Volume 96, Issue 64
Thursday, January 23, 2003

Search the Archives:



The Discussion, Part I

In September, The Gazette addressed the issue of “What is Canadian culture?” While we discussed cultural icons, such as tuques, Tim Hortons coffee and the great B.C. Gold, we avoided the topic that Sheila Copps, our Heritage Minister, would love for us to boast about: Canadian multiculturalism.

There is no denying that our country has a wide variety of culture, but the diversity Canadians are often proud of was not something we felt we could address in short pieces. The issue of multiculturalism simply can not be summed up in 250 words or less.

We sat down seven Western students from diverse backgrounds and cultures to discuss what multiculturalism and living as a young Canadian means to them.

Throughout grade school, and now as university students, we have been taught to believe that our nation is a wonderful “mosaic” of happy, diverse cultures. Individual impressions of this “mosaic” are mixed, as our student roundtable discusses the issues of identity, discrimination, stereotypes and the media.

The following is the first of this two part discussion.
Click here for Part II of the discussion.

Moderators: Andrea Chiu and Kasia Iglinski
Gazette Staff

We often throw around these terms "nationality" "ethnicity" and "culture," but what do you think they really mean?

Spencer: I think it's human nature to categorize and subcategorize in this ongoing complexity. It's human nature to kind of use the process of taxonomy to sort of better understand the complex world around us. Be that a racial thing or scientific, it's present everywhere.

Rob: Even though something like skin colour is really like a spectrum, it's tough to categorize it a lot of the time. As you said, they are human constructs. I suppose it's just a simplistic way of looking at things, although there is often some cultural meaning attached to it.

Ash: It really comes down to the point of identity. We, as Canadians, tend to identify as what we are not, to define ourselves as not American. The more cultures you come across, the more you begin to understand yourself, and the more you can put forth the idea of your identity.

Catherine: For me to define myself by way of [my parents' nationality] never really made much sense to me. So, I would consider myself to be Canadian because it is part of the culture that I grew up in and identify with the most.

Kamilla: I consider myself more Polish. I got my citizenship only in August. While I'm technically a Canadian citizen, I did come here when I was 14, and the certain formation period had already passed. They say that the five first years of life are the most crucial ones, so I would say that I am Polish.

Ash: I think there are sort of two definitions of nationality – one that applied a couple hundred years ago, and one that applies today. The one that applies today is a social construct. I don't think who you are is tied into the nation state, whereas 200 years ago, if you were to say you were from Poland, you could probably bet that there was a long line of family that had lived in Poland and has always been from Poland. Now, with people freely immigrating much more than they used to, the issue of nationality is sort of lukewarm. I could be Canadian, I could also be Egyptian, but what I consider myself ties into my identity. The word nationality just ties into what passport you are carrying these days.

Rob: I think I would distinguish between the two terms nationality and ethnicity as well. Ethnicity being, I suppose, your descent. If someone were to ask me, I would say British and Irish, but I have no attachment to those cultures at all. It has been several generations, so I don't feel any sense of affinity to British or Irish people. I would definitely consider my nationality Canadian.

Spencer: I'm British four or five generations back, but I don't really identify with that. I mean, I don't go home and whip up a meal of bangers and mash. In some ways I want to say I am thoroughly 100 per cent Canadian, but that's hard to define. I think it's hard to define to what degree one is Canadian because we are a nation that really defines itself as being this multicultural ideal.

Amrita: I think it was a lot different when I was younger. It wasn't that my parents tried to exercise Indian culture upon me, but there was more cultural influence from back home, and, as I grew, I think that dissipated a little.

Catherine: I grew up in Toronto, which is very multicultural. I found when I came [to Western] – where there are very few minorities and there is very little multiculturalism – I became very aware that I was very different from the majority of people. It has been a hard thing for me to deal with because it's odd to be confronted with this situation so far along in the game. I managed to grow up and go through my formative years and never really took that into account before.

Rob: It's funny that you say that because I grew up in a small rural community in Manitoba and they were all white people – no racial minorities at all, everyone was Christian. It was very mono-cultural. When I came here it was more diverse.

Do any of you feel you lack a culture or a cultural identity?

Spencer: Growing up in Pickering is not the most diverse community, but in my public school and high school there was definitely a plethora of ethnic groups. It was by no means a strictly white upbringing, much like [Rob] described. But, coming here, I think I became acutely aware of my "whiteness." I don't feel like I have a culture per se, but in a post-secondary environment like this, at least the way Western is oriented, it is still an old white boys club in many respects.

Amrita: I think there are a lot of minorities represented on campus. We have a diverse student body, but they are more or less segregated amongst themselves.

Spencer: Walk through the atrium during Clubs Week and you can just see that a huge chunk of the booths are geared towards ethnic clubs. If you want to see an example of the segregation, I think the [University Community Centre] is a perfect case study. Throughout the whole building it is just different pockets.

Catherine: I feel the same way. I didn't join the Caribbean Students' Association or the Black Students' Association because groups like that further segregation. It is not necessary for an ethnic group to close themselves off like that. If a bunch of white kids did it, they would be ostracized, but just because I'm a minority, I'm supposed to be part of this group. I really feel you are just increasing the divide.

Amrita: But there is not exclusion to anybody joining any of the groups. If anything, I think it's healthy to have that representation on campus. You have the opportunity, if you so wish, to join. I think it's a matter of being able to exercise your right as a certain culture on campus, and I think that is really important.

