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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Demonizing "hyphenated Canadians" won't strengthen Canadian society

I agree - to a point - with the author of this article written by a first-generation Canadian of Pakistani descent. It's aptly titled "Canada's Tolerance Misplaced."

The author makes a very astute observation that what passes for 'tolerance" in Canada is more like timidity ... altho it could also be sheer indifference. (Likely the difference depends on one's socioeconomic bracket or educational background.)

As a social scientist, I oppose this kind of political correctness, lack of assimilation of new immigrants to mainstream Canada , hyphenated-Canadian identity, and the lack of patriotism in our great nation. ...

We have become so timid that the majority cannot assert its own freedom of expression. We cannot publicly question certain foreign social customs, traditions and values that do not fit into the Canadian ethos of equality. Rather than encouraging new immigrants to adjust to Canada , we tolerate peculiar ways of doing things. We do not remind them that they are in Canada, not in their original homelands.

In a multicultural society, it is the responsibility of minorities to adjust to the majority. It does not mean that minorities have to totally amalgamate with the majority. They can practice some of their cultural traditions within their homes -- their backstage behaviour. However, when outside of their homes, their front stage behavior should resemble mainstream Canadian behavior. Whoever comes to Canada must learn the limits of our system. ...
(Full article here.)

He makes a valid point about how there is too much molly-coddling of immigrant cultures in Canada today. But from the perspective of a second-generation Canadian of Ukrainian descent, I think he misses a much larger point.

The issue really is about Canadian self-identity and trying to fit immigrants into a pre-determined cultural mold. In that way, things haven't changed much since my grandparents and great-grandparents arrived over 100 years ago.

Granted, some things have.

For example, today's Canadian citizens wouldn't think of demanding that the government throw immigrants into internment camps and have them repair the roads and upgrade the national parks that Ukrainian immigrants built when they were interned from 1914-20.

Today's media and government officials wouldn't think of referring to immigrants as "the scum of the continent" and otherwise maligning and humiliating them publicly.

And most Canadians consider it very uncool to tell an immigrant to "go back where you came from." (Although there are exceptions. Somewhere around 1991 I was told by an English/Indian immigrant that I should move to Ukraine. She was annoyed at my interest in publicizing the celebrations of 100 years of Ukrainian immigration to Canada.)

Still, most of the changes are superficial and the pendulum has merely swung to the opposite extreme.

Now, as the author points out, our society bends over backwards to ensure today's newcomers are allowed to practice their cultures unimpeded by demands to acquire even the minimum language skills to be able to communicate in one of the official languages.

This mollycoddling under the guise of "anti-racism" serves to keep Canadians politically correct and continuing with the business of identifying ourselves as "not American." (Ironically, these same Canadians are rabid consumers of American pop culture and for the most part ignore (if not disparage) the cultures of the peoples within our own borders.)

How many of us consider that the roots of racism could be something a little less superficial than skin colour? Like, maybe, cultural practices and beliefs so different from our own that they require considerable effort to become familiar with, and that carry the risk of conflict when common ground just can't be found.

For example, how can burqas and female circumcision be tolerated by a society that purports to value democracy, human rights, and peacekeeping? (What kind of peace does a woman with mutilated genitals experience under a burqa anyway?) Yet except for the odd brave soul to speak out about it, our society prefers to just leave such culturally sensitive issues to be dealt with in their culturally specific ethnic ghetto. How indifferent tolerant, eh?

We may have started down this slippery slope with turbans for RCMP officers and ceremonial daggers for schoolboys. Not that these things are wrong, per se. Personally I don't agree with them but I can live with them. In the final analysis, a hat does not make a police officer; his or her conduct does. And knives were common on schoolgrounds long before immigrant boys wore them on their pant legs. Such things are really cultural conventions and they're a done deal anyway.

But there is a huge difference between allowing an immigrant girl to wear a headscarf and allowing her to be mutilated, between allowing a boy to wear a knife to school and allowing him to use it as a weapon, and between allowing a police officer to abuse his position of authority, whatever his headgear. Yet so many of us bury our heads in the sand so we don't have to see the underlying issues, much less deal with them.

It does not speak well of Canadian society that the distinctions between language, race and culture are lost on most of us. A century ago, cultural intolerance was disguised as concerns about language. Today it's disguised as concerns about race. Both are red herrings in the debate about culture.

It's highly unlikely that the issues of either racism or language (i.e., official bilingualism) will ever be resolved until we individually treat each other's cultural practices with considerably more respect, and collectively apply a lot more common sense in formulating societal conventions of interacting with each other.

This can only be done by effective communication. And in order to communicate effectively, we really need a common language. In that I also agree with the author.

However, I don't believe we should insist that newcomers divest themselves and their descendants of their respective mother tongues and speak only English and/or French. There is no harm in knowing several languages. Quite the contrary, in fact. (I do, however, draw the line at having a polyglot of official languages based on population numbers of immigrants. That's pretty darn colonial!)

So how far have we come, really, when a Canadian-born member of a "visible minority" calls for our society to step back in time and repeat the mistakes of history?

Until that pendulum stops swinging, nothing will fundamentally change in our society. Regardless of whether or how many of us retain hyphens in our Canadian self-identity.

So I guess I do agree with the author that Canada's tolerance is misplaced. I just disagree as to where and how.

What do you think?

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