Sunday, June 30, 2013

Happy Canada Day

Fair Warning: This entry will be longer and more serious than the others.
I apologize for the lack of updates this week, but I’ve been working through some challenges and I didn’t want to risk writing them down on the intractable internet before they were organized in my head.
Firstly, I’ve been struggling with homesickness this week. Just in case any of you were wondering that is a legitimate mental state, and it is less than fun. It’s been a long time since I was truly homesick. As in I’m pretty sure the last time something similar to this happened I was 8 or 9 years old at an overnight summer camp. People travel and always cover the amazing, fun things they do, but often gloss over (or make a really entertaining narrative out of) things and events that weren’t fun or amazing at all. Homesickness isn’t like that. You can’t really make homesickness funny. It happens, and you deal with it by forcing yourself to go participate in anything with other people so that you aren’t staying at home wallowing in missing other people and places. You can’t live in two places at the same time so you make a very conscious point of trying to entrench yourself in whichever one you happen to be in. Travelling is something I love and I wouldn’t give up the experience I’m having now just to fly home, but homesickness is part of the experience too.
If you’re interested, the BBC did an interesting article on it in early June.
Secondly (and much more importantly) how nationality is perceived in Europe is not how nationality is perceived in Canada. I’m going to try very hard not to make sweeping generalizations on how nationality is perceived, but this is something that’s been bothering me since my second week here. I’m also going to preface what I’m about to say with ‘my country is in no way perfect, and we have many problems and inequalities of our own to tackle.’ However, this mentality on nationality that I keeping hearing in France (and echoed throughout Europe) is something that I have been struggling with.
Modern day Canada is a society of immigrants. There are advertising campaigns all over the world inviting people with a variety of skills from tradesmen through to academics and entrepreneurs to pack-up and immigrate. Unless you’re a full-blooded member of the First Nations or Inuit community, at some point someone in your ancestry had to arrive and fill out papers that stated they wished to make Canada their new home. That takes an incredible amount of courage to do, especially if the person who made the choice to immigrate did not speak English or French. To facilitate with this example, we’ll create our own imaginary group of immigrants. We’ll call them Mr. Chen, Mr. McToogle, Mr. Oyari and Mr. Khan. Evidently our group of imaginary immigrants is meant to come from a variety of backgrounds.
Here is where I see the views on a person’s nationality begin to differ. Once any of the above people arrives in Canada, lives primarily in Canada for a set amount of time (typically 5 years, if nothing goes sideways) to fulfill their Permanent Residency requirements, and waits very patiently for the government to process their papers so that they can be sworn in as a Canadian citizen… they’re Canadian. They may be Canadian-Chinese, Canadian-Irish, Canadian-Kenyan or Canadian-Pakistani, but they’re all Canadian. In fact, there are plenty of immigrants whose children never claim citizenship in a country other than Canada. For people who debate this logic, I’d argue that once any one of our imaginary immigrants has married (within their cultural community or outside it) and raised their children in Canada, at the very least their children are pretty indisputably Canadian; regardless of their visual ethnic descent.
Let’s take Mr. Chen as our first example. Maybe he arrived just before the Head Tax was instituted in the 1880’s, but worked incredibly hard to bring his family over under that (very unjust) legislation, and today his family is approximately 4th or 5th generation Canadian. In fact, the whole family worked very hard to come to Canada, and being Canadian was a very clear choice. His descendants may or may not speak Cantonese or Mandarin. They may or may not be dual citizens and carry Chinese passports next to their Canadian ones. Depending on who married who, it may not even be clear that they emigrated from China, just that they have some Asian ancestry. He and his descendants are Canadian, and I’d never dispute that. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that someone would dispute that in today’s society.
It’s disputed in France. I used the example of the fictitious Mr. Chen recently in a conversation over lunch with some friends, and was told that Mr. Chen’s descendants may carry a Canadian passport, but that they’re Chinese.
… what?

