Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is a conscious or unconscious bias which distorts our understanding of reality because of an overemphasis on group perspective as reference point. This bias often leads to a misinterpretation of realities which differ from those of the group to which we belong. Ethnocentric thought can also lead to a more negative opinion of foreign groups and to a superior view of our own.

Ethnocentrism is a conscious or unconscious bias which distorts our understanding of reality because of an overemphasis on group perspective as reference point. This bias often leads to a misinterpretation of realities which differ from those of the group to which we belong. Ethnocentric thought can also lead to a more negative opinion of foreign groups and to a superior view of our own.


Canadian Illustrated News, 26 April 1879

Definition of Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentric reasoning divides humans into several groups, but more specifically into two categories: those who belong to our group (“us”) and those who do not (“others”). It emphasizes the differences between the membership group and the “others” and, as a result, leads to the perspective that the membership group’s situation is the norm for everyone, or even superior to that of other groups. The realities of “others” are thus perceived as strange, inferior or even threatening.

Ethnocentrism is born from our over dependence on our perspective, used too often as a reference to evaluate other groups’ realities. When we only rely on our own limited experience, we can form unfounded presumptions on the realities of other groups.

The concept of ethnocentrism is related to that of racism. The latter results from ethnocentric reasoning used to discriminate against the ethnicity and race of “others.”

Ethnocentrism in Canada

Historically speaking, ethnocentrism plays an important role when a group, usually dominant, wants to force another to adopt its ways or preferences. In Canada, this was especially the case between Indigenous peoples and French or British settlers who sought to impose their practices while eradicating Indigenous cultures. After the Confederation in 1867, the federal government took ethnocentric and racist measures, such as the Indian Act and the residential schools, to force Indigenous peoples to abandon their traditions and adopt western norms and customs. This attitude toward Indigenous communities persisted and led to the Sixties Scoop among others. (See also: Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Racial Segregation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) The Oka Crisis of 1990 was also caused by an ethnocentric mentality which ignored the importance of traditional lands to the Kanyen’kehà:ka nation.

R.C. Indian Residential School

R.C. Indian Residential School Study Time, [Fort] Resolution, N.W.T..

Ethnocentrism largely affected ethnic and cultural minorities in Canada. These minorities sometimes faced obstacles born out of ethnocentric biases of the majority population which often sought to exclude them due to differences related to their ethnic or racial origins. Ethnocentric attitudes manifested as prejudice and discrimination, but also in the form of exclusive government policies. These included, for example, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, the hostilities aimed at the Indian immigrants upon their arrival aboard the SS Komagata Maru in 1914 and the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

Japanese Canadian Internment Camp

Ethnocentrism in the 21st Century

Ethnocentrism and its consequences are still present today. This creates considerable obstacles for groups outside the dominant majority. Racialized minorities (non-White groups) are, for example, much more likely than White persons to say they have been victims of discrimination because of their race.

Religion is also another vector of ethnocentrism and discrimination. In this regard, the hostility aimed at Muslim Canadians after the 9/11 attacks was particularly severe. Muslim Canadians and Jewish Canadians are the two religious minorities which are the most at risk to be targeted by hate crimes based on religion. (See also Quebec City Mosque Shooting.)

Ethnocentric measures were taken against some religious minorities, for example the Québec Values Charter and the Act Respecting the Laicity of the State (Bill 21). These policies namely aim to limit the wearing of religious symbols in public service to respect the laicity of the state, an important principle for most of the Quebecois population. In May 2020, almost two out of three Quebecois people (64%) declared they were in favour of Bill 21. However, the resulting upheaval among religious minorities such as the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities, reach far beyond the secular perspectives considered in the Charter and Bill 21. Some activists argue that the latter is a discriminatory measure against minorities and that it reinforces systemic racism. This reasoning implies that the policies impose a perspective of laicity from the majority population without truly taking into consideration the realities of the religious minorities with regards to religious symbols.