Immigration and Gender in Canada

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The contrast between the Canadian cultural “mosaic” and the American “melting pot” refers to the popular conception of two different models of migrant acculturation. From a sociological perspective, this distinction refers to contrasting models of integration and assimilation that are central to Canada’s self-conception as a multicultural society.

The concepts of cultural mosaic and melting pot arose from the challenge of conceiving cultural identity in settler nations. Countries like Canada and the United States could not claim to be ethnically, linguistically, or religiously cohesive in the way that European nation states did as they were founded by diverse migrant groups who dispossessed indigenous peoples of their lands. The United States developed an image of a melting pot in which civic belonging led to national identity, and cultural or religious differences were made secondary through “Americanization,” a form of partial assimilation (Castles, de Haas, & Miller, 2013, p. 266). Founded on the premise of biculturalism between Protestant English and Catholic French groups, Canada has seen itself reflecting the idea of a cultural mosaic. This model is explicitly contrasted with the American melting pot and refers to a form of multiculturalism that allows greater room for coexistence between different groups (Banting, Courchene, & Seidle, 2007). Instead of emphasizing assimilation, this model emphasizes integration. While these terms originate in popular discourses about immigration and acculturation, their relation to the concepts of assimilation and integration give them sociological meaning.

From a sociological perspective, the concepts of cultural mosaic and melting pot refer to different models of migrant acculturation within their new society. These models are reflected in the theories of pluralism and assimilation, respectively. Pluralism is reflected in the development of visible minority neighbourhoods in major urban centres. In Canada, visible minority neighbourhoods have been expanding rapidly since the 1980s, making the “ethnic mosaic in Canadian cities more diverse and visible” (Hou & Picot, 2004, p. 13). Visibility is an important aspect of this expansion. Visible minority neighbourhoods are visible not only because of their populations but also because of the presence of businesses and services that cater to a particular ethnic community. The ethos of pluralism and multiculturalism views this kind of visibility as positive for the overall Canadian polity, with the maintenance of ethnic identity and religious, educational, and welfare institutions specific to that community as positive (Hou & Picot, 2004). This model is distinct from an assimilationist perspective on immigration. The spatial assimilation model proposes that immigrants initially live in visible minority neighbourhoods because they lack resources, but as they improve their situation they convert their socioeconomic achievements into an improved spatial position and assimilate with the majority group (Fong & Wilkes, 1999). This model is reminiscent of the melting pot, where social and cultural differences that initially characterize migrant groups are lessened over time until said group primarily identifies with the constructed, civic identity of the settler nation. But while these models are associated with Canada, in the case of the cultural mosaic, and the United States, in the case of the melting pot, the application of these models to Canada shows greater complexity in the sociology of migration.

The idea that migrants to Canada retain their cultural identity as part of a mosaic rather than assimilating has been contradicted by sociological research. Rather than retaining all unique cultural or social characteristics over time, immigrant minorities do appear to assimilate in certain key ways. Some migrant groups have considerably greater rates of gender inequality in labour force participation than is found in mainstream Canadian populations (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). This inequality is greatest among religious groups such as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, though it appears to reflect national cultures in countries of origin more than it reflects differences in religious beliefs concerning the social roles of men and women (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). Recent migrants to Canada, in other words, retain the gendered division of labour found in their home countries to an extent that distinguishes them from the rest of the Canadian workforce. The research also indicates, however, that this difference tends to fade over time, with longer settled migrants reflecting general labour force participation rates to a greater degree (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). This suggests that these groups are assimilating with regards to Canadian norms of work and gender. A similar finding has been observed in education. Immigrants who come to Canada as children or are second generation have more years of schooling and higher high school completion rates when compared with third-plus generation Canadians (Boyd, 2002). This is in contrast to the United States, where segmented assimilation creates an underclass characterized by reduced levels of educational attainment (Boyd, 2002). These results suggest that migrants to Canada are assimilating to a considerable degree when it comes to work and education, adopting the practices and values at the heart of Canadian socioeconomic life.

One view of the Canadian cultural mosaic, then, is that migrants assimilate into mainstream culture related to shared social and economic values while retaining distinctive religious beliefs and cultural practices. This view of multiculturalism has been supported by research into how religious or ethnic minorities are perceived by other Canadians. One study of Quebec Francophones found that respondents did not view an Arab Muslim woman less favourably when she was presented to them in either Western clothing or traditional Muslim clothing such as the niqab or hijab (El-Geledi & Bourhis, 2012). This shows that Canadian society adapts itself to new concepts of multiculturalism in response to immigration. While this process takes time and may entail opposition and bigotry along the way, it does suggest that immigrant groups tend to assimilate and integrate into Canadian society.

The distinction between cultural mosaic and melting pot can be related to sociological concepts of integration and assimilation. Research into the Canadian immigrant experience suggests that acculturation is more complex than suggested by this binary. Immigrants to Canada integrate into Canadian society in some ways and assimilate in others.

Gender Equality

Gender equality and the status of women are defining issues of Canadian values and self-conception. This is a country that currently has a self-described feminist Prime Minister and where there is considerable support for feminist social policies and symbolic acts of feminism. Immigrant groups in Canada often come from countries that do not share these values of gender equality and may retain their own values in Canada. But immigrants are not a monolithic group, and these attitudes vary across culture, place, and time. Gender equality and the status of women are significant indicators of public perceptions of difference though such differences are not always reflected in the evidence.

