When many cultures become one

Lately I’ve returned to studying French in my spare time. One of my workbooks contains a chapter entitled “French Culture,” which outlines such topics as French history, literature, art, music and food.

“What is Canadian cuisine?” I remember asking myself, stomach growling, as I lingered over a picture of a mouthwatering chocolate croissant. Maple syrup and poutine are among the few go-to answers, but most Canadians will not attest to eating either one of these items on a regular basis. Our food is not what makes us Canadian. So what does make us Canadian? Our literature or our music, perhaps? I scratch my head in an attempt to describe Canadian art. So I have to ask: does Canada even have a culture?

Canada’s history has been short, comparatively speaking. Although we accept that the original inhabitants of this country were First Nations peoples, many of us don’t have a detailed knowledge of their customs and beliefs. Studies of Aboriginal cultures have been embarrassingly overlooked in high school social studies classes. Our laws are founded on the ideas of European settlers from France and Great Britain. More recently, immigrants, many of whom departed from China, India and the Philippines, are bringing new perspectives with them. Certainly, Canada is a combination of many diverse cultures, but some people purport that our multiculturalism equates to our having no culture of our own whatsoever.

Integrating different cultures into one greater mosaic is quintessentially Canadian | Photo by Steven Lee

Integrating different cultures into one greater mosaic is quintessentially Canadian | Photo by Steven Lee

I’ll admit that living in Vancouver can be isolating and confusing at times. I see all these cultural microcosms and wonder where I, a multigenerational Canadian, fit into the picture. But we are more than the sum of our parts. There might not be a comfort food that every Canadian eats after a bad day at the office, but there are a thousand and one restaurants we can choose from that match our changing appetites. Who’s to say that that’s not a part of the Canadian identity? Our engulfment in diversity is something that we all share. So we do have an identity, one defined by its integration of varying ethnic groups into a greater, whole mosaic.

An important part of being Canadian is reaching out and immersing ourselves in ambient cultures. If we do that then we have a common Canadian experience. We don’t hide ourselves away in the safety of our parents’ culture. We accept and embrace the amazing variety of people that surround us every day. As a result, we evolve and learn new things about ourselves and our greater community. Each person I meet can share a unique story about their ancestry or home country. Every restaurant, out of the ostensibly limitless options, can challenge my taste buds and take me to a place far away, all the while allowing me to stay right where I am. Like any three-dimensional character, Canada evolves as its inhabitants experience new things, especially different cultures.

Our common identity is strengthened by our willing acceptance of diversity. Here in British Columbia, for example, our composite personalities, variegated as they are, share certain qualities, including a general dislike of rainy weather, but a preference for rain over snow. We Canadians believe in such values as liberty, equality and justice. These fundamental commonalities are every bit as important as our cultural vibrancy in defining the Canadian identity. While immigrants add new layers to Canada’s ever-growing personality, these core beliefs don’t change. Despite our diverse backgrounds, there is always something that we all share.

If I opened a book about Canadian culture, I might not get a clear-cut picture of the country’s cuisine, music or art, but that’s what makes Canada so special. I live in one of the most culturally vibrant countries in the world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.