images of Whiteness. Nevertheless, sites of knowledge production, like educational institutes, can attempt to include truths that resist these narratives of dominance and aggression.



 Burrows, J. (1994). “Constitutional Law From a First Nation Perspective: Self-Government and the Royal Proclamation.” 28 Univ of British Columbia L. Rev 1-47, para 4 http://www.quicklaw.ca.

Gupta, T. D. (1999). “The Politics of Multiculturalism: ‘Immigrant Women’ and the Canadian State.” In Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought. (pp. 188-207). Toronto, ON: Women’s Press.

Iseke-Barnes, J. (2005). “Misrepresentions of Indigenous History and Science: Public broadcasting, the Internet, and education.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(2), pp 149-165

Knowles, V. (2007). Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1997. Toronto: Dundurn Press.

Kong, S. L. (1987). “Canadian Citizenship~Reflections.” The Ontario Advisory Council on Multiculturalism and Citizenship.

Leslie, J. (1978). The Historical Development of the Indian Act, second edition). Ottawa, ON: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Lindberg, T. (2010). “The Doctrine of Discovery in Canada.” In R. J. Miller, J. Ruru, L. Behrendt, & T. Lindberg (Eds). Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies. (pp. 89-125). Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Raza, A. (2014). “Multiculturalism: The Missing Bodies and Voices.” In G. Sefa Dai & M. McDermott (Eds). Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. (pp 135-148). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/417/bok%253A978-94-007-7627-2.pdf?auth66=1396450215_69d4146237f51096e0e7a9e37351745c&ext=.pdf

Simms, G. P. (1993). “Racism as a Barrier.” In W. Kaplan (Eds). Belonging: The Meaning and Future of Cnadian Citizenship. (pp. 333-348). Montreal, QB: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Smith, Linda T. (2002). “Research Adventures on Indigenous Land.” Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. London & New York: Zed Books Ltd.

Smith, T. (2014). “(Re)Turning Home: An Exploration in the (Re)Claiming of Identity and Belonging.” In G. Sefa Dai & M. McDermott (Eds). Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. (pp 191-210). Retrieved from http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/417/bok%253A978-94-007-7627-2.pdf?auth66=1396450215_69d4146237f51096e0e7a9e37351745c&ext=.pdf



  1. Great article Naomi!! I agree that (informal) education, in the form of truth-telling, can really work to change these colonial ideas of what it means to be Canadian.

  2. Very informative and eye opening. I’m disturbed the Bering Straits Theory is still taught. There was most likely immigration from Asia that predates the land link. I’ve got an old archaeology text book that mentions discoveries of human activity that might be be from thousands of years before Asian immigration.

  3. The “Bearing Straight Theory” engages the legitimacy and validity of Crown assertions of sovereignty to the diminishment or termination of Indigenous sovereignty. W
    ere the “Americas terra nullius or empty lands? Does common law acceptance of the Bearing Straight Theory define the extent of Indigenous Title? Does that limited definition legitimize the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery”? The history of colonialism and White Settler Privilege have both a direct and indirect nexus to an unproven theory and the unearned benefits that have flowed from it.

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