Why is ethnic politics more violent in Russia than in Canada? Essay


What factors permit some ethnically segmented societies to avoid large-scale violence while others sink into protracted conflict? A comparative analysis of Canada and Russia will give an inkling of an answer to this question. In this paper the writer will argue that there are three reasons why ethnic politics are more violent in Canada than in Russia. This is a simplification, but the three broad areas will give a basis for the argument. Firstly “Ethnic politics” has to be defined. The three areas, namely history; the different political systems and legislative powers; and the socio-economics of each country will then be discussed briefly. The two countries, Canada and Russia, will be subjected to inferences made on this information.

Ethnic Politics

“Ethnic politics” is a difficult term to define. However, when looking at the dynamics of an ethnic group, it easy to comprehend where the root of ethnic conflict stems from. An ethnic group is defined as:

“A group of individuals having a distinct culture – a subculture- in common. The idea of ‘ethnic group’ differs from that of ‘race’ because it implies that values, norms, behaviour and language, not necessarily physical appearance, are the important distinguishing characteristic. Usually, ethnic groups are thought of as minority groups within another culture” (Athabasca University, 2003).

Thus it is safe to infer that “ethnic politics” is politics concerning ethnic minorities. And “ethnic conflict” is conflict between the governmental body and the ethnic minorities.


“There are more than 80 ethnic groups in Canada” (Marney, 2001:24). Canada’s population can be divided in these ethnic groups: 28% British, 23% French, 15% other European, 6% Asian/Arab/African, 2% indigenous Indian and Eskimo and 26% of mixed backgrounds (U.S. Department of State, 2000:1).

Canada has had its share of ethnic conflict. However, the only two groups engaged in significant conflict, are the Quebecois and the governing English Canadians. The Quebecois have been a part of Canada since the seventeenth century. The English Canadians are mostly descended from English settlers or immigrants who learned try to become more like the English Canadians (Carens, 2000:107). Why then, considering that Canada has 80 different ethnic groups, is conflict between the countless other groups not promoted?


Canada is mainly a bilingual state. Most immigrants either try to assimilate to the English Canadians or to the Quebecois. This means that although Canada has 80 different ethnic groups, the groups aren’t causing conflict, because of their attempt to fit in with the language and culture of opportunity in Canada and North-America, namely English (Esman, 1994:165).

The history of Canadian ethnic conflict dates back to 1759. The British army defeated the French in New France’s capital city Quebec. The Catholic, French-speaking New France was handed over to the Protestant, English-speaking British crown (Esman, 1994:148). Quebec was allowed to retain its religious and civil code and Canada was made a confederation in 1867.

In the early 1960s, the Quiet Revolution led to “new assertiveness and heightened sense of identity among the French-speaking Quebecois” (U.S. Department of State, 2000:5). In 1976, the separatist Parti-Quebecois won the provincial election and began exploring a way to get greater independence from the rest of Canada. In the ensuing years, several referendums followed in which sovereignty lost against federalism. The margin between the federalists and the sovereigns are getting smaller with each referendum.

Economically Quebec is fairly well established, but was they to become independent; there are certain very important aspects that would have to be looked at. If Quebec were to become sovereign its borders would be changed, it would have to assume a portion of the national debt, it would have to change its currency from the Canadian dollar and it may not be protected by Canadian armed forces (Mahler, 2003:300). These are all factors contributing to the political deadlock found in Quebec.

Why, however are these conflicts not violent? The answer can be found in the ideals of Quebecois. They would not give up their economic stability and they are very dedicated to democracy and its ideals. Carens (2000:117) said that Quebecois “assign the highest importance to the values of equal opportunity and social justice.” Thus Quebecois would not go against the will of their people, and thus they take referendums seriously.

Political system and Legislative power

The British political system is a basis for the Canadian political system. Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a federal system, a parliamentary government, and strong democratic traditions (U.S. Department of State, 2000:4). The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. He is appointed for a five-year term. He/she chooses the cabinet according to specific criteria. The cabinet is “the repository of the true powers in Canadian government today” (Mahler, 2003:301).

Canada’s parliament (the legislative power) consists of an appointed Senate and an elected House of Commons. The Cabinet members have to be part of the House of Commons. The political party of the legislator is an important factor in the House of Commons and party discipline is important. Individual legislators, however, have more autonomy than in most countries – this gives credibility to the system (Mahler, 2003:305).


Canada’s economy is very solid. The nominal GDP in 1999 was $644, 7 billion (US dollars). The per capita GDP was $19,111. Education is very important and this can be seen by the fact that 99% of the population has at least grade nine. Life expectancy is estimated at 76 years for males and 83 years for females. (U.S. Department of State, 2000:1).


Russia’s population consists of 81% Russian, 4% Tatar, 3% Ukrainian and 12% other ethnic groups (U.S. Department of State, 2003:1).


One cannot look at Russia’s ethnic conflict in the same way as you examine Canada’s. One should rather look at the country’s history in general to try and understand its instability. The collapse of the Soviet Union has “given rise to a variety of plural societies, the principle common feature of which has been their rapid and seemingly irrevocable, descent along trajectory of ethnic conflict, political separatism and socio-economic disintegration” (Bruce and Ware, 2001:105). Russia’s history can be seen as an attributing factor of this.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a communist state (from 1917 to 1991) and was highly heterogeneous. It had a Marxists-Leninist political system, with varying levels of authoritarian government (Mahler, 2003:368). With the fall of communism, the USSR was forced to look at its political system. Former president Gorbachev undertook the discussion to change the USSR into a confederation, giving the individual republics more power. In the late 1980’s the “heterogeneous nature of the Soviet republics became the cause of tension and open violence in Soviet politics… the goals of these ethnic groups were often territorial but occasionally involved unhappiness with religious, political, or economic policies.” (Mahler, 2003:369).

