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Jan 05 2012

Becoming Canadian

As the child of an immigrant father, I am conflicted about what it means to be “a Canadian”. I spent my childhood living in a white community, surrounded by kids whose parents had been born in-country, if not in-city. I didn’t really start encountering immigrant families until I was in my adolescent years, by which time I had a fairly firm grasp on what I thought it meant to be ‘Canadian’.

As the years have passed and I’ve become more intimately acquainted with the varieties of Canadian experience, it’s become more and more difficult to justify my belief that Canadians ought to share a set of values. I think that everyone should always agree with me about everything, but I am willing to accept dissent within tolerance margins. Canada’s values are, for the most part, in concert with my own values – there is a certain amount of chicken/egg questioning that one must engage in, but I can defend most of my values beyond simply stating “because that’s what I believe.”

The question, though, becomes whether or not it is reasonable to expect newcomers to this country (like my father) to adopt “our” values. After all, as I have argued before, one of Canada’s strengths is that it doesn’t have a monocultural or monoethnic heritage:

Again, this speaks perfectly to what I was talking about before. Canada is a rich mosaic that is built of cultures from everywhere. That is what unifies us – we don’t force capitulation to a standard of Canadian-ness. Our lack of -ness is our -ness.

Given the power and potential of an environment in which all people can be said to belong equally (although in practice that position is not universally held amongst my fellows), is it self-defeating to expect us to adopt one set of national values? Is the very idea of national values contingent upon a single foundational identity, or can one be developed over time without one culture asserting supremacy by fiat? Luckily for me, it seems as though I don’t really have to worry about the question too much:

The survey, conducted by Environics and commissioned by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, found that both immigrants to Canada and those born here have almost identical opinions on the subject. The poll, being unveiled Wednesday, finds that 97 per cent of Canadians feel newcomers should embrace “gender equality” and “tolerance of others” as a condition of being admitted into this country.

The survey, which broke out the opinions of immigrant Canadians separately for comparison purposes, found that 96 per cent of this group agreed with the sentiment.

There is a lot of rhetoric that gets thrown around about immigrants coming to Canada and trying to import foreign values. These kinds of statements are usually accompanied by doomsday prophesies of the end of “traditional” (white, Christian) Canadian identity. Everyone and their dog has an anecdote about Jamil soandso who came so that he could bring his whole family and raise his kids to hate the west.

This study seems to suggest that there’s not much validity to that concern. Immigrants to Canada seem to acknowledge that moving to a new place means doing things a bit differently, and are willing (in some cases eager) to make the necessary adjustments. After all, being liked and fitting in are pretty major human needs, and it seems odd to expect that people will simply refuse to do that because they’re immigrants. My own limited experience interacting with new Canadians has been that they are unflappably proud of their country. It’s usually their kids that are intolerable little shits, but that’s a topic for another time.

The survey debunks a few other myths about immigrant attitudes:

Nearly nine in 10 Canadians told Environics that they believed this country’s law should always take precedence over religious law for new arrivals. When it came to immigrants, 91 per cent of those surveyed concurred. Likewise, 88 per cent of Canadians polled agreed that newcomers should become familiar with Canada’s history and culture. Eighty-seven per cent of immigrants agreed.

Nearly eight in 10 Canadians also backed the idea that immigrants should “raise their children as Canadians.” A slightly lower percentage, 74 per cent, of new arrivals agreed.

The article doesn’t go into much detail about what “raising a child as a Canadian” means, but one can assume it means that the kids don’t see themselves as being from India or China or the Caribbean, but from Canada with those other things in their background. What I’d be interested to see is how those intentions work in practice – is there a generational lag between new Canadians and their kids in terms of national identity? Do first-generation Canadians struggle (as I did) with the pluralistic elements of their identity? Is that struggle mitigated by living in diverse communities?

The final point of interest was the fact that (comparatively) few Canadians felt that immigrants should be self-sufficient within a year of arrival. It was still a majority, but one as overwhelming as these others. I don’t know much about immigration (although I may have to learn if I want to fulfill my dream of living in Amsterdam someday), but it seems to me that it takes more than a single calendar year to arrive, get established professionally, secure lodgings, and all those other things that are required for economic self-sufficiency. I know Canadians who were born here who have yet to achieve that milestone.

