Across Cultures

Glossary of terms relating to multiculturalism

The National Film Board of Canada does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites. 


”We’re surrounded by norms, and we need them […] in order to build an international universe of communication. Norms give us references. The norm is the unit. When you say norm, you’re saying one single line. So how can we move from this pluralism that surrounds us to a single norm, without isolating, discriminating and diminishing? By creating norms, aren’t we destroying the diversity of the world?”

Michèle Gendreau-Massaloux, Director of the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie,
Diversité culturelle et linguistique : Quelles normes pour le français ?” 

This glossary draws on the current usage and definitions of terms or categories of identification.  While the glossary is intended as a useful tool for reference, it is advisable that preference be given to the expressed self-identify of those individuals involved.

Historically, the term ‘Black’ was used to reference all those of African heritage or appearance.  This designation is problematic however as it does not differentiate between Blacks of different origins. Also, Blacks are not all of African descent (some have Caribbean origins, for example) and North Africans or Whites who have lived in Africa for generations are not called African Canadians.

More recently, there have been attempts to recognize African-Canadians whose roots date back to the very foundations of Canada as a nation state.  Thus, African-Canadians include those who were forcibly brought to Canada as slaves, those who arrived as fugitives, those deported from Jamaica and forced to settle in Nova Scotia, and Black Loyalists from the U.S. These latter groups can trace their heritage back to 1785 when they arrived in Nova Scotia and to New France during the 19th Century.  The term also includes recently arrived African immigrants.

Afro-Caribbean Canadian
Afro-Caribbean Canadians refer to Canadians whose origins or cultural background is rooted in the Caribbean.   This is a more recent designation and has emerged in response to calls to differentiate between those who share an immediate Caribbean culture and those whose cultural roots link more directly to Africa.

Rather than collapsing cultural differences into one monolithic category, it is better to identify the different origins of ethnocultural groups: Congolese, Jamaicans, Haitians, West Indian, etc.

While not legally defined, colour like race, national or ethnic origins, constitutes one of the eleven grounds of discrimination identified in the Canadian Human Rights Code.  It is also identified as a basis of discrimination in various international conventions to which Canada is a signatory nation.  Colour most plainly refers to skin tone and most particularly, to those whose skin colour is not white.  Discrimination on the basis of colour then refers to racism.
(Canadian Human Rights Commission)

The term refers to immigrant groups and communities who express distinct cultural identities and a shared heritage. It does not include the "charter groups", i.e. English, French and Aboriginal peoples. Cultural communities, or Communautés Culturelles in French, is commonly used in Quebec and can be found in a number of policy documents. In the other provinces, the term "ethnic minorities" or visible minorities is used in a similar way to designate immigrant groups from particular cultural backgrounds.
(Ontario Multicultural Association – Glossary of Terms)

In Canada, cultural diversity refers to the presence of ethnic, cultural and racial minorities and Aboriginal peoples in our society.
(Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission)

The term is also used in the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity adopted by UNESCO in 2001.  Within that context and relevant to the Canadian reality, the Declaration interprets diversity in terms of the uniqueness and plurality of identities of groups and societies.  Cultural pluralism as an expression of cultural diversity rests on the inclusion and participation of all citizens and facilitates cultural exchange resulting in creativity and innovation.
(Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights)

“In sociology, dominant group refers to the group which possesses the power and authority to reproduce the prevailing distribution of power, wealth and status in society. The dominant group is often, but not necessarily, the numeric majority. Historically, Francophones in Quebec represented a demographic and political majority, but sociologically, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, they represented a minority group ("majorité minoritaire").”
(Ontario Multicultural Association. Glossary of Terms)

Ethnicity refers to the self-identification and organization of a community on the basis of shared physical or cultural characteristics.  These may include a shared belief system, values, practices religion, language, ancestry and homeland.  Ethnicity is a fluid category influenced by changes in immigration flows, intermarriage, and political conditions.   While culture and ethnicity overlap, ethnicity refers to a more self-conscious expression of culture which can vary according to place, class, religion and background of the individuals belonging to the particular community.
Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliot.  Unequal Relations.  Second Edition. Scarborough, Ont: Prentice Hall, 1996.

