Cultural Duality | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Cultural Duality

Contemporary observers who may not be thoroughly familiar with the history behind Canadian cultural dualism often have trouble in decoding it. Although the idea of cultural duality appears in laws, in policies on education, religion and language, and in the formulation of the fundamental rights of the provinces, its historical foundations remain hard to define.
Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism
The Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963-1971, established under Prime Minister Lester Pearson to examine cultural dualism in Canada.

A clear distinction must be made between cultural duality and cultural dualism. Cultural duality is the objective reality of the historic existence of political, legal, linguistic and cultural biculturalism among Canadians. Cultural dualism is a political and cultural program designed to affirm this cultural duality in a legally symmetrical way, based on hopes of achieving harmony that are that are well intended but often largely abstract and illusory.

Certain aspects of Canadian society do manifest cultural duality in a factual, sociologically observable way. The dualism arising from this duality represents, for many people, an ideology that should govern the social and political organization of Canada. The starting premise is fairly simple. Because Canada was colonized by the French and the English, they constitute — symmetrically and in a proper balance — the country’s two “founding peoples.” This historic fact is cited to justify the legal (if not the demographic) equality of these two groups and the privileges that they are granted compared with other ethnic and cultural groups in Canada. But in today’s multipolar context, Canadian cultural duality and the official (notably, legal) dualism arising from it look more and more like largely ethnocentric ideas that will eventually have to be called into question by the explicit or implicit principles of multiculturalism, interculturalism, communitarianism and all other contemporary forms of pluralism.

History of Canadian Cultural Duality

If we assume that the concept of Canadian cultural duality first emerged among the Euro-American peoples who colonized Canada (with no thought initially given to its Indigenous peoples), then we can safely say that this concept first took shape fairly soon after the British Conquest of New France (1760). The new conditions of co-existence between the English-speaking occupiers (a numerical minority) and the French-speaking population who first settled Canada in the early 17th century quickly made this duality an objective fact. For about 15 years, from 1760 to 1776, the cities of Halifax, The Bend (Moncton), Saint John, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Québec City, Montréal, York (Toronto), Baltimore and a number of other places were all part of the same sprawling geopolitical complex. The intention was turn the French-speaking population of this vast American colony into British subjects — subject, in particular, to the Test Oath, which excluded Catholics from public office. Thus dualism was not the fashion at this time. The decisive factor that ended these conditions of direct occupation and established the ideology of dualism as a more nuanced understanding of cultural duality was the most important event in the history of Canada, although it occurred outside Canada’s borders: the American Revolution.

The Quebec Act

In 1774, the British colonial government began to worry seriously about the uprisings that were the lead-up to the American Revolution. As able colonial administrators who were now interacting with numerous, diverse cultures in a large and growing world empire, the British understood that for the French-speaking Québec to be kept in line, they would have to be granted some serious concessions, and quickly. This first explicit manifestation of cultural dualism concerned religion, stewardship of agricultural lands, and civil law (excluding criminal law and some anti-insurrectionary laws, which remained British). The Quebec Act legally recognized the Catholic religion, the seigneurial system and French civil law in Québec. As a result, during the American Revolution (1776–83), French Canadians remained loyal to the king of England who had recognized their rights, and they helped repel the republican invasion. After the revolution, large numbers of American Loyalists came to settle in Canada. To avoid having to conform to French civil law and accommodate the religious rights newly conceded to Catholics by the Quebec Act, the Loyalists settled west of Québec and founded what would one day become the province of Ontario. The outlines of Canada’s future cultural duality were further sketched in during the acrimonious political debates that ensued between the French Partyand the British Party when the two Canadas were established.

The Act of Union

In 1837, at the very start of the reign of Queen Victoria, anticolonial rebellions broke out in Upper Canada and Lower Canada (see Rebellion in Upper Canada and Rebellion in Lower Canada). Each of these two colonies, which coexisted but had not yet been merged, was finding it harder and harder to live with the authoritarian colonial system and a local government that lacked full parliamentary responsibility. In Lower Canada, the rebellions of 1837-38 also became something like a national liberation movement. Both rebellions were quelled by the British colonial army, but Queen Victoria’s new government, seeking more insight into these events, sent an extraordinary envoy, Lord Durham, to investigate. In his resulting report, he recommended that the two Canadas be united and given responsible government. The Act of Union, proclaimed in 1841, recognized the coexistence of the two colonizing groups, but with the assimilation of French Canadians into British culture as the clear long-term agenda. The intention was that henceforth, religious, cultural and legal dualism would be only transitory. This unifying vision based on of the Durham Report was partly successful (a British parliamentary system was introduced smoothly, even in Québec) and partly a failure (the French language and the Catholic religion persisted, until the latter began to decline in the 20th century). But most importantly, this promise to assimilate francophones, while making the idea of union more palatable to anglophones, had lasting historical consequences for Canadian cultural duality.


It has often been said that the modern state of Canada was founded by merchants and railroad owners who needed a central government to run the country for their benefit. Be that as it may, many French Canadians believed that Confederation was a step toward the creation of a new country that would be independent of the United Kingdom. It was already clear that assimilation was socially unworkable and that the two founding peoples would have to co-exist. But in the legislation predating 1867, the rights and privileges of Catholic French Canadians outside of Québec were either not defined, or suppressed or circumvented (see New Brunswick School Question; Ontario Schools Question; Manitoba Schools Question). Catholic schools, often francophone, did not receive public funding. The French language was forbidden in public schools (as were all other languages besides English). The idea of general assimilation into the Anglo-Canadian world persisted tenaciously. It was regarded as the only possible future for French Canadians, Indigenous peoples (see Residential Schools) and immigrants.

