What Does A Canadian Look Like?

A. redgreen   B. Olivia_Chow   C. jianghomeshi

D. janelle with goggles   E. polar-bear

The answer, of course, is all of the above. With the possible exception of E.

A is Red of the Red Green show, a plaid-and-suspenders-wearing cultural icon, funnyman, handyman, and innovator of all things duct tape. B is Olivia Chow, a notable Member of Parliament who married the late Jack Layton, former leader of the National Democratic Party of Canada. C is Jian Ghomeshi, broadcaster, interviewer, and host of the popular cultural talk program, the Q. D is yours truly, and E is probably a distant relative of Sora Bear, orphan and unintentional environmental activist in Japan.

So what does a Canadian look like?

We all look pretty different. Chow is a first generation immigrant; she came to Canada from Hong Kong with her parents as a teenager. Ghomeshi is second generation, his parents immigrated from Iran and brought him into the world in Ontario. I am third generation, three of my four grandparents immigrated to Canada from Europe (The Netherlands and Germany), and the fourth came from Newfoundland (which was technically not a part of Canada when he was born there). My brother, not pictured here, has First Nations heritage through my Stepdad, and even they could be considered immigrants if you go back far enough.

We all came from somewhere else; we are all equally Canadian.

Everyone has different challenges related to their cultural identity, and as part of the third generation, I am pretty disconnected from my heritage, sometimes left wondering if I have a culture at all. I’ve never set foot in Germany, the Netherlands, or even Newfoundland for that matter. I know little about my own cultures of heritage beyond their own sets of stereotypes. I can’t tell you what it looks like to be Dutch or German, beyond a love of cheese & tulips, or beer & sausages. But I can tell you what it looks like to be Canadian. It looks like this:

Canadian mosaic map
The Canadian Mosaic project by Tim Van Horn (click for the interactive version)

I know I’ve been in Japan too long, because when I saw the headline of an article in the latest issue of The Walrus, “Portrait of a 10-Year-Old-Girl,” I instinctively cringed, expecting yet another perpetuation of the stereotype I’ve been working, probably in futility, to dispel amongst my students and coworkers here. Which, as you can probably guess from my appearance, is a doubly difficult battle to wage. Thankfully, the article profiles the life of a beautiful, visible-minority, ethnically-mixed girl with an equally diverse group of friends living in a Toronto suburb, which very much helps my case. Are all kids and friend groups as apparently diverse as hers? Maybe in Toronto. Maybe not in Saskatchewan. But she represents something: there is not only one portrait of a Canadian, and the truth is I was greatly relieved to see her smiling face in those pages rather than the 10-year-old lookalike of myself I was expecting.

It’s a few days late, but one of the things I am thankful for this Canadian Thanksgiving is growing up with an appreciation for multiculturalism. The word has become a bit of a cliché in Canadian discourse, but there’s nothing like the absence of something to make you appreciate it that much more. It’s not perfect in Canada, no. There is still racism, still injustice, still fear and segregation. But our picture of what a Canadian looks like has changed to include many different faces, and our culture – the culture we’re creating together – is all the richer for it.

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17 thoughts on “What Does A Canadian Look Like?

  1. Canada is Unique,its name from one of Indian Canada Language,”Canada” meaning Home. However the Canadian Government has Recognized Two National Language (French and English). For this case Canada like Belgium.

          1. Janelle,
            If failing means an A from you for my daughter, I’ll send her to Japan within the next few hours.
            Le Clown

          2. Le Clown,
            …I’m not sure you understand the spirit of “everyone fails by default.” But send her over. I’m sure a little clown girl from Canada will cheer up all my students.
            Janelle

          3. Janelle,
            Of course I understand… But I don’t think you understand the spirit of my daughter…
            Le Clown

  2. Such a great piece! Stereotypes suck. Everyone has a story….roots that stem from somewhere, or several places. Influences. To suggest we are so one-dimensional would be like painting a masterpiece with only one color. Impossible.

  3. This is a really interesting perspective. I live in a racially diverse area which has a surprising amount of racism. I often wonder about our role in it and how our son will navigate through it. Also, I identify with the lack of a culture feeling – I’m German, Irish and French Canadian, I really can’t say I know much about any of those things I’m also third generation.)

  4. I think it takes going to live in another culture to realize how much culture one actually has. I felt “cultureless” as a white, middle class American girl from the Midwest. A semester in the UK had me thinking twice about that assumption. Just because you aren’t stereotypically ethnic in some way doesn’t mean you don’t have a culture. We all do.

  5. I can identify with your thoughts on being disconnected from your heritage. I am a second-generation New Zealander on one side (my mother came over from the UK with her Scottish parents when she was 5) and a varying degree on the other (my dad was adopted; his adoptive parents were born here but I don’t know about their parents, and I can’t remember about his birth parents, though they did wind up in Australia). NZ has a significant indigenous population, the Maori, but where I live there are fewer Maori than Asian and other nationalities. Our culture is pretty Eurocentric and sometimes ambiguous.
    Maori culture involves a very strong connection to the land, one’s family (whanau) and ancestors. When you introduce yourself in Maori, you say “my name is…, my mountain is…, my river is…, my mother & father are…” I don’t have this, although after 34 years in the same city I do feel at home. But not like that connection goes through my blood and bone.
    Sometimes I feel a stronger connection with my religious culture. One day I will travel and see the Orkney & Shetland Islands, where my mother’s family is from… and Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where my Brother was born.

    1. New Zealand life always sounds so interesting, I hope I can go there one day! I definitely want to get to Germany and The Netherlands at some point too to check out where “my people” are from… I know, in the case of The Netherlands at least, my Canadian family still maintains a connection with relatives there. Not sure about Germany as that’s a little more… complicated. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thank you! Yes I originally attempted to find a “stereotypical” picture of a girl with plaid and all the rest, but funny thing, typing “anything + girl” into google comes up with some rather… unsavoury results. *Facepalm.* Public figures are safer!

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