Multiculturalism is a process

Samosas have helped win over Euro-Canadians | Photo by Kirti Poddar

Samosas have helped win over Euro-Canadians | Photo by Kirti Poddar

I came into the world in Africa – the continent that gave birth to the human race. Like my father, I was born in Kenya. In 1920, my grandfather immigrated to Kenya from the Punjab in India. In 1967, we moved to Great Britain, the country that gave birth to the theory of evolution. Life in London was fun, but my father now heard the call of the land in Canada. So in 1972, when multiculturalism became official policy in Canada, we immigrated here. We settled on a farm in Abbotsford.

In those early years of Canadian multiculturalism, there was no welcome mat out for coloured immigrants. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was a pragmatic visionary, who realized that Canada needed to open its doors to non-white immigrants because Europeans no longer wanted to migrate here. Canada needs immigrants because our birth rate has been below replacement for many decades. Mr. Trudeau lost the next two elections because the majority of Euro-Canadians were not happy with multiculturalism. They regarded multiculturalism as a doomed “social experiment.” Canadian sociologists describe white Canadians then as being largely “hostile” towards non-white immigrants. Scholars of Canadian immigration history like Hugh Johnston and Ali Kazimi, point out that Canada had a whites-only immigration policy from 1867 right up to 1967. White Canadians saw coloured immigrants as the “Other” and resented them. Such conditions made it difficult for coloured people to feel at home in Canada.

Over the years, I have witnessed the begrudging maturation of Canadian multiculturalism from “mere tolerance” towards “greater acceptance.” When you think about it, most people first experience a new culture by tasting their food at an ethnic restaurant. Butter chicken and samosas have helped Indo-Canadians win social acceptance. Ethnic restaurants have served as fantastic cultural ambassadors. When Euro-Canadians saw us dance bhangra, they must have thought that anyone that could dance with such passion must be all right. The fusion music inspires Canadians to look beyond race at our common humanity. Yoga and Buddhism have also taken off in Canada and fostered intercultural harmony. It is now becoming “cool” to be Indian. Today people are wearing Indian inspired fashion. The Surrey Art Gallery has built many bridges through its insightful multicultural exhibitions. The Indian Summer Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival and Diwali Festival have all promoted intercultural socialization. As Euro-Canadians learned more about us through our cuisine, music, fashion, art, philosophy and comedy, we shadowy “Others” slowly started to become more human in their eyes.

I have attended many of the commemorative events marking the centennial of the Komagata Maru episode in Canadian history. The Komagata Maru remains a South Asian story because it has not yet permeated the national psyche. One reason is prevailing racism, due to a lack of race relations education in all cultural communities, which is required to support multiculturalism. So, the symbolic voyage of the Komagata Maru continues because there is work that remains to be done in achieving the rightful place of visible minorities in Canada.

The world has always been multicultural, and we have always been one human race. Multiculturalism in Canada, while celebrating differences, should also focus on similarities and emphasize human rights. The successful outcome of this revamped multiculturalism will be the evolution of the “intercultural person”. The heart and mind of the “intercultural person” will be equally well-developed allowing them to move comfortably between cultures and feel at ease anywhere in our cultural mosaic.