See Cultural Communities and Ethnic. 
According to the Canada Revenue Agency, “An ethnocultural community or group is defined by the shared characteristics unique to, and recognized by, that group. This includes characteristics such as cultural traditions, ancestry, language, national identity, country of origin and/or physical traits.
To the extent that religion is inextricably linked to the group's racial or cultural identity, it can also be recognized as a defining characteristic. In some cases, a group may view its common origin as pan-national, or it may be based on geographic region of origin. These characteristics are the basis on which, generally speaking, one group culturally distinguishes itself from another.
Sometimes encompassed by the term ethnocultural are groups that identify as ethnoracial or racialized.  Some use these terms instead of ethnocultural, to make it clear that groups distinguishable by a visible characteristic (often skin colour, but also other shared physical traits) are more vulnerable to discrimination and disadvantage.”
(Canada Revenue Agency)

A term that came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word "Indian," or “band” which some people found offensive. The term broadly encapsulates the notion of the indigenous peoples as the original inhabitants of the land.  The term does not include the Métis or the Inuit, although both are also Aboriginal peoples.   No legal definition of the term exists.

Many Aboriginal Indian people today prefer to be called "First Nations" or "First Nations people" instead of "Indians." Generally, "First Nations people" is used to describe both Status and Non-Status Indians.

Capitalize. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada capitalizes "First Nation" as it would other designations like "Francophone," "Arabic" or "Nordic."
(Terminology Guide - Indian and Northern Affairs Canada)

FOREIGN-BORN CANADIANS (e.g. Chinese, Nigerian, Romanian)
The term refers to Canadians who were born elsewhere but who have become naturalized here as a result of immigration.  However, given that many Canadians are foreign-born and many have immigrated to Canada, it is more appropriate to refer to them as Canadians unless they specify otherwise.

The National Aboriginal Health Organization indicates that, “Inuit are the Aboriginal People of Arctic Canada. The Inuit live primarily in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern parts of Quebec and throughout most of Labrador [...]. The Indian Act does not cover Inuit. However, in 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the federal government’s power to make laws affecting “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians” as extending to Inuit.
Inuk – Inuk is the singular form of Inuit. For two people, the correct term is Inuuk while three or more is Inuit.
Inuktitut – Inuktitut is the Inuit language and writing system.
The word Inuit means “the people” in Inuktitut and is the term by which Inuit refer to themselves. Avoid using the term Inuit people as it is redundant. Inuit is acceptable as both a noun and modifier”.
(National Aboriginal Health Organization)

According to the BBC NEWS In Depth Migration glossary, “the term refers to the idea that immigrants and other minority groups are "absorbed" into an integrated mainstream society”. However, in recent years many commentators have questioned the validity of the melting pot model, dismissing it as assimilationist and racist.
(BBC News. Migration Glossary)

The term ‘melting pot’ is a metaphor used primarily to describe the ideal in American race relations where groups melt away their differences into a larger, dominant group. The end result, a fusion of such differences, would produce a stronger and more unified nation.  However, it is apparent that differences are not ‘meltable’ given the marked disparities between groups and the continued discrimination against groups of colour and other religious and sexual minorities.
(Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliot. Unequal Relations.  Second Edition. Scarborough, Ont: Prentice Hall, 1996.)

A Métis is a person of mixed Aboriginal and European descent. In the Canadian context, Métis are the descendents of White and Aboriginal ancestry born of the union between French, English and Scottish Fur traders and women from the Cree, Ojibwa, Salteaux, Assiniboine nations and the Dene nation in the North. 
(Turtle Island Productions)

The Canadian constitution recognizes the Métis as one of the three Aboriginal groups.
(Library and Archives Canada – Canadian confederation)

In English, Métis is written with the acute accent. However, the legal name of certain organizations should be respected, e.g. the Metis Council of Ontario or the Metis Association of the NWT.

The term does not refer to a numerical population size but rather a minority status.  Minority groups are those groups who are perceived as different, have a lower status within society and are generally disadvantaged, underprivileged, discriminated against, excluded or exploited.  They lack access to power, wealth or privilege.
Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliot.  Unequal Relations.  Second Edition. Scarborough, Ont: Prentice Hall, 1996.