If you're not familiar with the Chinese Head Tax, I've included a link.
Glad that at least this was being discussed openly, I pulled out Mr. McToogle, Mr. Oyari and Mr. Khan. In all my scenarios the Irish Mr. McToogle, Kenyan Mr. Oyari and Pakistani Mr. Khan end up with Canadian passports, and are counted equally as Canadian citizens. If you troll around on my Facebook (you don’t even have to look hard) you’ll find friends and relatives who have stories not so different from the fictitious ones presented here, because immigrating to Canada has themes that repeat through history. They’re common themes. Sitting around the table at lunch discussing immigration and identity with a Dutch woman, Swiss woman, a Russian woman, and another Canadian though… these themes that were so familiar to myself and the other Canadian were foreign and incorrect to the others.
If Mr. Oyari - a sponsor child from Kenya - had chosen to immigrate to Switzerland instead of Canada, I was told with no hesitation and absolutely no mal-intent that he would never be Swiss. He could carry a Swiss passport, speak fluent Swiss-German or Swiss-French, live in a set area for 12 years and be voted in as a citizen by his constituency (… that’s roughly how it works in Switzerland, very roughly) but that that whole process didn’t make him Swiss. His skin is too dark to be considered Swiss. No matter what his papers say, he’s from Kenya, and that makes him Kenyan. Even if his children (who could be equally dark skinned, or lighter, either way it made little difference) had only a Swiss passport they were evidently not actually ‘Swiss’ because they didn’t look Swiss.
It took a second for me to convince myself that maybe this was just a Swiss approach. After all, it is notoriously difficult to immigrate to Switzerland. They’re a small country, and almost explicitly not a country that encourages immigration. People from all over the world are welcome to work there, but actually immigrating seems to be left out.
In my hometown, the man whose story most closely mirrors Mr. Oyari’s is a bit of a local celebrity. He’s a personal trainer who has made a successful career for himself, and made the decision to immigrate to Canada while maintaining his roots abroad. His skin is so dark that when he sits down to do an interview on television he has his own spotlight (otherwise people can't see his face), and he laughs because he thinks that’s hilarious. He perceives himself as Canadian, and so does the community around him.
I am here to argue very strongly that in Canada we are taught to separate someone’s ethnicity (which is visual, and can’t be changed unless you’re Michael Jackson) from their nationality (which can be changed, because it’s ink on paper). Without a doubt I agree with the separation of this vague concept of ethnicity and someone’s nationality. Nationality is intangible, and can be chosen or changed over a lifetime; ethnicity cannot be changed, and is a very vague, poorly defined and categorized system of discrimination.

This is the crowd on Parliament Hill, as photographed by the National Post July 1st, 2012.  We're not a homogenous country, in any way, shape or form. About the only thing we're all good at is compromise, and we only do that in the same language half the time.
When we reached the example of Mr. Khan I was less surprised to be faced with the same conclusion. After all, if Mr. Chen and Mr. Oyari hadn’t had a chance at being considered Canadian, what chance did Mr. Khan from Pakistan; especially given the charged atmosphere surrounding terrorism and Islamophobia? Mr. Khan does things like attend Mosque, and although one daughter chooses to let her hair down, the other chooses to wear a hijab and dress conservatively. Both expect their parents to play a role in choosing who they marry. That’s right, arranged marriages, with input from a variety of parties. Guys… Mr. Khan and his family were landed immigrants, who are integrated into the local community and who carry Canadian passports as Canadian citizens. They were sworn in as Canadians two years ago. Both daughters are active in university government and local humanitarian causes. One of them is attending medical school. They’re Canadian.
By the time Mr. McToogle hit the table I was expecting to be told that he was Irish and not Canadian. Nope, not the case. Mr. McToogle could be considered Canadian. What?! What on earth is the difference between Mr. McToogle and the other three? You’ve probably figured it out by now. As someone of Irish descent, Mr. McToogle was pasty white. He could be considered Canadian because he was Caucasian. Ms. Russia and Ms. Switzerland agreed on this entirely. Ms. Dutch did as well, citing the example at home of a friend of hers who spoke Dutch and English, was a Dutch citizen, but ethnically was clearly from East India, and so not really Dutch. 
Logically, this new development made little sense to me. If Mr. McToogle came over in the last Irish potato famine, or even just because (as has happened more recently) the job opportunities for him were more abundant in Canada than in Ireland, the only significant difference between him and the others was his skin colour. That being said, if you’re correlating nationality with ethnic descent then Mr. McToogle shouldn’t count as Canadian either because he’s not descended in any way from the First Nations or the Inuit. He would be distinctly not the well known, Caucasian, pasty-white if he did.

