Multicultural Education Policies in Canada and the United States


reviewed by Kas Mazurek - September 03, 2008

coverTitle: Multicultural Education Policies in Canada and the United States
Author(s): Reva Joshee and Lauri Johnson
Publisher: University of Washington Press, Seattle
ISBN: 0774813261, Pages: 257, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com


Multicultural Education Policies in Canada and the United States is an important and needed addition to academic literature. Scholarly, yet written in an engaging manner and accessible for senior undergraduate and graduate students, it informs a broad spectrum of fields of study in education: multicultural education, policy studies, comparative studies, the education of immigrant populations, sociology of education, history of education, First Nations and Native American education, and theory in minority relations and schooling, to identify just some of the major ones. The book can be read as a cohesive whole; it can also be accessed for specific topics as both individual chapters and sections serve perfectly well as ‘stand alone’ readings.

Interestingly, perhaps the highlight of the book is the brief Foreword by Charles Ungerleider (pp. ix-xiv). It serves as an invaluable primer for understanding the subtle but critical differences in the social, cultural, and political identities and consciousnesses of Canadians and citizens of the United States. For Canadians (who perpetually agonize over the existential dilemma of ‘What does it mean to be a ‘Canadian’?”) and for students and scholars in the United States (from whom a similar question about their own country would evoke a much more precise and confident response), Ungerleider provides lucid and concise insights into some fundamental differences between Canadians and ‘Americans.’ This is a ‘must read’ section for virtually everyone.

The editors’ Introduction (pp. 3-13) is also excellent. Joshee and Johnson are clear, concise, and communicate the purposes and approach of their book very effectively. Most importantly, they effect what is crucial in a collection of readings – a structure to ensure the integration of individual contributions into a unified, cohesive, whole. They avoid fragmentation of the text into discrete readings by providing both a general, overarching, theme and by structuring the six sections of the book within a consistent format.

A significant theme and a methodologically sound and heuristically fruitful structural foundation devised to articulate that theme, are great strengths of the book. As the editors explain:


This book aims to simulate a policy dialogue process to help us better understand the policy webs in Canada and the United States. To this end we have divided the book into parts by policy area; five include a chapter each on Canada and the United States, with a third dialogue chapter intended to draw insights from the previous two chapters and take our project forward.  (p. 8)

However, both the theme and the ‘dialogue’ methodological approach to articulate it need to be examined critically by the reader. The editors are clear and straightforward in acknowledging the paradigm within which they work and that has framed their book: “As policy researchers, we identify as pragmatic postpositivists. We are attracted to postpositivist approaches that emphasize critique and deconstruction and draw attention to issues of power and discourse” (p. 4). Accordingly, and inevitably, they construct their Conclusion in the Introduction of the book:

The current dominant ideology guiding educational policy development is rooted in a neoliberal approach that replicates existing inequalities based on race, class, and gender.  This approach to policy making stands in stark opposition to efforts to create a more socially just society. …In this book we aim to document the erosion of diversity policies, as well as form cross-national alliances to continue the struggle for socially just policy making. (p. 11)

This specific agenda and attendant research methodology is dutifully carried through by the contributing authors in each chapter and section; ergo the consistency and coherence of the book. However, this consistency and coherence comes with an intellectual price. The reader needs to be acutely aware that in the contributing chapters in each section on policies in the United States and Canada, and in the attendant ‘dialogues,’ all contributors and discussants agree on the most important, a priori, premise and all agree on the ends sought - as articulated by the editors in the paragraph above.

Thus the book is a discussion among the converted; it is a conversation about means, not about first premises or about ends. To be engaged, the reader must already be a convert – i.e., share the definition of multiculturalism and the vision of what a ’truly’ multicultural society should be.  Missing are voices of those who worry about multiculturalism as a source of social divisiveness; missing are the voices of those who rightly point out the real and possible negative aspects of ethnocentrism in pluralistic democratic societies and its threats to international harmony and global citizenship.

