Canada: a Botched Mosaic (part 3)

Editor’s note: This story about Canadian multiculturalism was originally a single 3,600 word article meant for a British magazine. I decided to turn it into a mini-series. It tells the story of Peter, a Lebanese-Canadian youth and his experience of Canadian multiculturalism. He meets different people through his life who influence his thoughts. Although this tale contains many true elements and anecdotes, it is a work of fiction. Read part 1 here and 2 here.

I remember a conversation I once had with three good friends of mine at one of their apartments some two years ago. We were debating politics.

“Quebec should separate!” said Jean-Philippe.

Racists everywhere

“Canada is just a bunch of provinces spliced together.” said Sarah.

Sarah and Jean-Philippe were dating. She was part Mohawk, part French-Canadian and grew up in Oshawa and Toronto. He was from Montreal and spent some time in Toronto.

When Sarah was in high school, the presence and contributions of the French were totally ignored. There was a strong emphasis on British heritage and on attachement to British symbols such as the queen. She even had to sing The Maple Leaf Forever when she was in elementary school before class began. She never believed in Confederation and thought British Loyalism was repulsive. She thought British Loyalism was even more repulsive because of her Mohawk heritage and the fact that her grandmother was sent to a residential school when she was a child. Small wonder Sarah was such an ardent supporter of the Idle No More movement.

Jean-Philippe was a childhood friend; I had known him since grade 2. We both went to the same French-language Catholic school. Canadian History in elementary and high school were both taught as a long boring battle of words and paper signing between the French and “les maudits anglais” (the damn English). There was barely any mention of the relation between indigenous peoples and Europeans. Immigration after colonial times was just a footnote. There was mention of the Irish but not the Fenian raids. The history program seems to have been made to depict English-Canadians as big, nasty oppressors of French-Canadians and not as co-founders of modern Canada.

The differences between the way history was taught in Quebec and Ontario shouldn’t be surprising: the school system is under provincial jurisdiction, not federal. Every province has its own identity but the different provinces don’t necessarily relate to each other. For example, it’s common in Quebec to divide Canada in two: Quebec and ROC (rest of Canada). Canada is a federation made of ten provinces and three territories. Because the Canadian Federal government is not centralized, provinces enjoy a lot of autonomy from the federal government. Territories, however, are very dependent on the federal government because they are not very populated.

Later, our conversation shifted to immigration.

“Immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to stay if they don’t want to learn French and English and adopt Canadian customs,” said Sarah.

“Canada is a big country: there is enough place for different peoples,” said Casey.

“Whatever. I’m not racist.”

Casey was half Micmac, half Acadian from New Brunswick but just like Sarah, she grew up in Toronto. Just like Sarah, Casey’s grandmother did go to a residential school but unlike Sarah, she had never lived in a reserve. She had never really thought of her identity before she moved to Montreal and volunteered in a community centre for Aboriginals. She is not particularly attached to Canada and Canadian symbols: she believes patriotism or support of any ideology for that matter turns people into extremists. She really doesn’t want anyone to think she is a bigot.

Although she doesn’t really voice her opinion or wants to argue about her beliefs, she thinks there is enough room in Canada for Whites, Aboriginals and all who were forced to flee their home country.

To be continued…

Canada: a Botched Mosaic (part 2)

Editor’s note: This story about Canadian multiculturalism was originally a single 3,600 word article meant for a British magazine. I decided to turn it into a mini-series. It tells the story of Peter, a Lebanese-Canadian youth and his experience of Canadian multiculturalism. He meets different people through his life who influence his thoughts. Although this tale contains many true elements and anecdotes, it is a work of fiction. Read part 1 here.

Some two or three years ago, I was an intern at Canadian Topics magazine. I proofread scholarly articles about immigration there. I was working with recent graduates and postgraduates. I was proofreading some article about low fertility rates among Chinese-Canadian women. I wasn’t sure about what was meant by fertility so I asked a co-worker, Courtney:

Chinese head tax receipt.
Chinese head tax receipt.

“- Courtney, in social sciences, does fertility only refer to the ability to reproduce?

– No, Peter. It can also mean the number of kids women get depending on their means.”

I was surprised to read that the Chinese women who were interviewed for this study were eager to have children while in China but after living in Canada for a short while, their priorities changed. I was equally surprised when I proofread a translation of a paper about African immigrants coming to the Prairies[1]. The African immigrants tended to isolate themselves from the rest of the population and stay with people of their own ethnicity. They didn’t mingle with locals because of language barriers and because they couldn’t relate to Canadians. I thought all of this was strange, so I talked to Courtney about it.

“You know, Canada wasn’t always so diverse: there was a Chinese head tax and non-European immigrants were not accepted except for Chinese and Sikhs.”