Kamilla: I don't think we should focus too much on the fact that it is exclusive; I think there are a lot of people who almost need the existence of these clubs. I remember, when I first came here, I didn't even know the language that well. But it was of great help that there were a lot of Polish people in my high school so that I could have friends, because I couldn't really talk to the English kids. I didn't join the Polish Students' Union because, right now, I can make non-Polish friends and I don't really feel the need to make Polish friends – to seek them out. [But] I think it's an important resource for people who do need that support.

So where do you draw the line between these clubs segregating us to those who use them as a jumping point?

Rob: I think that reality arises somewhat from the fact that the Canadian identity is so ill defined. I think that ends up making us more inclusive, because the criteria of being Canadian is so open-ended and so open to revision, it is easier to join into. But maybe that's a big lie, maybe we are just told that Canada is a mosaic and the United States is a melting pot.

Spencer: It also has a lot to do with the fact that we are such a young nation – relatively, anyway. One hundred and 35 years really isn't that old. In recent years, national identity is sort of crystallizing. It's unfortunate that we define ourselves as what we are not, but this multicultural cornucopia of people is forming more of a cohesive national identity that is so diverse.

Ash: I think what we have is – and I'm sorry to have to drop this word – globalization. This is a process in which you have exclusion and inclusion happening all at the same time. So, you have people who are put together because they are the same culture and you also have people who get away from that. It comes down to being very subjective, and when you are talking about such subjective issues, you can't draw lines.

How different are your values from your parents' values?

Kamilla: My parents, they don't really like the Canadian lifestyle. They don't like the emphasis on work, and I think they miss being more in touch with a community as a whole. I can remember that there is that sense of community [in Poland] and there is a great emphasis on family, and my parents talk about it a lot.

Rob: Culture is like air; it's everywhere. For me to say that I've come from an Anglo community, to say that I have no culture, is false. My parents grew up in the '40s and '50s, in a Canada that was still very British, and I've grown up in a different generation, so I think I've been influenced by different things. My grandparents didn't know people of different races, they didn't associate with them. They lived in a very closed society in many ways.

Amrita: As a first generation Canadian, I kind of feel that when my parents came to the country has a lot to do with it too – my parents came during the Trudeau years [former prime minister Pierre Trudeau] in the early '70s. I think immigrants didn't have the same support system that immigrants have now, from whatever culture that you come from. I think that my parents were forced to assimilate more than immigrants would now, so cultural values would be based on that as well.

Joyce: I agree. My parents have been here for 30 years, and, although our views are very different in terms of values, they still recognize that I'm going to adopt more of a Canadian lifestyle – that is sort of how they raised me. If they wanted me to stay true Chinese, they would have stayed in Hong Kong where I would have gotten the full cultural upbringing.

How does culture play a role in dating? What are your parents' views on it?

Ash: My parents are always in favour of me exploring and defining myself by meeting other people. But, what I did find was that, when I dated someone of a different culture, the fact that my background is Middle Eastern would be a concern in my partner's mother's eyes when I walked into the room.

Amrita: My mother has expressed sentiments that [dating is] fun and games now, but there's that underlying tone of seriousness.

Well, I think when the person you bring home is a boy, the issue of race is far out of the spectrum. No, my parents don't care about race or sexuality or anything.

Joyce: I know for my parents, they definitely want someone Asian or Chinese, but I think that it's clear that's not going to happen. I think it's just because that's what their friends' kids are doing – it's safe.

With regards to friends, do you hang out with birds of the same feather?

Spencer: I would look at my friends and, even though they're of varying skin colour and sexual orientation, they're all still very "white" in a lot of ways. They're very accustomed to Canada and, I think that, in many ways, that's a reflection of how people group together.

Ash: That could also be because I have no club representation; I can fit into so many groups. I actually value that my lifestyle involves that I live with people who are different from me. Let's use an analogy – it's like you get a different mix of nuts in one place. It makes for a good time.

Catherine: I have friends from a lot of different backgrounds and I'm happy that I get to be exposed through them to their different cultures. I have a friend whose parents are very traditional and British, and, as a result of spending time with him, going to his house, I can be personally in touch with that kind of culture, whereas otherwise, I'd be getting my dose of it from TV or something.

Ash: That's true. Had my family and I not come to Canada, I can safely say I would not have never met a Sikh individual, for example, or my only exposure to Asian culture was a Japanese friend of mine that I met at school. Because I came to Canada, I got to be friends with a lot of people with different backgrounds; I got to learn about their culture without having to travel to where they came from to understand their point of view.

Kamilla: My best friend is actually Polish, and I think it's pretty coincidental, because it's not her Polishness that I treasure about her. But we actually began our friendship by comparing how Polish our fathers were. It's just like, "Oh your father does this? Mine too!" and that kind of got us going on a connection.

Catherine: I met a girl who came here on exchange from the Bahamas and we had the most hilarious time just talking about silly things that our parents do – just like really Bahamian things to do, like strange foods that we eat, like talking about how it makes my mother crazy 'cause my dad will come home and decide to make this huge goat and my mother will be like, "Please no more goat, I don't like goat." It was nice to have someone else who could get the cultural jokes and references. There's a kind of comfort level that you can have with other people because they share your culture. But, at the same time, I don't think I could actually actively pursue meeting people just because they share my culture. I think it comes back to that question of the divide between support and comfort, becoming self-segregated.

Rob: In my experience, there's often an affinity when two gay people meet each other because there's a lot of commonalties right away in terms of the experiences that we've had. But the sense that you didn't fit in or that you are somehow rejected by mainstream culture, that's lessening a lot.

Please read tomorrow's special Campus and Culture for more.


The Discussion, Part II

Contact The Campus and Culture Department