Even the First Nations people aren't just plain old 'Canadian', they also often identify with the Nation they came from. In this case, the Haida Nation on Canada's West Coast.
This conversation and conversations like it are something I’ve been noticing since my second week here in France. A few have been mixed together here for a more expedient explanation. However, they all came to a head when earlier this week Catherine accused me of not know the history of my people over dinner. Suddenly she was talking about ravaging Africa, the slave trade, conquering the Caribbean, naval warfare, castles, the Queen of England, so on and so forth. It wasn’t until Michel asked me if I was Canadian or English that I figured out what was going on. Even though Catherine is well aware that I am Canadian, I carry Canadian documents, and that her family and I have been making jokes about bear pate since day one… she was identifying me as English, as in from the UK.
I was informed that I was not Canadian by a woman whose family immigrated to Corsica on her mother’s side from Egypt, then married a series of ‘ethnically’ French man and raised children here in mainland France. She stated this like it was fact, like this was obvious and something I should know. She didn’t mean anything bad by it, because it was normal for her. I was furious. If I’m not Canadian, then quite logically she and none of her descendants are French. Fortunately I was not stupid enough to state this explicitly, because I’m not sure Michel would have been able to save me from the nuclear fall-out that would have followed such a statement.
(… I’m not sure anyone could be saved from the full force of a Corsican temper, just for the record. It’s kind of infamous over here, and I understand why.)
In previous travels I’ve experienced racism, and I’ve seen racism and discrimination enacted on other people. Never has it bothered me so much as it is bothering me now, in Europe. In UgandaI was called ‘Muzungu’, as in the colour white. It was an identifying term that didn’t carry mal-intent with it because half the time I was the only white person for 50 square kilometers. No one used it as an insult, and I didn’t perceive it as an insult. In Uganda, people wore the colour of their skin on their sleeve for the world to see, and it was just part of daily life. The discriminations that came with it were built into society but they were done so very openly, so at least people could talk about it and deal with it. (And lets be honest, I'm so white I practically glow in the dark. I try to think of it as a great way for Search and Rescue to find me if I'm ever lost in the backcountry.) When the men I was travelling with said they were Canadian and spoke English, people accepted it no differently than they accepted that the two were Ugandan when they spoke Lugandu and said they were Ugandan. They are dual citizens, and their skin is dark. Being dark-skinned had no influence on whether or not they were considered Canadian.
By contrast, the discrimination I’m faced with here is incredibly frustrating. For example, there is an image of what a Canadian ‘should’ look like (remember Mr. McToogle? Apparently he looks Canadian). No one wants to talk about it openly, because most people pretend it doesn’t exist. Those who do talk about it state their opinion as if it’s obvious. The discrimination has subtle rules that no one seems to be able to explain with any real clarity because they shift depending on the social situation, and they have repercussions for how my nationality is perceived.
When I arrived in Montpellier I thought my greatest battle was going to be avoiding the classification of ‘Tourist’. Now that I’ve become more familiar with many of the norms here, I’m realizing that the greatest battle isn’t at all related to tourists. The greatest battle is not losing my temper when I’m confronted with groups of people who derive nationality almost entirely from an illogical set of the visible differences between themselves and someone else. This other-ing and scapegoat-ing feels rampant, and it’s frustrating and demoralizing.

Canada Day, July 1st, 2013
There are many cultural aspects of life I’ve encountered here that are different from home. Some are funny, some make perfect sense, some are a little odd, and some are just a different way of achieving the same end goal. Until I reached a point where I could articulate the difference of how nationality is perceived, I hadn’t discovered a cultural difference between France and Canada that I couldn’t conform to. I have now. I can't conform to how nationality is perceived here. France, you are welcome to continue to practice and change your norms however you wish within your borders, revel in your patriotism, and enjoy all the benefits and challenges you face; I respect your right to sovereign governance and to chose your own way of life, but I can’t do it myself. I am proud of how my nation defines nationality, and that it is not linked to this vague concept of ethnicity.

Happy Canada Day, everyone. 

No comments:

Post a Comment