Broadly speaking, multicultural education encompasses the policies, programs, and practices which evolved in response to our multicultural reality. Before the 1960s, Saskatchewan's education system sought, with few exceptions, to absorb immigrant and Aboriginal children into the culture of the English-speaking population. Since that time, the monocultural focus of the past has been replaced by a formal acceptance of ethnocultural diversity as a desirable characteristic of schools and society in general. The Canadian population was heterogeneous even before European contact, as the First Nations were culturally and linguistically diverse. With the arrival of increasing numbers of immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds, many of whom spoke neither French nor English, Canada's post-Confederation approach to nation-building was to stress assimilation, and the public school was seen as the means of creating a unified country. Many ethnocultural groups viewed this approach as an erosion of their identity, and created organizations and institutions to counter this pressure. Some even managed to affect legislation. The 1901 Act allowed for the hiring of teachers to teach in languages other than English, albeit only in the last hour of the school day. To ensure qualified teachers, the Training School for Teachers of Foreign Speaking Communities was established in Regina in 1909. Strong anti-French, anti-Catholic, and anti-foreigner sentiments, particularly following World War I, however, resulted in legislation in 1919 banning all but English as a language of instruction in schools.
During the following fifty years, there was little or no acknowledgement of the increasing ethnocultural and linguistic diversity of Saskatchewan's population in the day-to-day teaching in schools. In some cases, students were even harassed and punished for using their home language. As a result, a significant number of students from minority ethnic and cultural groups experienced learning problems, and had lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates than children from the dominant group. Aboriginal students historically have been the least well served by educational institutions. As the keystone in a systematic attempt to assimilate Canada's Aboriginal people, the residential schools made a concerted effort to eradicate Aboriginal languages, cultural traditions, and beliefs. There were pockets of resistance: for example, in some schools in francophone communities, instruction continued to take place in French - except when the school inspector arrived, at which time French books were quickly replaced by English ones.
The post-World War II era saw a gradual shift in Canadian attitudes from an assimilationist to a pluralist viewpoint. The terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, established in 1963, included “contributions made by other ethnic groups.” Eight years later, Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau announced an official Multiculturalism Policy for Canada. Initially, the prairie provinces emphasized a more linguistic view of multicultural education. In 1968, Saskatchewan amended The School Act to allow French to be used in schools designated for the francophone minority. In 1974, a second amendment broadened this to permit other languages to be taught or used as the language of instruction for part of the school day; an example is the Ukrainian-English Bilingual Program established in Saskatoon in 1979.
During the 1980s, the Minister of Education established the Indian and Métis Curriculum Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee on Heritage Languages; and the Minister of Parks, Recreation and Culture set up the Task Force on Multiculturalism to make recommendations on how Saskatchewan's education system could better meet the needs of students from different cultural groups. In 1994, the Department adopted the Multicultural Education and Heritage Language Education Policies, which set out goals, principles, policy statements, and a plan for implementation. Other initiatives that were implemented during the 1990s as a result of directions also aimed to foster understanding, acceptance, and harmonious relations among people of different cultures. Outside the regular school system, groups of parents were also working hard to maintain their language and culture. A number of community ethnocultural associations organized heritage language schools - programs where in the evening or on weekends (hence the term “Saturday schools”) volunteer teachers taught young people their heritage language and culture. These community groups have continued to grow both in number and size. They are currently supported financially and organizationally by a number of umbrella organizations (Saskatchewan Organization for Heritage Languages, Saskatchewan Intercultural Association, and the Multilingual Association of Regina), which receive funding from Saskatchewan Lotteries. Additional funding is also provided by Saskatchewan Learning and other government departments.
Despite these efforts, a number of cultural groups feel that the provincial school system does not meet the needs of their children, and have opted to run their own programs, schools or school systems. First Nations are increasingly educating their children in band schools. The francophone community has established its own education system, which operates parallel to the regular system. Schools on Hutterite colonies, although they operate within the provincial education system, offer a program that is modified to reflect the beliefs, values, traditions, and customs of the Hutterians. Some ethnocultural communities, such as Mennonites and Muslims, have established private schools with programs that include language and cultural components in addition to the regular subjects. For the majority of Saskatchewan children and youth, the education system will continue to pursue the goal of enabling them to interact and feel comfortable with others who are different, and to work towards greater social justice.