The Constitution Act, 1867 was intended to be decolonizing, consensual, magnanimous and modern. It therefore gave certain principles of cultural duality official status. First, it defined the powers of the federal government and of the provinces, thus recognizing certain particularities of Québec. Second, it confirmed Québec legislation based on civil law. Third and finally, the Act contained provisions on education (a matter of provincial jurisdiction) that allowed denominational schools to be supported with public funds and protected religious minorities in Québec. This last provision had been demanded by Québec’s English-speaking Protestants, who feared being overwhelmed by the province’s French-speaking Catholics (see English-Speaking Quebecers). Later on, French-speaking Catholics elsewhere in Canada tried without great success to invoke the same provision to protect themselves, because they had the same fears with respect to English-speaking Canadians, who would remain the demographic majority in Canada from then on.

The first Official Languages Act (1969) and Québec Language Laws

In the century following Confederation (1867–1967), the religious and legal aspects of Canadian cultural duality gradually stabilized. Religious issues became much less contentious. Differences in legal systems were institutionalized and confirmed (civil law in Québec, British common law and criminal law everywhere else). Language issues became the new arena for struggles over Canadian cultural dualism. In the 1960s, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism highlighted certain difficulties that francophones and other language groups were experiencing in Canada. In 1969, the Official Languages Act (1969) (see also Official Languages Act (1988)) made Canada an officially bilingual country (symbolically, at least), and steps were taken to provide federal government services in French. In 1971, the government adopted a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.

In 1974 and 1977, Québec passed two language laws, commonly known as Bill 22 and Bill 101, that required the children of certain groups (primarily immigrants) to attend French-language schools. But these laws did not modify the denominational school systems in Montréal or public funding of private and religious schools in Québec.

These federal and Québec laws clearly reflected the crisis of cultural dualism on language issues in the 20th century: in English Canada, French language rights were theoretically symmetrical but largely illusory, given the growing predominance of English, while in Québec, strict protectionism for French often encountered staunch resistance.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (courtesy Dept of Secretary of State, Canada).

In the 1980s, cultural dualism underwent the difficult test of fundamental rights. The Constitution Act, 1982 confirmed certain principles of cultural duality, while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms affirmed the right to equality and prohibited discrimination. The Charter confirmed that “English and French are the official languages of Canada” and have equality of status in “all institutions of the Parliament and the government of Canada.” The Charter also protected the right of members of French-speaking and English-speaking minorities to receive an education in their own language, provided for minority-language schools to be publicly funded, and confirmed that it did not curtail “any rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools.” The Charter also stated that English and French were the official languages of New Brunswick, the only officially bilingual province. The government of Québec did not believe that the new constitutional provisions of 1982 really eliminated the objective danger of linguistic and cultural assimilation, and so refused to approve them.

The Issue of the Distinct Society

In 1987, an attempt was made to win Québec’s consent to the 1982 Constitution by offering it the status of a distinct society within Canada. If the Meech Lake Accord (see also Meech Lake Accord: Document) had been approved by the 10 provincial legislative assemblies and the House of Commons, it might have been seen as a decisive step toward a legislative dualism more in keeping with the true cultural duality of Canada. But that was not to be, and the death of the Meech Lake Accord is now recognized as a harsh blow to the political and sociological credibility of Canadian cultural dualism.

Contemporary Resistance to Cultural Dualism

Contemporary observers who may not be thoroughly familiar with the history behind Canadian cultural dualism often have trouble in decoding it. Although the idea of cultural duality appears in laws, in policies on education, religion and language, and in the formulation of the fundamental rights of the provinces, its historical foundations remain hard to define. Some laws, such as the constitutional laws of Canada, may be interpreted as measures to protect cultural duality, but the actual effectiveness of these laws and measures, as well as their basic legitimacy, remains open to question.

The way that cultural dualism — the ideology of cultural duality — should be applied in practice has been interpreted in various ways. It has sometimes been argued that English and French should be represented equally by bilingual civil servants at all levels of the federal system (or that every branch of the government should have one anglophone division and one francophone division) and that opportunities should be equal in all sectors of society, such as politics, the economy and education.

Many francophone Canadians believe that Canadian cultural dualism recognizes their specificity and their rights, but some believe that it has never really been put into practice. Part of Canada’s French-speaking population also favours a unilingual Québec as a “land of refuge” for francophones, and some believe that Québec should secede from Confederation. Meanwhile, many anglophone groups (mainly in western Canada, but in other parts of the country too) think that everybody in Canada should know how to express themselves in “the language of the majority of Canadians” (English) and that Canadian-American relations should be promoted, because of the two countries’ shared cultural background and the economic power of the United States.

Other groups are irritated by the ideology of cultural duality, which they feel implicitly excludes them from Canadian society. Indigenous peoples argue that they were Canada’s first occupants and were subsequently excluded from the country’s political and social life by the anglophones and francophones who came later. Representatives of various ethnocultural groups often find that in practice, cultural dualism excludes them from politics and society too. There is no question that Canadian cultural dualism will continue to be debated, as the country’s historical duality is transformed into a multiplicity that is increasingly open to the complexity of the world.

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