Friday, January 29, 2010

Real Canadians

There are many cultural and national groups in Canada that are 'hyphenated' Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, Somali-Canadians, Afghan-Canadians, etc... I have no problem with them self-identifying as such, in recognition of their heritage, ancestry, etc...

The issue I take is with the rest of us 'un-hyphenated' Canadians turning around and calling ourselves 'real' Canadians, implying that the 'hyphenated' Canadians are somehow less Canadian or illegitimate in some way. There are NO real Canadians, unless we're going to talk about the First Nations groups and even then, in that context 'Canadian' implies a transplanted, colonial entity that stripped the First Nations of their land and their identity, forcing them to conform to 'Canada' as a European conceived nation-state.

There's a Wyclef (Haitian-American rapper) song that carries the line, "Your grandfather was an immigrant too" and that speaks to the heart of the matter - Canadians are an amalgamation of various immigrants joining in one place. It happened over time so perhaps some people feel that time somehow legitimizes them as 'authentic' Canadians but some of the first Canadians were not the white, Euro settlers who we imagine as 'real' Canadians, from the beginning there was a multiplicity of cultures and races in Canada - despite many of these early stories being erased from our national narrative or consciousness.

While many people would not come out and explicitly say that they are 'authentic' Canadians (though some do), implying that there are 'un-authentic' Canadians, this mentality is prevalent in many aspects of Canadian life, from the living rooms across the country, to the way government acts on behalf of its citizens. Recently there have been a couple of stories that illustrate this. Recently a Toronto woman was stranded in Kenya. The Canadian government not only did not offer assistance but aided in naming her an imposter (despite her holding a Canadian passport) and aided the Kenyan officials in imprisoning her, stripping her of her rights as a Canadian abroad. Oh yeah, she was a Kenyan-Canadian with a son in Toronto waiting for her. But she was not 'authentic' enough for Canada to bother helping.

Recently, a much more sticky issue has arisen with the imprisonment of Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay. Many have pressed the Canadian government to repatriate him (bring him back to Canada to be tried) rather than let him sit/rot/be tortured by the Americans. Just today the top courts in Canada ruled that, despite blatant human rights violations by the Canadian government, Khadr does not have to be brought back to Canada. Public opinion has been split, with many arguing that he is a terrorist who should have to rot, that he is not Canadian enough to have rights that would be assumed if it were a 'real' Canadian. He was 'only' born here, he lived in Afghanistan where he was arrested, etc...

If we believe in Canada as a political entity, as a country where each individual is given equal rights, there are no 'half-Canadians' or 'sorta, maybe Canadians'. There are those who hold passports and are 'legal' Canadians and those who aren't.

But he doesn't watch the Maple Leafs every Saturday night on CBC, he doesn't pay his taxes, he doesn't represent 'Canadian ideals', he doesn't speak English, he's not REAL. What a bunch of crap. If Khadr was white it wouldn't matter. If a white Canadian was stranded in Kenya he wouldn't be thrown in jail at the request of the Canadian government.

Another fine example of the racial disparity here in Canada and who is defined as a 'real' Canadian: I have a friend who is British. When he crossed the US/Canada border he was routinely hassled about his visa, British passport, etc... upon re-entry into Canada. He now has a Canadian passport and is accepted, he sails through the border like I do. My thesis supervisor is an internationally respected Kenyan scholar who has been a Canadian citizen for years. She tells me that without fail she is still hassled at the border. It is much harder to believe that, despite her passport, she is a 'real' Canadian.

I am a third-generation Canadian and you know what, both my grandfather's "were immigrants too" (and my grandmothers too!). I am still in the range to be classified as Dutch-Canadian but I don't identify that way. By identifying as Canadian I recognize that I am implicated in a history of genocide, state-sponsored racisms, and colonial endeavors in the past and today. And yet I believe that Canada can be more, a place where everyone can belong and where everyone at least has equal rights under the law (would it be too much to ask for more?)

Often it's too easy to blame the Government (capital G intentional) without realizing that the government represents us, its constituents. The government can't pursue racist agendas without the support of its populace. And in Canada today, it is still okay to separate the 'real' Canadians from the others.

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