Why the editors chose to omit these voices is unclear. For postpositivists, the sine qua non of research is that it must be ‘authentic.’ To be so, it follows that it must be inclusive. Accordingly, the contributions and ‘dialogues’ in this book are incomplete – they sidestep dissenting perspectives and arguments simply by ignoring them. In this sense, a much more fundamental ‘dialogue’ about multiculturalism and attendant multicultural policies is precisely what is missing in the book.   

With the above caveat in mind, and with the reader forewarned, I now enthusiastically encourage students and scholars to read the book. The five sections into which the readings are divided –Historical Context; First Nations and Native American Education; Immigrant and Language Education; Race-Based Policies; Employment Equity and Affirmative Action; Extending the Dialogue – are all of great value. Consistently scholarly, addressing significant issues, conveying important information, raising critical issues, clearly written, concise, and well argued, the sections are uniformly very good and some are truly excellent. I will briefly review the five sections of the book.  

Part I – Historical Context – speaks to the history of multicultural/diversity policies in Canada and the United States. In particular, chapter 1, written by Reva Joshee and Susan Winton, is an exemplary exposition; a clear articulation of national similarities, differences, and cross-border influences. This first chapter is an outstanding contribution. The second chapter, by Lauri Johnson, is strong but not as sweeping as its Canadian counterpart. This is because the author chooses to answer the important question, “What is the role of historical context and the importance of advocacy and activism by school officials and community groups in the development of US educational policies that promote diversity?” (p. 28), using case studies from“New York City, Detroit, and Pittsburgh during the 1930s and 1940s” (p. 29). In the process, Johnson does make her point that “each subsequent generation of school advocates and community activists has needed to continue to press its concerns to keep diversity issues on the educational agenda” (p. 38). However, what does not emerge out of her limited and time-specific case studies is a national portrait – and that is really what is required of contributors to this text.  

Nonetheless, after reading the first two chapters, the reader does emerge with an understanding of the historical evolution of multicultural/diversity policies in both countries, and the inherent differences in the social contexts of Canada and the United States. As Yoon K. Pak in the third chapter, or ‘dialogue’, nicely summarizes: “These chapters provide a much-needed analysis of the development of a Canadian multicultural policy coupled with the parallel rise of diversity policies in select American schools” (p. 42). Interestingly, as Pak observes, “[chapter 1 provides] ample evidence of how the United States influenced Canadian policies, but Americans were less willing to admit that we needed assistance from foreign countries to help establish democratic relations in the schools” (p. 42).

Part 2 – First Nations and Native American Education – opens with a fine chapter (ch. 4) by Jan Hare which “begins by examining the shifts in Aboriginal educational policy in Canada, which have been marked by the state’s focus on themes of civilization, assimilation, integration, and, finally, local control” (p. 52). Through this evolutionary framework, Hare leads us to an insightful analysis of current issues facing Canada’s First Nations peoples and the possibilities of schooling within this complex matrix.   

Unfortunately, Hare touches upon, but does not explore, a crucial point in his chapter – a point that is of considerable significance and controversy in the debates over multiculturalism in Canada. It must be remembered that, unlike the United States, Canada has chosen to emphasize group rights and to enshrine these in legislation and in policies. In the case of Canada’s First Nations peoples,

The Constitution Act, 1982 recognized existing Aboriginal and treaty rights, upholding our rights as different from those of other Canadians. For unique historical, political, geographic and legal reasons, Aboriginal peoples have set themselves apart from multiculturalism policies, which do not recognize historical and legal contractual obligations [emphasis added]. (p. 54)  

Hare is indeed correct, and this reality needs to be addressed and discussed as it poses a fundamental challenge to the entire raison d’être for this book. After all, the editors lament in their Introduction about “existing inequalities based on race, class, and gender” and call for “efforts to create a more socially just society” (p. 11). Allowing Special Status for some groups of Canadians over others, it can be argued, constitutes a very real legal structural inequality that challenges the very essence of multiculturalism as social policy. Interestingly, while Ungerleider acknowledges (p. xi) the thorny issue of group rights in Canada allocated on the basis of language, denominational affiliation, and so on in his Foreword, Hare’s chapter avoids this awkward conversation.

