Ethnic Identity

An ethnic group is often a distinct category of the population in a larger society with a (generally) different culture. Distinct ethnic and cultural groups were recorded by Herodotus 2500 years ago.

Ethnic Identity

 Ethnic identification describes the relationship that exists between an individual and a group with whom the individual believes he or she has common ancestry based on shared individual characteristics, shared sociocultural experiences, or both. An individual may identify with an important person, eg, a parent or a friend, with a group from which he or she draws values, eg, family or co-workers, or with a broad category of persons, eg, ethnic or occupational groups. Ethnic identification can exist at the individual, family or group level.

Characteristics of Ethnic Groups

An ethnic group is often a distinct category of the population in a larger society with a (generally) different culture. Distinct ethnic and cultural groups were recorded by Herodotus 2500 years ago. Scholars note that ethnic groups may be the result of migrations of whole societies (or parts of them), military conquest or altered political boundaries. Many factors characterize ethnic groups.

First, they usually control a territory, tightly knit community or network, within which their offspring may perpetuate their heritage. Different ethnic groups may occupy the same area but use different resources. The French in Québec retain control of the provincial territory; the HUTTERITES are a rural segregated ethnic community; INDIAN RESERVES are communities segregated by the state within which various ethnic groups may exist.

Second, ethnic institutions often generate forces of attraction. A minority can develop its own social system with control over its own institutions so that interaction of the group will take place largely within the system. The French and JEWS frequently maintain a comprehensive set of religious, educational and welfare institutions. RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION and ethnic institutional independence therefore tend to reinforce each other.

Third, individuals need to identify clearly with the heritage and culture of the group, perhaps through language, endogamy, choice of friends, religion, parochial schools, voluntary organizations, etc. Territorial, institutional and cultural identity factors reinforce each other, so that ethnic individuals can remain distinct and less prone to assimilation. Historical symbols are also important. Without ethnic pride and knowledge, the desire to perpetuate tradition rapidly diminishes. For example, people of the Jewish faith have ritualized their history and their youth are exposed to its symbols, eg, special days, fasting, food habits, etc.

Fourth, a political or religious ideology that promotes values considered more important than cultural and institutional ones may give ethnic youth purpose and impetus. There is often a very strong correlation between religion and ethnicity, eg, French and Polish Canadians are commonly Roman Catholic. (See CATHOLICISM.)

Fifth, individuals with a sense of mission often use sociopsychological means to adapt an ideology to a current situation, linking it symbolically with the past. Charismatic leaders of minority movements have included Louis RIEL and René LÉVESQUE. Minorities may identify with other dimensions of ethnicity, but identity, territory, institutions, culture, heritage, ideology and leaders are crucial.

Assimilation vs. Cultural Pluralism

Various theories have been developed to explain the fate of ethnic groups in an industrial society. The assimilation theory assumes that ethnic groups become more like the dominant culture, which in North America is represented by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The "melting pot" or amalgamation theory has been criticized as deterministic because it assumes that minority groups will not be able to withstand the power of the dominant group and will be synthesized into a new group. Canada's relatively open IMMIGRATION POLICY has provided the potential opportunity for many peoples to contribute to a melting pot, but the synthesis of the many into a recognizable national character has been a long time coming, perhaps partly because it was not until 1977 that Canadians ceased to be described as British subjects and became Commonwealth citizens under the Citizenship Act. (See VERTICAL MOSAIC.)

Cultural pluralism theorists hold that different ethnic groups maintain their unique identities over time. It has been argued that people do not choose their ancestry, that each of the minority groups has something of value to contribute to a country and that the Canadian CONSTITUTION assumes that all people are created equal, even though there may be many distinct differences. Cultural pluralism maintains that the trend toward permissive differentiation has been established in Canada by the acceptance of pluralist religious expressions and a diversity of political parties and ideologies, and that MULTICULTURALISM is therefore a logical policy for all.

Some social scientists argue that ethnic change is not a single social process but a number of subprocesses. The opposing processes of assimilation and pluralism may therefore occur simultaneously, depending on change of cultural patterns to those of the larger society, significant entrance into institutions of the larger society, intermarriage and development of a sense of "peoplehood" based on a modification of ingroup and outgroup networks.

Not surprisingly, first generation Canadians more strongly associate their ethnic identity with their country of origin than subsequent generations born in Canada who develop a hybrid identity, one whose primary reference becomes closer to the receiving culture, although mediated by that of their ancestors' country of origin. The proportion of the population identifying themselves as "Canadian" has increased from less than 1% in 1986 to 32% in 2006, making it the most common ethno-cultural ancestry out of more than 200 different ethnic origins reported in the census.

Ethnic Conflict

Social scientists study the processes of ethnic conflict. Marx believed conflict resulted from class struggle, but most ethnic groups in Canada do not experience such an extensive power struggle. While conflict may occasionally be manifested by revolution and secession, eg, the FLQ movement in Québec (see FRONT DE LIBÉRATION DU QUÉBEC), it also exists in less intense forms. When many subgroups and a multitude of cultures coexist, they will maintain distinct identities, providing a potential for conflict of values, territorial interests and power relationships. SEPARATISM in Québec, the quest of Indigenous peoples for equal rights, racial conflict and the relations between adjacent ethnic communities all demonstrate a constant potential for dissension.

During the 1970s scholars were examining the many ethnic groups in Canada, and viewed Canadian society as an ethnic mosaic comprised of many tiles placed next to each other. Jeffrey Reitz studied how these groups were concerned with survival within Canada, which was a change in focus from the British-dominated environment that viewed these groups as a threat. Aboriginals, Ukrainians and Mennonites were examples of rural agricultural communities, especially in the west, that were able to live their free independent lives. These groups were focused on retaining their own ethnic identities through their distinct languages, work, religions and values.

As Canada became more urban, other ethnic groups such as Blacks, Jews and Asians lived in metropolitan centres, but were often segregated residentially because of their distinct religion, race, or status. These groups needed to protect themselves to survive and supported each other within their community to try to counteract the effects of PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION. They developed distinct identities through residential segregation, religion, race, or occupation, emphasizing distinct valued languages, shared cultural characteristics, and ideologies. When these distinct ethnic cultural and religious groups migrated to cities, and interacted with others surrounding them at work, play, and schools, they shifted to more psychological and ideological means of ethnic identification. Increasingly race has become an important identity factor, especially as more visible minorities have immigrated to Canada. The inclusion of a diverse range of dress, culture and religion continues to compel Canadians to debate their differences and address cultural conflict.


Further Reading

  • L. Driedger, The Canadian Ethnic Mosaic: A Quest for Identity (1978); J. Reitz, The Survival of Ethnic Groups (1980); L. Driedger, Mennonite Identity in Conflict (1988); R. Breton, W.W. Isajiw, W.E. Kalbach, and J.G. Reitz, Ethnic Identity and Equality (1990); O.P. Dickason, Canada's First Nations (1992); R.J. Brym, W. Shaffir and M. Weinfeld, The Jews in Canada (1993); J.E. Frideres, Native Peoples in Canada (1993); P.S. Li, The Chinese in Canada (1998); M. Weinfeld, Like Everyone Else...But Different (2001); D. Taras and B. Rasporich, A Passion for Identity (2001); S.P. Hier and B.S. Bolaria, Identity and Belonging (2006).

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