Canada Embracing Multiculturalism

How Mennonite Culture Was Taught in Ontario Schools in the 1980s

Canada prides itself today as a multicultural mosaic that welcomes its immigrants, bring their diversity and heritage for all Canadians to learn from. This is in contrast to the “melting pot” ideology that all immigrants are expected to adopt and live the culture of their new homeland, a common practice adopted in Canadian schools before 1970s.

The Start of Multiculturalism in Schools

An excerpt from The Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988. Source: Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21[1].

The concept of multiculturalism describes the heterogeneity of and the equality and mutual respect among ethnicities and cultures, as well as The Multiculturalism Policy within a Bilingual Framework implemented by Pierre Trudeau’s federal government in 1971[2]. The idea was relatively new and there was no official educational programs related to immigrant’s languages or cultures at that time. In 1974, the Toronto Board of Education established the Work Group on Multicultural Programs to investigate the philosophy, programs and practices of the education of multicultural population in Toronto[3].

This led to a heated debate between people in favor of assimilation and the different ethnic communities over whether Toronto schools should incorporate the languages and cultures of immigrants into their general curriculum. Schools in Canada started to promote multicultural programs in 1971.[4] Official curriculum guides for teachers on multiculturalism were also published[5]. All these efforts eventually led to the passage of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988, which “acknowledge multiculturalism as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society with an integral role in shaping Canada’s future”[6].

Telling the Mennonite Stories to School Children

Cover page of The Mennonite Canadians teacher’s resource book. Source: Multicultural Canada Series, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Library, University of Toronto.

The research book The Mennonite Canadians and its affiliated resource book were published in 1980 under the Multicultural Canada Series and were used in Ontario schools from 1981 to 1989 for Junior Social studies.

The books told the immigration and settlement history of the Mennonites into Canada using the family stories of two teenagers, Jacob Martin from Pennsylvania and Greta Janzen from southern Russia. Along their journeys, readers learn about the traditional lifestyle, culture and religion of the Mennonites. These stories provide the insider’s perspective to experience the life of Mennonite people; their German heritage, how they traveled, farmed, did craftwork, cooked, went to school, went to church, married, and how they merged into the Canadian society with the problems they encountered in the process.

Being an international student myself, I felt the power of these immigrant stories since I was able to go through the life journeys of Jacob Martin and Greta Janzen as I read along, which, I imagine, would be similar to the feelings of the students learning about Mennonite culture in school in 1980s. Such experience is necessary for children, no matter immigrant or not, to accept and appreciate cultures other than their own. Multiculturalism is what creates the cultural mosaic and diversity of Canada today, and educating children about different ethnicities and cultures, is a fundamental step towards build a multicultural society.


Zhuohua Yang is a Chinese student in the Master of Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. After completing her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Geography at University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, she decided to further explore her interest in Museum Studies. She enjoys learning about the history of different civilisations and is especially interested in the preservation of cultural heritage in the museum context.

[1] Retrieved from http://www.pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/canadian-multiculturalism-act-1988.

[2] Burnet, J., & Driedger, L. 2011; Bertrand, J., 2016

[3] Masemann, V., 1978, p. 34&35

[4] Wright, I., & LaBar, C., 1984, p.115

[5] Wyatt, J., 1984, p.100

[6] Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, retrieved from http://www.pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/canadian-multiculturalism-act-1988

“Such experience is necessary for children, no matter immigrant or not, to accept and appreciate cultures other than their own.”