Grow Canada? Multiculturalism, environmental policy and planning.

Canada’s official state policy is, and has been since the Trudeau government of the 1970s, one of multiculturalism. It became firmly entrenched in Canada’s Constitution (Canada Act 1982), and law in 1988 through the Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada (also known as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act). One of the many stated objectives of the Act is to “encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character”.

Beenash Jafri, in my 2009 co-edited volume Speaking for Ourselves. Environmental Justice in Canada, asks “how have the politics of multiculturalism been played out in Canadian environmental organizations”? She critically examines examples of multicultural outreach projects/programs undertaken by three environmental organizations in Toronto in 2002-3: Greenest City’s Multicultural Greening Program (MCGP), the Evergreen Foundation’s Urban Oasis Project and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s (TRCA) Community Development through Multicultural Environmental Stewardship (CDMES) Project. Jafri concludes that “Green multiculturalism(s), rather than being uniform, homogenous constructions, are rife with contradictions and inconsistencies; while multiculturalism may be fairly clearly laid out in government documents, it takes on different meanings at the level of environmental NGOs, which are also representative of different streams and strands of environmentalism”, and calls for an “anti-racist environmentalism”.

My question however, and what I’ve been thinking about on my sabbatical here in Vancouver, is as immigration is mainly responsible for helping grow Canada’s population, planners and policymakers face increasing challenges in creating functioning, sustainable, multicultural cities. Just how is multiculturalism manifested in the nation’s environmental and sustainability policy and planning systems at federal, provincial and municipal government levels in substantive (i.e. non procedural) ways? In other words how have Canada’s environmental and sustainability policy and planning changed in substantive ways, since multiculturalism became official state policy?

A scan of the Federal Government’s Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 2008-2009 revealed no matches for the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’ and the words ‘environment’ and ‘environmental’ were predominantly related to procedural issues involved in environmental assessment rather than substantive issues. The word ‘planning’ was not associated with land use, nor environmental, nor sustainability. The words ‘social’ and, especially ‘cultural’ were heavily used. It may be that the 1988 Act was never meant to cast its gaze over environmental and sustainability policy and planning, the aim being, as I stated above, to “encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character”. But aren’t environmental and sustainability policy and planning part and parcel of the ‘political institutions of Canada’?

Many provinces and municipalities have introduced legislation and established programs and agencies in support of their multicultural objectives. Are they reflected in environmental and sustainability policies and plans in substantive ways? At the provincial level, in this case in Ontario, a study on ethnocultural diversity and planning by Wallace and Milroy, 2001, found that that province’s Planning Act and municipal plans did not have a significant focus on, or little to say about culture.

I tend to agree with Lee (2002:70) that “while Canada’s metropolitan areas have accommodated culturally diverse needs on an ad hoc, case-by-base basis, their planning policies do not reflect cultural and racial diversity (Qadeer, 1997)”. Indeed in her Master’s thesis looking into multicultural planning in Vancouver, Lee notes that “while there are modest attempts to include culture in CityPlan….it may be demonstrated that most references to ethnocultural diversity – if that is in fact what they are – in the plan are implicit” (Lee 2002:71) and that “though the CityPlan process had allowed for broad participation from the ethnocultural community, only two out of fifteen “Directions” (or “policies”) in the resultant official plan give any mention to cultural diversity” (my italics) (Lee 2002:108).

Quadeer (2009) elucidates the following as guidelines for both procedural and substantive policy and practice in multicultural planning:

  • 1. Providing minority language facilities,translations and interpretation in public consultations.
  • 2. Including minority representatives in planning committees and task forces as well as diversifying planning staff.
  • 3. Including ethnic/minority community organizations in the planning decision-making processes.
  • 4. Recognition of ethnic diversity as a planning goal in Official/Comprehensive Plans.
  • 5. City-wide policies for culture-specific institutions in plans, e.g.,places of worship, ethnic seniors’ homes, cultural institutions, funeral homes, fairs and parades, etc.
  • 6. Routinely analyzing ethnic and racial variables in planning analysis.
  • 7. Studies of ethnic enclaves and neighbourhoods in transition.
  • 8. Policies/design guidelines for sustaining ethnic neighbourhoods.
  • 9. Policies/strategies for ethnic commercial areas, malls and business improvement areas.
  • 10. Incorporating culture/religion as an acceptable reason for site-specific accommodations/minor-variances.
  • 11. Accommodation of ethnic signage, street names and symbols.
  • 12. Policies for ethnic-specific service needs.
  • 13. Policies for immigrants’ special service needs.
  • 14. Policies/projects for ethnic heritage preservation.
  • 15. Guidelines for housing to suit diverse groups.
  • 16. Promoting ethnic community initiatives for housing and neighbourhood development.
  • 17. Development strategies taking account of inter-cultural needs.
  • 18. Promoting and systematizing ethnic entrepreneurship for economic development.
  • 19. Policies/strategies for promoting ethnic art and cultural services.
  • 20. Accommodating ethnic sports (e.g., cricket, bocce, etc) in playfield design and programming.

In conclusion, he notes, with reference to these guidelines, that “this is what multicultural planning means. It is not a distinct genre, but a culturally responsive practice.” (Quadeer  2009:13). Note that in my blog on Inclusive or exclusive space I called for a culturally inclusive practice? Professor Quadeer and I mean exactly the same thing. But this will only come about when there is a more ethnoculturally representative planning profession and when cultural competency becomes a focus of professional training and practice. My friend at Brunel University in the UK, Professor Susan Buckingham has argued in feminist terms for “a critical mass, which Bhattar (2001) argues is necessary for women to support one another in policy initiatives, to be a catalyst for other women to become involved, and to be in a position to allocate and control resources. About 30-35% is the proportion that generally is considered to achieve this critical mass.” (Buckingham 2004:72)

I think we need a critical ethnocultural mass in the planning profession such that culturally responsive/inclusive practice becomes mainstream. This mass, I see as necessary to advance Sandercock’s (2003) visionary political, therapeutic, audacious, creative and critical ‘new planning imagination’, and her call for “a paradigm shift from metropolis to cosmopolis” (Sandercock 2003:209)

More on this in a later blog…….


Bhattar, G (2001) Of geese and ganders: mainstreaming gender in the context of sustainable human development Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 10 no. 1, pp 17-32

Buckingham, S (2004) Ecofeminism in the twenty-first century The Geographical Journal, Vol. 170, no. 2, pp 146–154.

Lee, Joyce (2002) Visioning Diversity: Planning Vancouver’s Multicultural Communities. MA Thesis University of Waterloo

Qadeer, M. (1997). Pluralistic planning for multicultural cities: Canadian practice. Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 63 no. 4, pp 481-494.

Qadeer, M. (2009) What is This Thing Called Multicultural Planning? The Bridge Volume 2, issue 9 available at

Sandercock, L (2003) Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century, London: Continuum

Wallace, M. and Milroy B. (2001) Ethno-racial diversity and planning practices in the Greater Toronto area. Plan Canada, Vol. 41 no. 3, pp 31-33.

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