Immigration: Building a Nation of Foreigners

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By Claudio Muñoz

The path to becoming Canadian is sometimes not as easy as it appears. On the way, you will go through snow-storms, transit delays, confusing conversations and hundreds of Tim Horton’s double-doubles. The settlement process for newcomers not only changes the lives of the immigrants, it also transforms the “host society” – the lives of those who were born here or have lived in the country for a longer period.

Sarkis Assadourian’s story is a good example of an immigrant’s integration process. More than 40 years ago, he worked for almost three months in a fancy hotel in Montreal. It was his first job in Canada and it was okay. He got along with customers, and nobody complained about him. One morning, though, he was fired. Confused and clueless he went to see his boss but nothing happened. “I won’t give you any reason,” was the hotel manager’s plain answer.

Feeling even more dazed, he walked down the stairs to sit in the cafeteria. Within moments he had become just another “visitor” at the hotel. A colleague came by and saw him, a guy from the union – Sarkis thinks his name may have been Frank. “I was fired,” Sarkis explained why he wasn’t working.

The union guy offered to intercede, and without hesitation, walked up the stairs to see the manager. He came back down a few minutes later. “Sorry, I can’t help you because you are not a union member. The manager said you have been working here only for 87 days. You need 90 to be a union member and until then he doesn’t have to explain anything.”

Sarkis thought he had been at the hotel longer than that. But how could he prove it? Maybe his time card was still beside the clock. Discovering that he had been a union member for more than five days, he went back to the manager’s office and demanded to know why he was fired. “You were fired because you dropped toothpaste on the floor,” he was told. “For a reason like that, they denied me my right to eat. I was 21, maybe 22 years old,” says Sarkis now. “But it built my character, to have to fight for my rights.”

A few weeks later – after he researched his rights – he came back to the hotel asking for his paycheck. “You have to give notice, and you didn’t,” Sarkis told the manager. “You owe me 3.75 hours for the last day of work.” The manager refused. “He said that I didn’t work that day, so I went to Quebec Labour Relation Board and after three or four months, they paid me my salary, plus vacations and three or four bus trips to downtown because of the paycheck. I never gave up. It was the first case I fought in Canada and I won.”

The Challenge of Integration

Integration requires newcomers to learn about Canada. But it also requires Canadians to adapt to newcomers. Our new society is built through constant tiny adjustments.

Some immigrants feel that “progressive” western ideals are being shoved down their throats – undermining their belief systems. Many examples have made the news. Why couldn’t a Montreal girl play soccer wearing a hijab? Or why are all children (regardless of their ethnicity or faith) taught sex education at school, even against newcomer parents’ wills?

But this is just one side of the story. Some older Canadians feel like things they take for granted are being questioned at every turn. Last November Joanne Sorrill, a United Church minister learned that she couldn’t keep the “Rev Jo” license plates she had been using for years, initially being told that plates promoting a particular religion were not acceptable. The decision was finally overturned by Dalton McGuinty in December, but it reinforced the feeling of many Canadians that long-standing and valued traditions were being taken away. They don’t understand why Canadians now have to celebrate Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. It is not just the newcomers who need to adapt.

What does it mean to be a Canadian?

For some people, being Canadian just means having a place to live on land that is governed by an ex-British (or French) colony. For others (as with new patriots from any country in the world), it means being a part of something larger than yourself, sharing certain beliefs and speaking one of the official languages.

It is really complex to define what “being Canadian” is. Since the beginning, the country has shared a multiple identity – an uneasy combination of English and French plus the ongoing needs and concerns of the aboriginal peoples. Add immigrants’ own cultural backgrounds to that mix and the definition becomes very muddy. Even if all these elements were put together in a blender, we would not get an exact definition of “Canadian”.

In his office in the second floor of Toronto’s City Hall, Councillor Joe Mihevc explains that Canadian identity is always changing. “When I was a little boy this was pretty much British, a very Anglo culture. You couldn’t have a glass of wine on your front porch; there weren’t street festivals. Then the Italians and the Portuguese came and now Toronto is a kind of hot culture.” The councilor thinks that, because of the immigrants, Canadians’ ideas of themselves changed from a British colony or an American extension to global player. Values like “support the Queen” have been replaced by “support human rights for everyone” and the inclusion of everyone.

Professor Jeff Reitz, an expert in immigration issues at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Sociology, agrees that Canadian identity is always changing. He explains, “[former Prime Minister] Trudeau’s original definition of Canadian identity referred to culture and cultural equality. Remember,” he says, “in 1971, all the immigrants were from Europe. But since 1971 the government has added what they call ‘an antiracial component’ through multiculturalism.”

Canada is the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as a policy. This course of action is a source of pride – a demonstration of tolerance, acceptance and responsibility. But it is also a source of discussion; some intellectuals consider it a utopian view (in other words, we see what we would like to see rather than seeing the way it actually is).

