Racism in Paradise: Interracial marriages still stir prejudice among many Canadians

When Ashley and Raj Brar were married, they had two ceremonies: a white-dress wedding reflecting Ashley’s Irish, Scottish and Canadian heritage, and a traditional Indian ceremony to recognize Raj’s Indo-Canadian background.

When Ashley and Raj Brar were married, they had two ceremonies: a white-dress wedding reflecting Ashley’s Irish, Scottish and Canadian heritage, and a traditional Indian ceremony to recognize Raj’s Indo-Canadian background. (Mark van Manen/PNG)

CHERYL CHAN
THE PROVINCE

Raj and Ashley Brar’s love story is an ordinary tale, at least in Metro Vancouver.

He’s a high school teacher, she’s a student nurse. They met through friends, drawn together by their love of history and a common Christian faith. They dated for two years, got married in August, and honeymooned in Hawaii.

For the most part, their different skin colours — he’s brown, she’s white — haven’t mattered. Certainly not to them, their friends, or their families, not anymore anyway.

Interracial couples like the Brars are a fast-growing demographic in Canada. Statistics Canada says mixed-race unions grew a dramatic 33 per cent between 2001 and 2006 — more than five times the growth of all couples, due, in part, to the growing number of visible minorities in Canada.

And when it comes to love, Vancouver is the most colour-blind city of all.

In Metro Vancouver 8.5 per cent of couples are in mixed unions — more than double the national figure of 3.9 per cent. Couples like Ashley and Raj have become so common hardly anyone bats an eye when they walk down the street hand in hand.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

Raj’s dad, who immigrated to Canada from India 25 years ago, had always expected his eldest child and only son to marry an Indo-Canadian girl. When Raj told his parents he was dating a white girl, he was greeted with an ominous silence.

“It was a couple days of a really tense household,” recalls Raj. “They didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

Raj’s mom wasn’t as against the relationship, but “she was torn between two worlds,” says Raj. “She wanted to defend her husband, but also support her son.”

The disapproval stemmed largely from fear. They were worried Ashley, a fourth-generation Canadian with Irish and Scottish roots who did not speak Punjabi, was going to take Raj away from them. Decades ago, Raj’s aunt had married a Caucasian man, and was disowned. Raj’s parents did not want the same issue to tear their family apart.

Raj and Ashley’s story, luckily, has a happier ending. When Raj’s parents realized their son wasn’t going to budge, they made the first tentative steps to get to know Ashley. Within months, they gave the couple their blessing.

“Everyone loves her,” says Raj, 28, holding hands with Ashley at a Surrey coffee shop a few days after their honeymoon.

“And I love them,” says Ashley, 30. “It wasn’t a problem at all.”

Raj and Ashley were married in August in a dual ceremony: A traditional Indian wedding at a Sikh gurdwara to appease Raj’s parents and a Christian ceremony at a White Rock church, where their two worlds came together.

The bride wore a white dress, the groom a black sherwani; the bridesmaids all wore saris. The menu included butter chicken and pakoras. Their traditional tiered cake was decorated in an intricate mehndi pattern.

Their emcees entertained their 400 guests — “massive for a western wedding, small for an Indian wedding” — in both English and Punjabi.

University of B.C. sociologist Wendy Roth says the growing number of mixed-race unions indicates a steady erosion of social and racial barriers between different groups. After all, what blurs racial lines more than sex and marriage?

“Marriage is a function of who you meet,” say Roth. “Intermarriages are generally seen as an indication of social distance between groups. The more intermarriages there are, the less social distance between groups.”

Interracial relationships can present challenges that couples from the same backgrounds do not face. Things can get messy when you throw different cultures, values, and religions into the mix.

Francois Vanasse organizes a meet-up group for mixed-race couples in Vancouver. He’s heard about a variety of issues that range from the lighthearted, such as what’s for dinner, to more serious matters, such as living with the in-laws.

“Family can be an issue,” says Vanasse, who met his wife Li Cheng in Shanghai in the mid-’90s. “Canadians tend to have smaller families, while a Chinese family is much more extended.”

Currently, his mother-in-law is living with them, he notes. “That’s not something that would happen in a Canadian family.”

Vanasse says he wasn’t looking for an interracial relationship; he was simply looking for someone to connect with, “whether she comes from Mars it doesn’t matter.”

Being half of a mixed couple gives him new perspectives and richer insights.

“It’s a connection to another way of thinking and feeling things. It gives you a different angle on life and the world,” he says.

Despite the rapid increase of mixed unions in Canada, intermarriages are still more likely to occur among certain segments of the population.

“It is only certain people — young, highly-educated and in urban centres — that tend to intermarry,” says Roth. “It does not mean there are no racial issues in the world anymore, only that among certain parts of our society, relations are getting better.”

Ken Sim, 42, marvels at how times have changed.

He and his wife Teena Gupta live in a 1921 Kerrisdale home with a land title that stipulated the property cannot be transferrred to “Negroes or Orientals.”

The couple got looks when they started dating in 1994. But as Vancouver became more multicultural, the stares stopped. Today the couple and their four boys blend right in.

Sim also saw attitudes change in his own family. Sim says his dad would have preferred his kids marry another Chinese, but ended up with two Caucasian sons-in-law, a Thai daughter-in-law, and Gupta, who is Indo-Canadian.

“He shouldn’t have come to Canada,” laughs Sim.

Sim recalls when he was in Grade 8, he had a good friend named Harmeet. His dad told him he shouldn’t play with brown people.

Fast forward decades later, Sim married Gupta, and “my dad would go over to my in-laws and wouldn’t even tell us. They’d just hang out all the time.

“He danced bhangra at our wedding,” he adds.

Sim says there used to be a lot less diversity in Vancouver, which allowed stereotypes and preconceived notions to fester.

“As time goes on and the world gets really small, I see it as people not talking so much about race and nation states but more about groups,” says Sim, co-founder of Nurse Next Door.

He says he has more in common with someone who is an entrepreneur and a dad rather than a random person who lives next door to him and happens to be Chinese.

With their four kids, who they affectionately call “Chindus,” short for Chinese and Hindus, “it’s really cool,” says Sim. “They don’t see colour at all because we don’t talk about it.”

chchan@theprovince.com

twitter.com/cherylchan

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