The chapter on the United States in Part 2 regrettably does not emphasize historical context as much as the chapter on Canada; however it does an equally admirable job of discussing current directions and issues in the schooling of American Indians and Alaska Natives. John W. Tippeconnic III and Sabrina Redwing Saunders document clearly and convincingly how “Indian education policy has been and is currently driven by political and economic forces rather than educational considerations” (p. 73), deconstructing how “The education of AI/AN students does not take place in isolation from the rest of the education world” (p. 74), and lead us to an “appreciation of why the education of AI/ANs in America remains complex and often difficult to understand” (p. 80).  Augustine McCaffery’s ‘dialogue’ chapter in Part 2 opens with an incredibly strong comparative analysis of themes common to Canadian and American history and experience. However, a shift is quickly made to an overly detailed discussion of the American situation at the expense of continuing the comparative aspect throughout the remainder of the chapter.

The above noted, it must be emphasized that the chapters on First Nations and Native American Education are excellent. Simultaneously readable and scholarly, they provide on outstanding overview and analysis of the realities, challenges, and dilemmas confronting Canada’s and the United States’ aboriginal peoples.

Part 3 – Immigrant and Language Education – opens with an excellent and comprehensive overview (chapter 7) of the historical and socio-political contexts of immigrant language education as well as contestations around Canada’s two official languages. Contributors Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro then elaborate upon the current challenges for English as a Second Language education, and sound suggestions for improvements are offered. This is followed by a complementary chapter by Carlos Ovando and Terrence Wiley who elaborate a clear message throughout their analysis: “Language education in the United States remains a conflicted domain, as it has been through much of its history” (p. 117). They document how the “formation and implementation of educational language policies in the United States have often involved conflicts over the hegemony of English in the nation-building agendas, the best means of promoting instruction in English, the status and utility of languages other than English, and the so-called nonstandard varieties of English” (p. 107). These elements are discussed in turn - with particular illustration through the contexts of using English instruction for Native and African-Americans as an assimilative tool, the movements for increased foreign language instruction and for bilingual education, and culminate with an insightful analysis of the current linking of English language proficiency with the standards and accountability movements.

In her commentary on the above two contributions, Karen Gourd provides the strongest ‘dialogue’ chapter in the book. In a skillful, insightful, nuanced analysis of the preceding two chapters, Gourd offers a truly comparative and integrative insight into the similarities and differences, limitations and possibilities, of language policies and practices in Canada and the United States.  

Part 4 – Race-Based Policies - begins with chapter 10, by Adrienne Chan, which continues the relatively recent and painful discovery by Canadians that, like Americans, they too have a sordid and shameful history in the arena of race relations. Through an historical tracing and an explication of recent and current initiatives, Chan’s chapter “[charts] the course from race-based policies that were directed at racial segregation and the exclusion of particular groups, to race relations and multiculturalism policies that include an appreciation of ethnic and cultural differences“ (p. 142). In consequence, the differences – in social attitudes, public policies, and so on – between the Canada of today and the Canada of as recently as a generation ago are made explicit.   

The parallel chapter on the United States succeeds in saying something new in the heavily documented and researched American context of race relations because of the focus the three authors have chosen. In addition to an obligatory (and obviously crucially important) discussion on African Americans, there are more detailed elaborations on the experiences of Asian Americans and Latinos. Moreover, these groups’ experiences are examined through the specific filter of parental activism. The authors assert that, “What is unknown to most Americans today is that the determination of these concerned parents unintentionally served as precedent for Brown [v. Board of Education]”  (p. 147). Through this approach, contributors Christopher Span, Rashid Robinson, and Trinidad Molina Villegas provide a valuable perspective on the history of race-based schooling practices in the United States. (Their chapter can also be read to good advantage in conjunction with chapter 2, as both chapters focus on the significance of local activism.)