It is encouraging to me that I can duck this particular question. Whether or not it is reasonable to expect new Canadians to adopt Canada’s values, they seem to be game for the task. Since values do not exist statically, the question becomes one of inclusion – are new Canadians able to participate in the conversations and processes that go into shaping our values? Only when citizenship is blind to origin can we truly claim that immigrants have become Canadian.

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8 comments

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  1. 1
    shouldbeworking

    I agree with your comments I am a white Canadian born teacher. When I tried teaching many of my students came from other counties. These kids, for the most part, had learned Englush and now were trying to cope with high school math and physics, and working damn hard at it. Some of them had sues with a conflict between the old ways and Canadian practices and behavior. Most of the parents wanted to rise their children as “typical Canadians”.

  2. 2
    Sivi

    Thanks for this. It’s nice to have something to link the more xenophobic atheists I know to.

  3. 3
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    I always think of the quintessential Canadian quality as “lie and let live.” I let go of the old Scottish-heritage Ontario a long time ago and embrace the diversity.

  4. 4
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Argh!!! “Live and let live!” Except for Stephen Harper–he goes by the former.

  5. 5
    Riptide

    I think it’s reasonable to posit a ‘basis set’ of necessary (but not sufficient) values that anyone must possess to participate in Canada, whether immigrant or not. This set can be fairly small and seem blindingly obvious, but it always gets difficult when someone tries to bring their own ‘traditional values’ of clitoris-scraping or post-circumcision penis-sucking to the table. Not to mention all of the other horrors that faith’s arsenal includes.

  6. 6
    Pen

    I know you know those white Canadians are just a slightly earlier lot of immigrants so never mind that…

    I grew up an immigrant, who then returned to my parents’ home country, then back to my childhood country, then… officially I ended up with dual nationality, my daughter has three nationalities. In the process, I developed a horror of assimilation, because assimilation always meant a denial of some part of my identity. What I don’t want for myself I don’t want for others. I don’t know about in Canada but the problem with the demand to adopt local values is that it’s an impulse that never knows when to stop. It starts with high-falutin talk about values and ends with demands to ‘dress like us’, ‘eat like us’, ‘don’t speak to your kids in your old language’(even though bilingual is good if you get it by being rich enough to hire a foreign nanny), and then, implicitly, ‘have the same hair/skin/eyes as us’ (or else you’ll never be ‘us’ enough, and neither will your kids, grandkids, …).

    I think perhaps one of the more pernicious is ‘never, ever criticize this country/suggest improvements/disagree with someone who’s been here longer than you’ (regardless of the fact that those ‘native’ people hold a range of opposing views). It gets so that disagreeing with anyone about anything earns you an automatic ‘Go home then’. What home?

    So what do I do when I really have a strong difference of opinion with someone who’s maybe even more recently immigrant than me? Well, rule 1 is that there has to be a damn good reason why we can’t each have it our own way. Rule 2 is to only disagree with new arrivals on the same grounds I would use to disagree with a fellow national on a matter of values or principle. It’s not because they’re an immigrant that they can’t for e.g. marry their daughter to someone against her will, it’s because a) it’s illegal, and good luck to them on getting the law changed when they’ve got local nationality and b) they’re wrong, which is why it won’t get changed.

    PS: glad you joined Freethought Blogs. I’ve been enjoying reading your posts.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    Thanks for the kind words and the insightful comment.

    I think the key is the issue of participation, as you say. Yes, it is reasonable to expect people to adopt the underlying values of a place they’re moving to (like moving into your partner’s parents’ house), but once you’re there you have a say in what decisions get made. That’s how “they” become “us”.

  8. 8
    Alice in Wonderland

    I think this is a very important point, which somehow seems to be often overlooked. “Canadian values,” to the extend that they can be coherently defined at all, are definitely not set in stone. If some random Father of Confederation were to wake from cryogenic slumber tomorrow, I expect he would be shocked and horrified to learn that we let women vote (for instance).

    Everybody currently living in Canada has the right and the responsibility to help shape our collective sense of values. Here’s hoping that the result is that Canada just keeps getting awesomer and awesomer!

    (* opinions as to how awesome Canada currently is may vary, but anyway I assume we can all agree that it should get awesomer?)

    PS: I’m technically a child of immigrants too, but with an American dad and a Scottish-mom-raised-in-Canada, I feel like it’s a bit of a cheat to identify as such, since culture clash was never much of an issue.

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