What is it multiculturalism? The Ministry of Canadian Heritage explains on its website, “Canadian multiculturalism is fundamental to our belief that all citizens are equal. Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of, diverse cultures. The Canadian experience has shown that multiculturalism encourages racial and ethnic harmony and cross-cultural understanding, and discourages ghettoization, hatred, discrimination and violence.”

Professor Keith Banting, a researcher from Queens University and one of the authors of the essay Diversity, Belonging and Shared Citizenship (with Thomas J. Courchene and F. Leslie Seidle), explains that we need to distinguish between multiculturalism as a social fact of life, (the description of Canadian society) on one hand, and the multicultural policies of the government on the other. “Canada does have some multicultural policies; for example, in the constitution we celebrate our multicultural heritage and our publicly-owned CBC has a mandate to reflect the multicultural character of Canada. Policies like these are important but they are not what shape everyday life in Canada. They are symbolic statements, celebrations …but in day-to-day life the relations that people work out are not ruled by policies.”

Canada was a multicultural society long before adopting a multicultural legislation. In his book, Unlikely Utopia, author Michael Adams, affirms that precisely, this very diversity is the most Canadian characteristic of all.

Becoming Canadian

Sarkis Assadourian remembers that, after the incident at the hotel, he went to Canada Manpower to ask for a job. “This is a French province,” the assistant told him, “and your French is not that good. Why don’t you go to Toronto?”

Leaving his mother and sister in Montreal, he found a place on Spadina Avenue, north of St. Clair Avenue in Toronto – a little room that served as a living room, bedroom, kitchen and pretty much everything else. He stayed there for a year and a half and the landlord was so pleased with his always paying the rent on time, that he would give Sarkis wine, as an act of gratitude. He worked at several jobs and even took refresher courses to update his skills. “Then I met my wife and opened a restaurant at Bathurst and St. Clair. It was the first business I had, and I lost $4,000,” he says laughing. “The name of the place was ‘Bathurst Sizzle Burger.’ It is still there – they just changed the name.”

Professor Banting says that “the recognition and accommodation of diversity have been central features of Canadian political history, and contemporary debates over multiculturalism are simply the continuation of an ongoing Canadian conversation.”

So, how should newcomers adapt to this multicultural society?

Multicultural Canadian society allows different cultures to interact, but every newcomer needs to incorporate North American values. It is, in fact, a two way street. Immigrants can keep their own traditions (they are encouraged to do so), but they must incorporate Canadian democratic values. The protection of individual rights (including the right to work), social rights (in the form of education, health, income protection among others) and political participation (not only through voting, but participation in general) are the values that shape this country.

The integration of newcomers, then, consists of building a sense of belonging and attachment to a country that incorporates different identities but keeps democratic values and human rights at the main core of its spirit. This sense of belonging starts when immigrants get a job, when they start sending their kids to school or go to the hospital for an emergency, and when they are allowed to vote.

Nonetheless, integration it is not a simple step-bystep process. Becoming Canadian doesn’t go from A to B, then C. Professor Banting explains that “probably the first priority for many newcomers would be economic – and being treated fairly in the country. I am sure that in the life of a newcomer that would be a progression. But for the community as whole, for each minority community, there will be people at different stages of this process. It is a sequence for any individual but I don’t think it is necessarily a sequence for a community, or a collective group, whose members have been in Canada long enough to have a leadership.”

A country that changes

Integration takes time, even generations. Not a single newcomer has become Canadian only because of a citizenship ceremony. It’s a process that started many years before that ceremony and one that never really ends. As new Canadians bring something new – the same way Italians and Portuguese did some time ago – a new country begins to surface.

In 1977 and 1979, Sarkis ran for political office as a School Board trustee and finished last. “Then I ran for an Ontario nomination and lost. My wife said “Okay, that’s it, no more politics. You have kids to look out for.””

It was 10 more years before he got back into it. He ran for a seat in the federal election and lost by 302 votes. “I told myself “be persistent, never give up.” Finally I became one of the few chosen to serve Canada in the House of Commons.”

More than a decade later, he is a Canadian Citizenship Judge. In his office, some treasured photos recall his achievements as a Member of Parliament – he is there with Queen Elizabeth, Presidents, Prime Ministers. A framed postage stamp remembers the day Wayne Gretzky left the rinks of professional hockey – the stamp was Sarkis’ initiative.

He came from Syria but he is “one thousand percent Canadian” today.

An old document hangs on the wall just in front of the judge’s desk. Almost everyone involved in the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has one. “I worked with 18 ethnic groups – there were Polish, Cypriots, Pakistani, Indian, Armenians, and so on. We got numerous pages with signatures from Canadian citizens, ordinary people from many parts of the city and the country saying ‘we want to have the Human Rights listed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.’ It was 1982.”

In a special Ceremony in Ottawa, Sarkis gave his document to former Prime Minister Trudeau. It was a symbolic petition to include human rights in the Charter. But it was no more representative of what it means to be Canadian than when he’d first demanded his worker’s right to be paid for 3.75 hours as a new Canadian.

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