By Mabel Ho
“Diversity is Canada’s strength. These vicious and senseless acts of intolerance have no place in our country and run absolutely contrary to Canadian values of pluralism and acceptance.”
—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Tensions are high from the Paris attacks. Closer to home, we have seen hate crimes in various cities in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement urges individuals to embrace diversity and Canadian values of acceptance. Values matter because they shape how individuals interact with each other.
Diversity can come in many different forms. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, over 19 percent of the total population of Canada self-identified as a member of a visible minority group. As a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, I examine how individuals with different ethnic backgrounds come to understand their hyphenated identities in Canada. For example, what does it mean to be Indo-Canadian or Chinese-Canadian? Here, I share what I learned from my 61 interviews and 85.5 hours of fieldwork in 2012 and 2013.
What are Canadian values?
A majority of individuals felt that they are part of the cultural mosaic that makes Canada. Some of my participants jokingly said that a Canadian is someone who watches hockey and drinks Tim Horton’s—particularly during “roll up the rim” time.
Most of my participants discussed the benefits of living in a multicultural country since they have opportunities to learn and become friends with people from different ethnic backgrounds. These moments can happen anywhere. For example, one participant reflected on the joy she feels when she is on transit and hearing multiple languages and seeing people from different parts of the world. Another participant reflected upon his positive experience moving to Canada because people were welcoming and inclusive.
Narratives such as these showcase individuals feeling accepted and belonging in Canadian society.
However, these examples are not always the case. For some of my participants, they felt like they had to prove that they are Canadians.
Seemingly insignificant interactions add up. One of my Japanese-Canadian participants shared with me his experience visiting his brother at a retirement home during the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. While he was there, someone approached him and asked him how Japan did in the medal count that day. My participant countered by asking how Canada did. This may appear to be an innocent exchange. By purposefully asking how Canada did, my participant wanted the other man to know his interest lies in knowing what Canada did before what Japan did. As such, my participant felt compelled to let the man know that he is Canadian.
Imagine being faced with these questions on a daily basis, whether one is at work, at the grocery store, or simply walking down the street.
Diversity includes both ethnic and religious acceptance. In 2011, over one million Canadian individuals self-identified as Muslim. I interviewed 12 Muslim-Canadians and a majority of them discussed being stereotyped. One woman talked about wearing a headscarf in the past and her experiences of being prejudged. Nowadays, she does not wear a headscarf for personal reasons and does not feel people judging her immediately. As she reflected on her experiences, she talked about actively dispelling stereotypes of being a Muslim woman in Canada. However, at least one individual specifically pointed to receiving religious accommodation and being grateful.
Trudeau reminds us that this nation was built on values that include acceptance. However, it is more important to express these values in our actions.
Diversity is only our strength when everyone feels included in Canada’s cultural mosaic.