There is a public perception that immigrant groups have different views about the status of women and the importance of gender equality than those held by the majority of Canadians. In surveys conducted in Western countries, majorities of respondents have indicated a belief that Muslims hold different views from their own with regards to respect for women (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). Gender is one way that immigrant groups can be perceived as a “symbolic threat” to a host community (Harell et al, 2012, p. 504). Immigrants who are ethnically or religiously different from the host community are often perceived as threatening to the norms and values of that community. The Muslim practice of veiling women, for example, has been held up by some as contrary to the feminist values of countries like Canada. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, as many as 45 percent of Canadians have endorsed the view that Islam encourages violence and this perception of difference has been “aggravated by the wearing of the Islamic veil in public spaces such as the street, in commerce and within educational and health institutions of western receiving societies” (El-Geledi & Bourhis, 2012, p. 694). Veils such as the hijab or the niqab are symbolically associated with terrorism in the public perception because they allegedly reflect a fundamental difference in views about the role of women in society. But while such views exist, the evidence indicates that most Canadians do not view immigrant groups as this kind of symbolic threat to gender equality. Most Canadians support diversity in migration and are willing to tolerate divergent cultural beliefs and practices (Soroka & Roberton, 2010). A study of how Quebec Francophones responded to a woman wearing a hijab or niqab found that there was not a significantly different conception of symbolic threat when compared with her in Western clothing (El-Geledi & Bourhis, 2012). This suggests that in Canada the public perception that immigrant groups have different attitudes about gender equality does not translate into reactions against diverse cultural practices.

Minority immigrants themselves perceive that they have significant cultural differences with the majority of Canadians, but these differences seem to be tempered somewhat with regards to gender issues. A greater majority of Canadian Muslims support the view that immigrant groups should be free to maintain their religious and cultural practices than the plurality of Canadians who also support this position (Soroka & Roberton, 2010). Given the prominence of the niqab debate, this likely translates into support for the right to wear such veils regardless of the symbolic threat it may pose to feminist values. But research has also indicated that there is considerable variation concerning the status of women among people around the world who are perceived to live in patriarchal societies. This research has shown, for example, that patriarchal views are held more strongly in Muslim societies in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Egypt while such views are held less strongly in Iran, Turkey, and Kazakhstan (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). Muslims are not a monolithic global religious group but have considerable variation across countries and generational cohorts. Migrants represent their own group which may or may not share the patriarchal values of the society they come from. While minorities themselves are supportive of retaining their cultural and religious practices, this does not mean that they hold strongly patriarchal views.

Immigrant groups seem to have a smaller attachment to patriarchal views concerning family obligation and labour market participation, however, as members of these groups general adopt Canadian norms in these regards. Research does show there is greater gender inequality in labour force participation among patriarchal religious immigrant groups such as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs relative to mainstream Canadians, and this inequality is only partially conditioned by the presence of young children (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). Women of all demographics are more likely to leave the workforce because of family obligations. Women belonging to religious immigrant groups are less likely to work regardless of such obligations. Over time, however, this pattern fades until members of these immigrant groups are participating in the labour market to an extent comparable to other Canadian women (Reitz, Phan, & Banerjee, 2015). Economic and social attitudes towards the status of women are therefore less significant than cultural or religious practices. Other immigrant groups are even more likely to have high rates of labour market participation. Historically, a large proportion of migrant workers from Afro-Caribbean and Asian countries to Canada have been women (Castles, de Haas, & Miller, 2013). These women often fill positions in the labour market that are otherwise undesirable, including repetitive factory work, lower-skilled personal care work, and other service sector jobs. This has provided opportunities for education and mobility into other kinds of jobs and allows women to leave patriarchal societies for ones where they have greater control over their economic and personal lives (Castles, de Haas, & Miller, 2013). Canada’s labour market is characterized by comparative gender equality to many other countries in the world. Women who migrate to Canada are either initially motivated to participate as equals or come to enjoy such participation after some period of integration.

Immigrant groups in Canada have idiosyncratic views on the status of women and gender equality relative to Canadians as a whole, but their views are neither dogmatically patriarchal nor immutable. Especially with regards to work and social participation, immigrant women are likely to adopt values and practices reflective of the rest of Canadian society.


Banting, K., Courchene, T.J., and Seidle, F.L. (2007). Belonging? Diversity, Recognition, and Shared Citizenship in Canada. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Boyd, M. (20013). Educational attainments of immigrant offspring: Success or segmented assimilation, pp. 91-117. In J. Reitz (ed.), Host Societies and the Reception of Immigrants. San Diego: Center for Comprehensive Immigration Studies.

Castles, S., de Haas, H., & Miller, M.J. (2014). The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World, 5th ed. New York: The Guilford Press.

El-Geledi, S. & Bourhis, R.Y. (2012). Testing the impact of the Islamic veil on intergroup attitudes and host community acculturation orientations toward Arab Muslims. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36: pp. 694-706.

Fong, E. & Wilkes, R. (1999). The spatial assimilation model re-examined: An assessment by Canadian data. International Migration Review, 33(3): pp. 594-620.

Harell, A., Soroko, S., Iyengar, S., & Valentino, N. (2012). The impact of economic and cultural cues on support for immigration in Canada and the United States. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 45(3): pp. 499-530.

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Reitz, J.G., Phan, M.B., & Banerjee, R. (2015). Gender equity in Canada’s newly growing religious minorities. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(5): pp. 681-699.

Soroka, S. & Roberton, S. (2010). A literature review of public opinion research on Canadian attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration, 2006-2009. Ottawa: Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

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