Growing pains in the new multicultural Canada


A recent airing of the half-hour dramedy, “Da Kink in My Hair”, waded into the question of Canadian identity and offered up how Canadians are those people who say ‘sorry’ for every and no apparent reason, play hockey, end every sentence with ‘eh?’ and are interminably polite. (Have you heard? Canadians are so polite they even say thank you to the ATM after it dispenses the money.)

That’s all very cute, but the truth is that we are pushing and pulling, bending and stretching to make our way into our new identity. Hence, we encounter intense arguments over the acceptance of a culturally based alternative school; we enjoy Caribana, and then contend with aggrieved citizens who ask why we don’t have European History Month. Another sign of the times: Recently, Calgary has gotten into a debate about whether or not to allow the construction of so-called ethnic malls.

In the ‘old country’ – whichever one it may be – the issue of cultural variations is just about unheard off. True, there are class differences and there is still discrimination, even among our own, based on colour, but national identity is not an issue.

While the people of these older nations may not be of one homogeneous makeup, the collective national cultures supersede those differences and become the glue that holds many a nation together. That’s consistent with living in an old country. There have been centuries of time to smooth out the historical cultural and language differences until new, blended yet distinct cultures have emerged.

Even so, traditional cultures are still evident. In Jamaica, the blending of cultures occurred with relative ease, hence Jamaican-ized Chinese cuisine, the celebration of Diwali, the predominance of Christian religion and the continued practice of obeah; none of which is deemed un-Jamaican. And it’s the same with every other Caribbean nation.

Of course, the Caribbean has had some five centuries, like a slow-simmering stew, in which to blend all the cultural, religious and linguistic flavours that make the region unique. The Caribbean today has merged into a blended people of disparate origins mainly beyond the region. In a similar vein, Canada is now on its way.

Like the kind of navel-gazing that happens when a person asks himself: ‘Who am I really?’ Canadians regularly ponder their identity, especially because it is in flux. The Greater Toronto Area, for example, has a population of about 5.6 million – both native born and immigrant. In fact, 49 per cent of the 2.6 million living in Toronto were born elsewhere. After the GTA, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary, respectively, have become home to the majority of immigrants entering the country each year.

In 2008, Statistics Canada figures show close to a quarter of a million immigrants made Canada their home, and over the past five-year period close to 1.25 million immigrants have settled in Canada. One result is that all around the GTA there are pockets of immigrant enclaves that feel ‘just like back home’, the winter months notwithstanding.

Although we speak with pride of our cultural mosaic, there is tension as the new Canadian culture steadies itself. Looking back, during the 1960s, with unsettled relations between Canada’s dominant francophone and Anglophone cultures, the Bicultural and Bilingual Acts were passed in 1969 as a way to bring greater harmony between the two. But the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism which preceded these Acts heard from other ethnic communities about their own contributions to Canada and Canadian culture and out of this was born Canada’s multiculturalism policy.

The Multiculturalism Act was passed in 1988 to, among other things, “recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity…that provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future”.

So the United States has its melting pot, but here, we have fashioned our cultural mosaic. Within it, there is a lot of tension and uncertainty as those whose families have been here longer struggle to come to terms with the new Canadian cultural identity and the gradual ‘browning’ of Canada.

This is a transformation in a country that had for some time tacitly held a restraint on allowing entry to immigrants not originating from Europe. Moreover, the brutality that is a part of just about every country’s formation is now underplayed in Canada’s history and often, weakness in the Canadian social and cultural fabric falls in the lap of ‘immigrants’ – a term that in some circles carries a tainted meaning.

So we are experiencing growing pains. It would be interesting to see what we will look like a hundred years hence.

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