According to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, “in common use, Racial or Visible Minority describes people who are not White; Linguistic Minority refers to people whose first language is not English (or not French in Quebec)”.
(Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Glossary)

This is a metaphor referring to an ideal arrangement in which different ethnic and racial groups co-exist in harmony and on an equal footing.  Each group retains its cultural heritage but also contributes to the mosaic without assimilating or erasing its difference.  Canada’s earlier policies of multiculturalism were heavily influenced by the idea of mosaic.  However, it has become apparent that the mosaic metaphor is ill equipped to deal with the inequalities between different groups within the society.  One author has termed this as reflecting a vertical mosaic while another has drawn attention to the gender inequalities inherent to it.   .
Porter, John. The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965.
Hamilton, Roberta. Gendering the Vertical Mosaic: Feminist Perspectives on Canadian Society. Toronto, Ontario: Copp Clark, 1996.

The Diversity at Work Glossary, recognize multiculturalism as part of “a policy introduced by the federal government in 1971, which acknowledges that many ethnic Canadians experience unequal access to resources and opportunities. It urges more recognition of the contributions of such Canadians, the preservation of certain expressions of their ethnicity, and more equity in the treatment of all Canadians. Since 1971, there has been increasing recognition of the limitation of this concept; first, it does not explicitly acknowledge the critical role which racism plays in preventing this vision from materialising; second, it promotes a static and limited notion of culture as fragmented and confined to ethnicity; and third, it pays insufficient attention to institutional forms of racial discrimination, focusing instead on individual expressions and experiences”.
(Diversity at Work. Diversity Glossary)

Multiculturalism has “two distinct but related meanings. On the one hand it refers to a condition of cultural pluralism and the attitudes of tolerance which make this possible. On the other hand it refers to a set of federal government policies designed to ‘assist all Canadian cultural groups ... to grow and contribute to Canada’ as well as to assist members of all cultural groups ‘to overcome cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society’. While there is little debate about the first of these meanings there is great debate about the implications of the second”.
(Athabasca University. Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences)

The City of Toronto Task Force on Community Access & Equity indicate that people of colour is “a term which applies to members of racial minorities, other than Aboriginal people who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour, and who so identify themselves or agree to be so identified. In the Canadian context, the term refers to a group of people who because of their physical characteristics are subjected to differential and unequal treatment”.
(Glossary of Access and Equity Terms – City of Toronto Task Force on Community Access & Equity (1998-1999))

Within the US, by contrast, the term people of colour is often used to encapsulate all racial minorities as well as indigenous peoples.  More often, the term ‘people of colour’ is used as platform of solidarity based on the recognition of the common experiences of exclusion and discrimination that members of this group encounter in their daily lives.  In other words, its uses are more political and oriented to highlighting the underprivileged status of racial minority groups vis-à-vis the dominant society.  However, it should be noted that the term ‘people of colour’ is different from ‘colored.’  The latter term derives from Apartheid rule in South Africa, and in the U.S. where coloreds were used to refer to mixed race peoples.

According to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, “visible minority refers to individuals who are non-white, non-Caucasian, and non-Aboriginal.”
(Human Resources and Social Development Canada)

The term visible minority is used in Canada in legislation and official statistics and has come to refer to those who are not “white.” It is also used in reference to people perceived as victims of racial discrimination. 

The Employment Equity Act (1995), states that “'members of visible minorities' means persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” Included among the major criticisms of the term by community members and academics are that it homogenizes a broad variety of people; excludes other groups that also face racial discrimination; is a “racial” concept since it is constructed through racial categorization; is a euphemism for “race” and thus skirts the issue of racism.

(Karim H. Karim. Definition of Visible Minority: A Historical and Cultural Analysis, Strategic Research and Analysis, Strategic Planning and Policy Coordination, Department of Canadian Heritage)

More commonly, the term ethno-racial or racialized minority is used to indicate minorities who are people of colour or who are non-white and non-aboriginal.

White is a term used to describe those who are not people of colour or who are not identifiable visible minorities.  According to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, “The term is used to refer to people belonging to the dominant group in Canada. It is recognized that there are many different people who are "White" and who face discrimination because of their class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, language, or geographical origin. Grouping these people as "White" is not to deny the very real forms of discrimination that people of certain ancestry, such as Italian, Portuguese, Jewish, Armenian, Greek, etc., face because of these factors”.  Rather the term ‘white’ is used to refer to unequal power relations between the dominant group and minorities.  It implicitly references skin colour as the identifying feature of dominance and privilege.
(Canadian Race Relations Foundation)

This article is part of the Across Cultures Web site <>.