Courtney was talking about Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s multiculturalism. Before him, Canada was only interested in accepting white European immigrants. Trudeau desperately needed to populate the country and needed people to work to pay taxes. To satisfy this need, he began accepting immigrants from various parts of the world. But how would he get these new immigrants to integrate Canada? Apply his vision of Canada: a nation made of many diverse nations that coexist within the same borders. The keyword is “coexist”. There is no place for ideology, or wrong or right. All sources of tension had to be eliminated.

Multiculturalism doesn’t seem to be an effective way to increase the country’s population as Canada’s population isn’t renewing itself. The only way to curb Canada’s negative population growth is to allow more immigrants in the country every year.

Courtney wasn’t from Montreal. She said she was from Toronto but she was really from Scarborough which is part of the Greater Toronto Area. Scarborough is an industrialist wasteland where recent immigrants settle. Courtney told me she went to a Catholic public high school that was very poor. It wasn’t uncommon to see girls of her school get pregnant before graduating. From time to time, when there wasn’t much work to do, we would talk about Canadian politics, our high school days, the news and the like.

I thought “brown people” was what Americans called Mexicans when Americans wanted to degrade them but in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s a slur towards Indians (people from India). Her experience in high school was very similar to mine: she went to a public high school in the suburb in which the students were of different ethnicities. There were two differences: she was in Scarborough, I was in Laval (a suburb of Montreal). The other difference was that most students in her school were of Indian or Caribbean origin whereas at my school, half the students were either of Greek, Lebanese Armenian or Haitian origin. The other half was French Canadian. Most students hung out with classmates of the same ethnicity as them. “I didn’t hang out with other Indians. I didn’t want to be with other brown people because their parents knew mine. They were so nosy” said Courtney. I assumed she would have liked spending more time with people of her ethnicity because she knew a lot about Indian history and culture. Yet she truly embraced the values of the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau such as “diversity” and “inclusiveness”.


[1] The provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta which are located in the middle of the country.


To be continued…

Native Comeback

Native peoples in Canada are portrayed as tragedies in the media. We get one story about the residential schools, one story about missing women, another story about how their cultural traditions are being destroyed… It seems as though they are bound for misery.

Not at all. Some communities are blooming. Native youths are resisting. Elderly Aboriginals are smiling at them.

Flag of the Iroquois confederacy which the Mohawk nation is part of.

Background of the Native Cultural Resistance

I am going to an event by COOP Le Milieu called “Indigenous Knowledge Sharing: First Nations and Tibetans.” I look around and see the tables on which colourful beads, jewellery, drawings and shawls for sale are displayed. I also find on a table the business card of an organization called Native Montreal. How exciting! They offer Aboriginal language classes; I’m fascinated by language revival and preservation projects. I ask if there is an exhibitor representing Native Montreal and I’m introduced to an elderly Mohawk woman:

“I’m not from Native Montreal but I’ll answer your questions the best I can.”

Beverly (not her real name) is a Mohawk elder, a former teacher, a former judge and has worked in the correctional system. She is from Kahnawake, south of Montreal.

“Yes, there are plenty of Aboriginal language revival projects. When I was a child in school, there was none of that,” said Beverly. “In school, I was taught I was a savage.”

In Beverly’s youth, Canadian schools taught that Aboriginals were essentially barbarians and needed to be civilized through adopting western European culture. This colonial policy was especially enforced in residential schools. Her testimony reminded me that of a white French-Canadian politician I know from Oka-Kanesatake, another Mohawk region. He told me that when he was in elementary school, the teachers used to say: “If you want to know what devils look like and how they act, just look at Mohawks”.

Beverly also talks about how such a colonial mentality damage Native men.

“You know, when I used to work in the correctional system, I worked with a lot of Native men. I taught them how to be Native men and that being Native doesn’t make them essentially bad people.”

The Situation of the Mohawk Language and Customs in Kahnawake

I have heard of elementary schools and high schools that teach Mohawk but Beverly tells me about a school in Kahnawake that has a Mohawk language immersion program. She also says that on Fridays, the students and the staff of this school, both Mohawks and non-Mohawks, wear traditional Mohawk clothing. She could barely hide the delight on her face. Also, signs in Kahnawake are in English and Mohawk. Beverly tells a story about how bilingual signs could confuse people.

“When I was a judge in charge of solving traffic-related cases, a man contested a ticket he got for burning three stop signs in a row. I told him:

’–Did you drive by three stop signs without stopping?

–Yes but they were test signs.

–What do you mean? They were regulation size, they were visible, they said stop…

The confusing Mohawk stop sign. Source: Wikicommons.

–They also read “Testan.’”

“Testan” in Mohawk means “Stop.”

Hope for the future

Beverly is optimistic about the future: “The Montreal mayor, Denis Coderre, recognized Montreal, our original hunting grounds, as being originally Aboriginal land. This gives me hope that we can someday get our land back. Well, we can’t get it back because they [descendant of European colonizers] destroyed it and made it ugly. We can at least hope to get a say in our home country.”

Aboriginal communities are getting back on their feet; that is the story we should be hearing more often.

