Anu Sandhu Bhamra: If you are not white, you are not Canadian enough
By Anu Sandhu Bhamra
Are you Canadian?
I am not talking legality on right to vote and accessing free healthcare, but the sense of being, being Canadian.
Let me walk you through a mini questionnaire to help you understand where I am going with this:
When you think of Canadian identity, what do you think of?
White? Hyphenated? Multi-racial?
(Did you think Aboriginal?)
What about culture?
South Asian? Asian? Polish? English? Latino?
(Again, did you think Aboriginal?)
So, what is Canadian culture?
Canada officially has a multicultural policy, which treats all Canadian citizens with dignity “regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation”.
Or simply, in the words of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who introduced the policy in 1971, “two official languages and no official culture”.
When there is no official culture, what is that we call Canadian culture?
Born and raised in India, identity wasn’t the first thing on my mind when I landed as a permanent resident nine years ago. I grew up in an urban enclave in India, where the first language of communication was English. I spoke Punjabi, my mother tongue, at home and am well versed in India’s national language Hindi.
On landing in Vancouver, the street signs in Punjabi language, and whole lot of services, both private and government, available in my mother tongue, pleasantly surprised me.
I realized there were services available in a host of other languages. I loved the respect given to plurality of cultures in Canada – the richness of different sounds, textures, and colours was fascinating.
I thought this is the place to be. After the few initial hiccups, my husband and I decided to stay for good. We eventually became citizens, had a family, and now cannot imagine living anywhere else.
But my faith in plurality of cultures was in for a rude shock when I went to register my daughter for kindergarten early this year. The morning of the day the registrations opened, I was first in line, excitedly waiting to fill the form.
As I filled in the details, I came across a harmless–looking column: ‘other languages spoken at home’. I have been home-schooling my daughter (basic pre-school material), so it has been in English. But my husband and I take great pride in our heritage, and speak both Punjabi and Hindi at home. We listen to English, Punjabi and Hindi music, and watch TV shows and movies in all three languages, so I wrote Punjabi and Hindi as the additional languages.
Little did I know that would change the way I viewed Canadian identity.
Apparently, if you speak a language other than English at home (I guess French doesn’t count here) your kid gets automatically assigned to the ESL program.
ESL? English as a second language program. The school secretary explained that at an orientation at a later date, my kid would be tested for ESL. I thought fair enough. For all kids to perform equally well, it only makes sense if all had the same level of English proficiency. I said to her, don’t worry my daughter will pass the test. And that’s when the full force of what lied ahead hit me.
It didn’t matter if my daughter passed, the secretary explained – there is no pass or fail in ESL, just levels. Every kid who listens to sounds made in a language other than English at home gets into the program.
It didn’t make sense to me. Next moment, I was sitting in the principal’s office, a Canadian educator with Asian roots (her ethnicity is relevant in context to this post). For the next half-an-hour or so, she tried to reason in her Asian accent the importance of the program. I told her I recognized the value of ESL; all I didn’t understand was – how was this language program relevant to a child who spoke fluent Canadian English?
Because ESL just didn’t cover a language issue, she explained. It was an introduction to Canadian culture. And what exactly do you mean by that, I asked her. She wavered in her replies, giving me examples of teaching kids about “ham” and “Canadian sports” and “traditions” or other things “Canadian”. She got personal to convince me – if it weren’t for ESL, her son wouldn’t be working in IT at The University of British Columbia!
I asked her if they put a white kid in ESL or do they assume that all white children have a good command of English language and know everything “Canadian”? She confirmed my worst fear: even if my daughter were a fourth-generation Canadian, as long as she listened to Punjabi and Hindi music, she would be in ESL.
The message I got was: if you are not white, you are not-Canadian-enough.
I thanked her, and walked out asking to sit on the Parents’ Advisory Committee.
The new definition of ESL sadly reminded me of the residential schools: the ill-fated program that destroyed the culture, identity and sense of being of Canadian Aboriginal peoples in the name of assimilation.
It is not fair on my part to compare a harmless-sounding program like ESL to a national tragedy of residential schools that destroyed generations and continue to evoke bitter memories for Canadians. But with my new understanding of ESL, veiled as a language program, and intended to teach non-white kids about “Canadian culture”, I can’t help but draw the comparison of a similar “assimilation” that the Aboriginal kids went through.
I calmed myself and reasoned, if a child who lived in a war zone in Afghanistan were to come and start school here, he or she would have to know more than just English to fit in. In this context, the program seemed fair.
But three things are out of place here: first, the wrong impression that ESL is only about language. It is actually about conversion to “Canadian culture”. (The fact is I didn’t get a clear definition of “Canadian culture” from the school principal I spoke to.)
Secondly, you cannot use a blanket column to put kids from varied backgrounds in ESL just because a language other than English is spoken at home.
Is it justified to club a child whose initial formative years were in an urban school in China with a child who spent first five years of his or her life in a refugee camp in Afghanistan with a Canadian-born, raised child who knows ice hockey from field hockey, took the first steps with Caillou, can tell a dime from a nickel, sings Canadian rhymes and a flag means the Maple Leaf, just because he or she speaks another language at home?
Still, I would give the benefit of doubt to the ESL program for better “assimilation” of my children but it’s my third point we need to consider seriously: the unfair treatment to the white child whose grandparents or great-grandparents or great great-grandparents came to Canada before the “Others” came in.
A nation with physical borders has to have a commonality (other than hockey) to exist peacefully. If we have the benefit of equality of all cultures, why this is not getting culturally crossed over?
If my kid is going to learn about “Canadian” things, doesn’t the white kid have a right to know about Vaisakhi, Diwali, or Eid? Not on a special multicultural day where kids dress up in “their traditional” wear and talk about “their culture”.
Instead of telling our kids (white and non-white alike) to respect the Aboriginal land we live on and be thankful for the rich heritage they have given us, we “study” them like a species. To me, that is breeding white vs. Other identity.
This “Other”, who lived in huts and wore feathers or came from foreign mystical lands of flying carpets and snake charmers (doesn’t matter if two generations before him or her have lived in Canada) has to assimilate in the “white” culture. Where is Trudeau’s no official culture?
This reminds me of a video project I did sometime ago. The main character was a second-generation South Asian and was filmed in both Canada and at location in South Asia. The second person of South Asian heritage in the piece was me, since I narrated the story.
There were two minor characters, one of Middle Eastern descent and one white. For time constraints, we had to pick one of the two. For me, the Middle Eastern was a stronger character in terms of background story that gave depth to the narrative. For my partner on the project (a white guy), it made more sense to keep the white person—not on strength of background story but to make the overall piece more “Canadian”. I still remember his awkward laugh and hesitation as he said to me, if we keep the Middle Eastern character, the video piece wouldn’t look and sound “Canadian”.
My partner is a nice person and a friend, but I was disappointed to see how he viewed Canadian identity. A senior (another white person) called the final shot and dropped the Middle Eastern character. He didn’t say if it were for “Canadian identity” purposes, but just the white person suited the story more. It has weighed on my chest since.
I still cannot imagine living anywhere else, but I want the Canadian identity to truly reflect the plurality of cultures.
Anu Sandhu Bhamra is a Canadian journalist with transnational experience. An award-winning broadcaster and print and web reporter, she recently launched her blog in an effort to deconstruct identity in inter-racial, inter-cultural, patriarchal modern world.