TURNING 150: Canada contemplates immigrant experience as it approaches milestone

TOBI COHEN
POSTMEDIA NEWS

Muslim Canadian Congress president Salma Siddiqui arrived in Canada from Pakistan in 1967 and says while visible minorities back then were few and far between, she argues those who did come to Canada managed to integrate better then than they do now without sacrificing their roots. Submitted photo

OTTAWA – As Canada contemplates its sesquicentennial in 2017, ethnic communities say official ceremonies ought to be inclusive and reflective of the immigrant experience – the good, the bad and the ugly.

The diverse range of experiences include the ascension of not one but two Sikhs to the federal cabinet, the Chinese head tax and the ongoing impact of immigration on Canada’s first inhabitants who remain isolated and marginalized. Still, the anniversary, they say, is a time for celebration, reflection and change all at once.

While most groups are in the preliminary discussion phase in terms of planning for the big event, if they’ve even started at all, the consensus also seems to be to focus less on diversity, but rather what unites Canadians regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or country of origin.

Muslim Canadian Congress president Salma Siddiqui arrived in Canada from Pakistan in 1967.

While visible minorities back then were few and far between, she argues those who did come to Canada managed to integrate better then than they do now without sacrificing their roots.

“I’m not saying that we should not be tolerant but I’m saying we’re more politically correct. We are less (about) Canadian values. We look at how do we please everybody. We don’t look at what Canada is as one of the best countries to live in,” she said.

“I’m not going for the melting pot, no. But I definitely would like to put Canadian values (first) . . . not the hodge podge. And the rule of law is very important in that.”

Frank Dimant of B’nai Brith Canada agrees the “two solitudes” – French and English – that dominated during Canada’s centennial has given way to a multitude of solitudes and that many communities are now living in isolation, none more so than aboriginals.

He’s also concerned about the future of religious and cultural minorities in Quebec which played host to the centennial’s centrepiece event – Expo ’67. Noting Montreal was then home to 120,000 Jews and considered the “centre of the Jewish future in Canada,” it’s been reduced to a “geriatric community” of about 75,000. He argues the “strong hand” of the Quebec government in “trying to control the language” is “a tremendous discouragement to immigrants who are coming.”

Dimant said B’nai Brith is already looking into a Canada 150 event that will bring together different religious and ethnic communities. A re-assessment of Canadian patriotism, a focus on the poor and marginalized and a celebration of “intrinsic Canadian values” are some of the themes he hopes to touch upon.

‘ABSOLUTE ROLE MODEL’

“I think Canada has served as an absolute role model in the world for the ability of multicultural groups to exist side-by-side and I think it’s something we should be very very proud of,” he said.

“But I think we should work harder on what unites us as Canadians as opposed to what divides us.”

To say the face of Canada has changed over the last 50 years, let alone the last 150, is perhaps an understatement.

Around the time of Confederation, the vast majority of newcomers hailed from England, Ireland and Scotland and were largely of Christian descent. Historic census data suggests 44 per cent of Canada’s 3.3 million citizens were Roman Catholic while just two per cent were of “miscellaneous creeds.” All 36 so-called Fathers of Confederation, according to Library and Archives Canada, were white men.

When Canadians started preparing for its centennial, the British Isles remained the chief source of newcomers, though immigrants from Italy were adding significantly to what, at the time, was considered Canada’s racial diversity. The country was also welcoming significant numbers from Greece, Portugal and Commonwealth countries such as India, though the British and French were still considered the dominant “ethnic groups,” according to historic records.

In 1971, Canada became the first country to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. The concept was included the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and the Multiculturalism Act finally became law in 1988.

Today, the Philippines, China and India are Canada’s chief source countries for new immigrants, and the latest census data suggests Canadians speak more than 200 different languages. One in five Canadians speak neither French nor English at home.

DEEP ROOTS

And by the time the sesquicentennial fireworks go off on July 1, 2017, Statistics Canada predicts visible minorities will comprise one-fifth of the Canadian population.

Still, a number of ethnic communities are quick to point out that their roots in Canada are deep, even if Canada’s ethnic landscape only appears to have switched to technicolor more recently.

Balpreet Singh Boparai of the World Sikh Organization of Canada said Sikhs are active throughout Canada today in Parliament, serving in the armed services or as professionals and labourers, but that they’ve been a part of Canadian society for more than a century. Submitted photo

Balpreet Singh Boparai of the World Sikh Organization of Canada said Sikhs are active throughout Canada today in Parliament, serving in the armed services or as professionals and labourers, but that they’ve been a part of Canadian society for more than a century.

Canadian exclusion laws kept them out for several decades, culminating with the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 in which a boatload of passengers from Punjab, India were largely turned away at the border. But at the same time, about 10 Sikhs fought in the Canadian Forces during the First World War, Boparai noted.

“We have a very long and proud history in Canada,” he said, adding the 150th anniversary is a good opportunity to highlight the country’s successes on the multicultural front.

In 2008, Canada’s fast-growing Chinese community also marked 150 years in the Great White North, beginning with the British Columbia gold rush in the 1850s and continuing with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. At the time, the Chinese Canadian National Council launched an online cultural project showcasing the work of Chinese-Canadian writers, musicians, videographers and artists.

Last year, an award-winning Canadian documentary dubbed Lost Years also chronicled the last 150 years of Chinese diaspora. It told the family history of Kenda Gee, a Chinese-Canadian man who retraced the steps of his great-grandfather – who sailed for Canada in 1921 only to face racism, a head tax for which Canada only recently apologized, and exclusionary laws that prohibited Chinese family reunification.

‘NEED TO WORK HARDER’

CCNC national director Alice Choy said her organization recently published a book about the Chinese experience in Canada and that efforts are ongoing to collect more stories and photos which could result in a second publication, possibly as part of the 2017 anniversary.

But it’s not just about making sure fellow Canadians understand the history of Chinese people in Canada, she said. The 150th anniversary is also an opportunity to promote integration and build bridges within Canada’s Asian communities.

There are many differences between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers within China and even more differences between those who come from Cambodia, Laos and Taiwan, she said.

“We need to pay more effort to bring everyone together . . . We need to work harder to communicate well and understand more,” she said.

“We also need to know about other people’s cultures. So we can avoid some conflicts. Every country has taboos, something that we don’t understand. That’s why we need to have a chance to understand, to integrate in society, to build up harmony and an inclusive environment.”

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