Canada: a Botched Mosaic (Part 1)

Editor’s note: This story about Canadian multiculturalism was originally a single 3,600 word article meant for a British magazine. I decided to turn it into a mini-series. It tells the story of Peter, a Lebanese-Canadian youth and his experience of Canadian multiculturalism. He meets different people through his life who influence his thoughts. Although this tale contains many true elements and anecdotes, it is a work of fiction.

Montreal mosque entrance
The entrance of a mosque in Montreal, Canada. The name has been removed. Photo by Mark Homsany

It’s almost 11 pm. I’ve just gotten off the bus and I’m walking back to my apartment after a long day at work. There is a light breeze blowing. Some men in white tunics sporting long beards are gathering by a street corner. Some women on the other side of the street covered from head to toe were walking side by side and chatting. Then, I hear it reverberating through the night sky:

“Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar. Ashahadu an la ilah illa Allah”.

I was not in a Middle-Eastern country: I was walking on Laurentien Boulevard in the Cartierville borough in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Yes, Montreal truly represents what Pierre Elliott Trudeau wanted Canada to be: a mosaic of people coexisting on a same land in peace and in harmony. A nation made of many nations. A nation of people united through their differences and not divided by emotional values that cause wars such as patriotism. A country that is pleasant and that does not demand many sacrifices from its citizens.

Indeed, multiculturalism, individualism, plurality and relativism are responsible for so much social progress in Canada. Trudeau’s multiculturalism is an experiment never before attempted; we have yet to see the result.

Events such as the Sainte-Foy mosque shooting on January 29th 2017 are signs that the beautiful experiment may be flawed. Alexandre Bisonnette, a white supremacist and a supporter of far-right wing politics, opened fire on Muslims who were praying. Ordinary citizens expressed on social media that they couldn’t believe that such a killing could happen in a country where ethnic diversity is so celebrated.

In light of this these killings, the Canada Pierre Eliott Trudeau began to build seems more like a trade-off than an improvement. Was this trade-off worth it?

To be continued…

Rant: Canadian History in Quebec Schools

Back when I was in school, Canadian history was one of these subjects no one rBoring Canadian history in Quebeceally studied hard for because unlike math and physics, it wasn’t a subject that determined in what program you could be accepted. I feel a widespread lack of interest in Canadian history in Quebec. Canadian Children’s introduction to their country’s history is in school and Quebec’s curriculum is probably why they think it’s so dull. Here’s why the Quebec history program is so boring:


Canadian history is depicted as a long, boring feud between the French and the English

Canadian history in Quebec is taught as the French’s struggle for cultural and national recognition against “les maudits anglais” (the damn English. English here refers to English-speaking Canadians). This struggle has been fought through some battles and a lot of paper signing. What were French-Canadians and English-Canadians doing else besides feuding with each other? How was society back then? How did both ethnic groups think? This narrative presents Canada as one-dimensional. History can’t come alive only through treatises and a limiting perspective.

French-Canadians and English-Canadians are not the only ethnic groups in Canada

Long before the French and the English arrived in Canada, there were various indigenous peoples. They seem to be a footnote in the school curriculum because after the first chapters, they are no longer mentioned as if they disappeared in thin air. Some French-Canadians have Irish surnames such as Bourque (French version of “Burke”) but barely anything is said about Irish migration during the Great Famine and the Fenian raids. When John A. MacDonald colonized the Prairies, he sent by train many immigrants from Eastern Europe there but little is said about them. He could send them by train because Chinese workers built the railroad. I can go on and on but listing various ethnic groups is not the point: there are many ethnic groups in Canada and they influenced its history.

Quebec Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

That’s right! Canada follows a federal system which gives each province many freedoms, among others, the freedom to have their own education curriculum. Quebec’s history program is so focused on Quebec that you almost forget there are other provinces and the United States to the south. The English-speaking provinces and the United States do have relations with Quebec. Since there is so much complaining about the English language, why not talk about the surrounding areas and how they influence Quebec?

Too Little Is Said About Immigration and Multiculturalism

If you live in a big Canadian city like Montreal, you’ve probably seen people who were neither French-Canadian nor English-Canadian. There have been waves of immigrations at least since the time of John A. MacDonald and immigrants is a recurring theme in Canadian media. Who are these immigrants? Why are they coming to Canada? Why are there waves of immigration? Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s multiculturalism is still shaping Canadian society. You would assume such an important part of Canadian history and society would be talked about in school but, nope, it isn’t.

A Curriculum that Dulls the Mind

My former university history professor said at the beginning of his course “To understand a country, you need to understand the politics. To understand the politics, you have to understand the history.” The school curriculum seems to be meant to keep Quebecers from understanding the country they live in. To make matters worse, this one-dimensional vision of Canadian history keeps Canadians from asking important questions such as “where are we going as a country and what should we do”? I guess school isn’t supposed to produce citizens who have serious thoughts about their country.

Agree? Please share your comments!