The Other Canadians and Canada's Future

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Other Canadians and Canada's Future

Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review

In Canada's province of Quebec, a majority, perhaps, of the inhabitants are convinced that they must act to protect their language and culture. A good section of these go much further, and seek an independent nation. On the other hand, in the English-speaking part of the country, especially in western Canada, the vast majority of people feel that the French, defeated in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham, have no claim to nationhood. This much publicised conflict was discussed by J. A. S. Evans in his article, 'The Present State of Canada', in the September 1996 issue of Contemporary Review. These views are tempered by those of the remaining non-French and non-British Canadians - about 37.5 per cent of the population. These communities from many ethnic groups, who, with the French Canadians, form the majority of Canada's population, are to many observers an unknown force in Canadian society.

For nearly a half century, Canada has been living under the threat of Quebec separation. During this long period of tension between English - about 34.5 per cent - and French Canadians - about 28 per cent of the population - the immigrant minorities have been in a dilemma. Traditionally the overwhelming majority, even in Quebec, became integrated into 'Anglo' society. (In Canada the 'English' include a large number of Scots who have played a crucial role in the country's history.) However, in that province during the last few decades, this tendency to assimilate into dominant English culture has caused much friction, has raised concerns among French Canadians and has given rise to debates throughout Canada.

Amid these pressures, how do the Canadian minorities whose origins can be traced to countries from the four corners of the world, see the Canada of the future? For an answer, one must travel back in history to the beginning of this century, when non-French and non-British Europeans in large numbers along with a few Asiatics began to immigrate to Canada. In that period, assimilation of the minority ethnic groups, without regard to their desires was the order of the day. In one or, at the most, two generations, the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture and language melted into its folds - not always happily - the vast majority of the sons and daughters of these immigrants.

No one in those days, when ethnic epithets and other derogatory terms with which immigrant groups were taunted, would ever visualize the multicultural Canada of our times where all Canadians are treated equally. Peoples of all racial origins, in today's Canada, are encouraged to romanticize their ethnic history and, hence, to feel 'at home'. Canadian society has become, at least on the surface, a truly cultural mosaic.

However, in the past, it was very different. For the early immigrants and their offspring, the coercion to assimilate into the dominant society was overwhelming. This took many forms. Prejudice, discrimination, racial slurs and subordination into the dominant English culture, all had their affects on the newcomers. In the early years of this century, the acceptance of diversity - people who held unfamiliar customs and values - was not even on the cards.

Some of the ethnic groups, like the Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians and many of the Lebanese, assimilated quickly; others like the Chinese, Greeks, those from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Ukrainians preserved their identity for several generations. However, all the racial minorities through interaction, but mainly through education, in no more than three generations, had totally melted into the governing English society or, to a much lesser extent, French culture in Quebec. In this process of assimilation, many members of the ethnic groups lost confidence in their identity, self-esteem and pride in their racial origin as they were absorbed into the dominant society. Even after receiving their citizenship and becoming new Canadians, usually because of their accents, many were labelled with the derogatory term DPs (displaced persons).

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