Since the birth of Canada, partnerships have been fostered between different cultures in order to build a nation. French and English, forever European rivals in their Empirical aspirations, set the groundwork for future generations to tolerate each other and celebrate each other's differences. At an early age, I proudly understood this unbreakable bond between the two founders of my country, facilitated by the positive relationship between my British father and my French mother. Diversity was in my blood. On the other hand, the examples I had experienced of national culture throughout my experience in South America promoted homogeneity. Many nation building projects developed a common unifying ideology in order to form a strong identity. Most of these territories include a variety of internal micro cultures, sometimes referred to as regional identities, incapable of eclipsing a deeply entrenched core patriotism. Immigrants are expected to embrace the new national brand, adapting to the local culture, fitting in to the uniform mold. Canada had certainly distanced itself from this practice since I had entered this world. This assimilation process had greatly facilitated my understanding of the host population’s culture and identity assisting the process of integration and creating an everlasting bond with the country.
|Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984|
Canada has served as a refuge for people leaving their homeland in times of distress in search for a safe haven. Several waves of immigration have given the country a new shape thanks to the framework established by our British and French Fathers of Confederation in 1867. Nevertheless, celebrating diversity was not a priority until the 20th Century. An early champion setting the stage for cultural inclusion was Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, who promoted the uniqueness of ethnic groups and their contribution to enhancing our national character during his inaugural speech in 1935. He asserted that the strongest nations are those composed of different racial elements contributing to the foundation of a positive society. In the 1970s, charismatic and long-time Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Canadian government endorsed multiculturalism, formally recognizing the importance of immigration and the need for pluralism. He declared in 1971 that Canada would adopt a multicultural policy, the Multiculturalism Act, respecting the diversity of languages, religion and customs. This was the birth of our ongoing cultural mosaic project which promotes inclusion and opposes the US-style melting pot ideology. Although informally adopted, this assimilation policy had been our pre-established unspoken condition to those who chose to settle in the Great White North until the end 1960s. Whether or not people obliged was entirely up to them.
Throughout my young life, I had befriended passport holders of various different countries who also possessed that certain element of patriotism. I became aware of their cultures through regular interaction, personal anecdotes about their homeland, their rich history and stereotypes that can be sometimes accurate - such as all Canadians are polite, Americans know how to put on a show or the French love perfume. I understood that any country individually developed extensive and unique unifying aspects which defined their national pride, hence, their feeling of belonging to a greater and special community. This special group of people are what makes up a nation. This word is significantly sensitive for us political scientists and those who have that eternal patriotic flame. A country is defined by its geographical borders on a map yet it can include different nations within or overlapping these borders, each with their own national interests, language, culture, religion, ethnicity and so on - this is particularly true in the cases of Great Britain, Ireland, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and many other countries including Canada. I continuously fed this erroneous belief of a nation and a country being on equal footing as the all-inclusive powerful psychological entity. After all, we all identify misunderstood or unknown concepts with those that are more familiar to us until circumstances teach us the difference. During my three years in Chile, I perceived homogeneous culture, language, and religion. Minority groups were minuscule in comparison to those of my birth country. Nonetheless, Europeans, Mapuches, and mixes of both were the reality of Chile’s deeply entrenched assimilation process under the umbrella of the flag. As I had witnessed a similar composition of the Venezuelan population during my three years there, I systematically associated these realities to my homeland. If we all stand under the same country flag, we are all the same regardless of our background or other baggage accumulated throughout our lifetimes, and we are a nation.
Ottawa proved to be a major test to this concept. It's metropolitan area is now the fourth largest in Canada with a population estimated at 1,130,761 (est 2006) with foreign born inhabitants making up 202,730 (close to 18 percent) of the total population, according to the 2006 Statistics Canada census report. Although I lived in the quiet suburban paradise of Hunt Club, a traditionally Anglophone neighbourhood, it was evident its cultural background was getting a makeover. Among my more frequented hotspots in my neighbourhood included the McCarthy Road and Paul Anka Drive area, where you could find a video store, the A&P supermarket, Shopper's Drugmart, a Scotiabank branch and the Community Centre. This was our strategic supply area for all our basic needs. This great medina demonstrated a promise of a new world when the it was plagued with a plethora of conflicts - something I observed first hand during the Caracazo and the end of a military dictatorship. These were no longer people, but representatives of different nations within a country mingling and meeting minds. It was as if my small expat world in Chile had become exponentially larger. Suburban Ottawa showcased young Middle Eastern children playing with East African kids, South Asian small business owners catering to all variations of dietary restrictions, and my favourite, the Shawarma Revolution! No matter where life would take you in the city of Ottawa, chances were you would not be too far away from a Lebanese restaurant serving shawarmas and other their fine culinary delicacies, such as kaftas and falafels. Granted I am not much of a Middle Eastern cuisine connaisseur or posssess an in-depth knowledge of national dishes, but my taste buds were hardly ever disappointed.
|Canada, a place where cultures meet|
After a shaky start, in most of urban Canada, multiculturalism had become a positive force by the 1990s. A door opened providing additional examples of lifestyles, values, beliefs, traditions and food. On the down side, some immigrants began to encounter issues in the job market as Canadian institutions, boards and other regulatory bodies did not recognize foreign accreditations. The hard earned post-graduate studies had become worthless for many of these hopefuls dreaming of a new world of opportunities as doctors, lawyers, dentists, and other seasoned professionals. Circumstances forced these professionals who could have contributed to Canadian social development accept jobs where requirements were lower. Furthermore, both immigrant groups and Canadians considered that multiculturalism was encouraging the propagation of a ghetto mentality, suggesting newcomers sought out their familiar home culture, avoiding interaction with the rest of society. During my time in Ottawa, I noticed that Canadian-born people were tolerant and patient, especially with those who exhibited difficulty in communicating in English. Nevertheless, I could understand how people could shut out the world when they encountered a communication barrier. Change leads to reaching out to what is familiar. When you move away, you feel as if you have both feet in different countries. I lived through this. Change is challenging given the instant culture shock of completely foreign settings. There is no easy way to prepare for this except by adopting an exaggerated positive and flexible attitude when faced with adversity. Eventually, time will heal everything and home takes on a brand new meaning.