A Love Letter to Canada from a Child of Immigrants
BY ANTHONY KING
PHOTO © rawpixel / 123RF
Aug 9, 2017
My grandmother-in-law recently turned 103 years old.
On a humble farm in rural Jamaica’s St. Elizabeth Parish, I joined my wife and her relatives in celebrating a woman whose only visit to Canada was decades ago. It lasted two months. She heard about the cold winters, the biting wind, and she was gone before November. My parents are Trinidadians. They too, like my 103-year-old grandmother-in-law, were raised in the Caribbean — a very different culture, in a very different time. But they came to Canada and chose to stay. To build a life here. And they raised four kids here, instilling in each of us an appreciation for our Caribbean heritage. Wisely, they also recognized the struggle we would face in being recognized as full-fledged Canadians, despite being born here.
Sitting on the veranda in Jamaica, I had time to reflect on the contrasts between life in the Caribbean and my Canadian upbringing. It was obvious to the locals by my dress and my accent that I was a foreigner, but they invariably assumed I was either American or British. When I revealed my Canadian identity, they never followed up with questions about the country or its culture (really? What about Bieber? Drake? DeGrasse? I mean, I get that we have a reputation for being unassuming and polite, maybe even dull, but surely that image is changing?). And few ever claimed having Canadian relatives.
Many immigrant parents were never exposed to such cultural and ethnic diversity until they came to Canada.
Years earlier, on a trip to Paris, I remember a quite different reaction from locals, when they learned my wife and I were Canadians. We became mini-celebrities, while they praised Canada’s multiculturalism and tolerance. “That could never happen here in France. We are much too old; too set in our ways,” remarked one of our hosts, over a frosty Stella Artois. I’m paraphrasing of course, but the distinct feeling of national pride I felt actually kind of surprised me at the time.
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For many of the baby boomers like my parents, Canada was a default destination; immigration visas from the U.S. or the U.K. were the primary objective, but a Canadian visa was usually easier to obtain. Few of them pursued a post-secondary education on Canadian soil. And while they were hardworking, industrious, and enterprising, many of their vocational skills (vocational roles in the Caribbean are common, and next to owning a business, considered the most practical means of earning an income) would soon become obsolete or in short demand with the arrival of the digital age.
I pursued a university degree after high school — higher education was the key to leveraging the playing field for my siblings and I, as it was for many of the Caribbean families who settled in Canada during the 1950s and again during the '80s wave of immigration.
As any visible minority can appreciate, being the child of immigrants in a country with such a complex national identity… well, it's complicated.
And since graduating from university, I have seen Canadian diversity at work, and I’m still amazed by its subtle charm. I share my work days with Canadians of every colour and creed, but our differences are absorbed by common values we’re hardly aware of. Everyone I encounter has an interesting background and many are the offspring of immigrant parents who were never exposed to such cultural and ethnic diversity — until they came to Canada.
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My respect for the rights of the LGBTQ community, my tolerance for religious diversity and cultural expression, these are values that some people around the world find hard to wrap their heads around. Ideas, beliefs and economic roles are stratified and deeply polarized in many places outside of Canada. We are not immune to the forces of division either, but we are better prepared than most.
As any visible minority can appreciate, being the child of immigrants in a country with such a complex national identity… well, it's complicated. But whether I’m visiting in Jamaica, or bar-hopping in Paris, whether I speak patois with my boys on the block, or grammatically-perfect English with my employer, there are values like tolerance and humility that are deeply ingrained in me from my Canadian upbringing.
And while other countries are coming undone by festering bigotry; while their leaders lose credibility and self-respect, we sleepy, dull Canadians are quietly just getting along, keeping our little secret.
Happy 150th birthday, Canada. Keep on rockin’ it in the free world.