After 1991 nationalism in the republics had grown very strong. There was an attempt to create a confederation, but eventually the USSR was dissolute, and the Russian Federation became “its largest successor state, inheriting its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as the bulk of its foreign assets and debt” (U.S. State Department, 2003: 4).

An attack on the Republic of Chechnya is an example of violent ethnic conflict. In late 1994 a brutal operation by the Russian security forces was launched on Chechen rebels intent on separation from Russia. Several human rights violations were committed. Tens of thousands Chechens were killed and 50 000 more were relocated during the war. In 1997 a peace treaty was signed between Russia and Chechnya. In 1999 Chechen separatists attacked Dagistan and this was followed by bombings of two apartment buildings in Moscow. This was followed by a military campaign in Chechnya by Russia. By 2000 federal forces claimed control over Chechen country, rebel fighting still persists (U.S. State Government, 2003: 5).

Political system and Legislative Power

The “persistent tradition of absolutism in government, the recurrent use of revolutionary violence to solve political problems, and the lack of experience with democratic institutions” contributed to the current political system in Russia (Mahler, 2003:365). It is however trying to establish a democratic government.

In the political system established by the 1993 constitution, the president wields considerable executive power. There is no vice president and the legislative is far weaker than the executive. The president nominates the highest state officials, including the prime minister, who must be approved by the Duma (the parliament). The president can pass decrees without consent from the Duma. He is also head of the armed forces and the national security (U.S. Department of State, 2003:5). This differs from the Canadian system in almost all areas.

The legislative includes an upper house (the Federation Council) and a lower house (the State Duma). Half of the State Duma is elected through single-member-district constituencies; the other half is elected by a party-list proportional representation system (Mahler, 2003: 376).


In comparison to Canada, Russia’s economy is very poor. The nominal GDP in 2002 was $287,7 billion. The GDP per capita was $2,320. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic dislocation, the standard of living fell dramatically. Although this has improved since that time, one third of the population still does not meet the minimum subsistence level. Medical care in Russia is far below Western standards Literacy is one positive aspect: 98% of the population is literate. Life expectancy for women is 73years, while for men it is 62years (U.S. Department of State, 2003:2).

Inferences made form this comparative analysis

Russia has fallen into incessant ethnic violence while Canada has managed to pacify its ethnic groups. Again, why is this so?

Firstly the histories of the countries were examined. Canada has a history of passive ethnic conflict, while Russia has a turbulent history and a very difficult transition to democratisation with a history of authoritarian government. Thus the inference can be made that a stable history of democratisation and the economic stability of the ethnic groups helps with non-violent ethnic conflict.

Secondly, an analysis of the countries’ political systems was given. It is safe to infer that an unstable government, with a weak legislative power and an overly strong executive, leads to instability (as in the case of Russia), whereas an equally strong executive and legislative combined with a history of democracy, leads to stability. Instability and a distrust of government thus have an impact on the stability of ethnic politics.

Lastly there are the socio-economic circumstances of a country. Canada’s socio-economic standards are very high. There economy is stable and the living conditions are on very high standards. In Russia, however, the living standards do not even comply with minimal levels, and the economy is still being developed. As was noted above, ethnic groups are referred to as minorities. If a people are discontent, it is likely that they will search for reasons to promote conflict in order to either better their circumstances, or to make the government see that they are unhappy. “Separatism in Russia was often simply a tool to increase regional wealth at the expense of the central government” (Gerenburg and Dmitry, 1999:1). Thus the socio-economics of a country have a big impact on ethnic politics.


According to this argument ethnic politics in Russia and Canada is influenced by mainly three factors: history, the political system and the countries’ socio-economics. In universities all over the world comparative analyses are made to better understand why countries differ so much. Ethnic politics is a difficult and very broad topic, but one that has to be looked at comparatively. In this argument the sources of ethnic conflict very simplistic, but the inferences made give an insight into why Russia’s ethnic conflict is more violent that that of Canada.


1. Athabasca University: Online dictionary of social sciences <http://bitbucket.icaap.org/dict.pl?alpha=E>

2. Carens, J.H. 2000. “Culture, Citizenship, and Community.” New York: Oxford University Press.

3. Dmitry, E., Gorenburg, S. 1999. Regional Separatism in Russia: Ethnic mobilisation or power grab? Vol. 52. Issue 2. March.

4. Esman, M.J. 1994. “Ethnic Politics.” London: Cornell University Press.

5. Mahler, G.S. 2003. Comparative Politics: An Institutional and Cross-National Approach. Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

6. Marney, J. 2001. Marketing Magazine. “Counting Ethnic Canadians In” Vol. 106, Issue 22, p24. 6 April.

7. U.S. Department of State. 2000. Background Notes on Countries of the World, Canada.July.

8. U.S. Department of State. 2003. Background Notes on Countries of the World, Russian Federation. May.