Manitoba·Opinion

Canada has its own N-word

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly some people get righteous and judgmental about cultural norms and what it means to be Canadian. As homestay hosts for international students, in our home we are constantly in the throes of building community and cultural understanding.

Janine LeGal writes about being Canadian - and nice

What defines Canada? For Janine LeGal, it's a diverse crowd of nice people. (DanHarperPhoto.com/Downtown Winnipeg BIZ)

We have our own, very beautiful variation on the N-word in Canada. The thing we are known for around the world, by millions of people, is that we Canadians are nice. N-I-C-E, nice. We welcome people from all over the world to live here. We welcome diversity. It's a huge country geographically and there is space and community for all of us - the resources are here, no matter how different or similar we might be. We're lucky to live here. And we're nice.

But are we really as nice as we'd like to think we are?

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly some people get all righteous and judgmental about cultural norms and what it means to be Canadian. Black, white, brown. Hijab, niqab, tattoos, nose rings, dresses, pants, gay, not gay, religious, atheist, Mercedes drivers, bicycle riders, married, unmarried, vegan, carnivore, penis, no penis, botox, no botox, the new man bun fad. Everybody's got an opinion. Some of them aren't so nice.

It's not just the politicians not being nice about diversity with Islamophobia or homophobia. Is Winnipeg the most racist city in the country? Some say it's true, others disagree. Where's all the niceness we are known for - is it really here?

Cultural harmony is something we strive for in my household. And niceness, too. As homestay hosts for visiting international students, my partner and I and everyone living in or visiting our home are constantly in the throes of building community and cultural understanding. And that means respecting others. Sometimes it also means biting one's tongue when we don't agree with another's position on a particular issue, but mostly I've found it's an opportunity to encourage more dialogue on the subject at hand.

Over the years I've volunteered, worked and lived with people from all over the world. It's like I've travelled the world without ever going overseas. I've sat on the floor and feasted on traditional Afghan dishes with large families, talked, written, and presented about life and death and love and peace and family and community and racial profiling, and interviewed about what it's like to wear or not wear a hijab. I've attended Eid celebrations, been the white minority in a church service or cultural event, had a large delegation from the Oromo community (from the Horn of Africa) come to my house to look after me when my sister died. They brought food and cooked and cleaned and offered support and friendship during one of the hardest times of my life. I've lived and loved and grieved with people from around the world. And that world lives in Winnipeg.

Sometimes I'm asked by people born in Canada about how to talk to immigrants and refugees and others visiting from other countries. After getting over my initial shock at the question every single time, I respond, "You talk to them the same way you would talk to anyone else from here, there or anywhere."

For now we are sharing our home with a South Korean and a Brazilian, which provides a never-ending opportunity to learn about cultural norms. Some Brazilians, for example, because of the climate they're used to, like to take three to five showers a day. That gets a little expensive around here, but fortunately Fabio understands and respects that we're not in a position to accommodate that amount of water use. Dongbin notes that the Korean night life he's used to isn't quite happening here, with some of us asleep by 10 every night. But we work our way through those things with consideration and compassion for others and always find a way to make things work. Languages spoken in our house include French, English, Korean and Portuguese. We consult Google translate and other online resources to facilitate communication. Every month we hold a different cultural night, exploring different foods, music and everyday life within that culture. Last month we had Korean night; we shopped at a few Korean markets, ate bi bim bap and kimchee and jumak bap, which I'm proud to say I made for the first time, and we were lucky enough to have Dongbin sing a Korean love song. In our home that night we had people from Brazil, Canada, Congo, Guyana, Korea, Macedonia and Malawi. That's a usual thing for us and we are all the richer for it. When people come together in our home, any racial stereotypes are left at the door and a mini united nations is created. I have witnessed incredible learning and dispelling of myths and commonly held false notions while people eat and talk together.

What does it mean to me to be Canadian? It means that if you find yourself at my house for dinner sometime, we promise to be nice.

Janine LeGal is a freelance writer and a grassroots activist who believes passionately in the power of each one of us to make the world a better place.

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