The different approaches taken by the contributors in chapters 10 and 11 constitute a challenge for Njoki Wane in facilitating a dialogue. She succeeds however, and the reader is left with the clear understanding that although blatantly race-based social and education policies have disappeared from Canada and the United States, structural and ideological inequalities continue.  The amelioration of these policies requires that marginalized groups continue to remain proactive.

An outstanding contribution by Carol Agocs opens Part 5 – Employment Equity and Affirmative Action. Chapter 13 is brilliantly written by Agocs, and it is comprehensive in policy details and theoretical exposition. In reviewing Canada’s Employment Equity Act and the subsequent developments it initiated, Agocs is clear about the promising possibilities such enabling legislation and attendant policies offer and the “many strengths as a proactive and mandatory response to systemic discrimination in employment” (p. 168). Yet, laws and policies can only have impact if implemented; unfortunately that is only partially the case in Canada. In explaining why, Agocs offers the interpretive filters of four analytical models to help us “toward an understanding of why the potential for change offered by this movement in policy development was not taken up” (p. 186) and how the process can be moved forward through the combined heuristic advantages of the models outlined.

The complementary chapter on the United States does not uphold the high standards set by its Canadian counterpart. The limitation of Edward Taylor’s chapter (ch. 14) is rooted in his decision to use the very specific example of Washington State “as a useful metaphor for the failure of liberalism’s promises” and “an opportunity to look at the backlash against affirmative action through the lens of a newer form of oppositional scholarship called critical race theory” (p. 188). This results in a theoretically sophisticated and insightful, but ultimately unsatisfying, chapter.  The fault does not lie in the quality of the chapter – it is indeed a worthwhile exposition, and I agree that “The case of [Washington State’s Initiative] 200 not only illustrates and confirms some of the tenets of critical race theory, but suggest CRT as a model with explanatory power” (p. 199). However, this seems to step outside the scope of the book as a whole as it does not offer the same convincing cross-border analyses and linkages of theory with practice that other chapters provide.

Unfortunately, the dialogue chapter (ch. 15) for this section also falls into a dilemma. While Michelle Goldberg begins with recognizing the commonalities of the United States and Canada’s experiences in the erosion of employment equity and affirmative action policies, she also immediately informs that, “I will use critical discourse analysis to add another level of explanation to conventional theorizations“ (p. 204). As she proceeds to do precisely that, the Taylor and Agocs chapters are soon left behind, and Goldberg proceeds with what is an essentially separate exposition. In articulating an additional theoretical explanatory framework, Goldberg does a fine job. However the focus of her chapter is supposed to be a dialogue on her colleagues’ contributions, and this is not attended to. The result is that Part 5 tends to read as three distinct chapters, rather than forming a cohesive section.

Finally, in Part 6 –Extending the Dialogue - we have what might at first glance be an ‘add-on’ section falling outside the parameters of the book. In many ways, it is. As an ‘Editors’ note’ explains: “David Gillborn’s insights about diversity policy in England extend our policy dialogue beyond North America to a third national context”; however, the focus is to “help us reconsider issues surrounding diversity policies within our two countries” (p. 241). Because contributor Gillborn does such an excellent job in chapter 16, and because the commentaries of the four respondents (Catherine Cornbleth, Rinaldo Walcott, Carlos Ovando, and Terezia Zoric), which constitute the ‘dialogue’ chapter are so insightful, both inclusion of this section and the claim that reflections from England will shed light on the United States and Canadian experiences are validated.

Finally, a comment on the Index is warranted. It is too specific – at the expense of general, thematic, categories. A more comprehensive index would have been a great asset.

In closing, editors Joshee and Johnson are to be congratulated and thanked for bringing together a diverse team of excellent scholars to focus our attention on such an important dimension of multicultural studies. Singularly and collectively, the contributors have added greatly to our understanding of a significant and under-studied topic.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 03, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15359, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:07:47 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review