In Defence of the Unhyphenated Canadian

At the beginning of October the Globe and Mail ran a special on the state of multiculturalism in Canada. Being a Toronto based newspaper, the stories had an urban bias and spoke more to the anxieties of the city which absorbs most immigrants to Canada. Through the lens of the Globe it would appear multiculturalism is in a state of crisis and because since the 1970s it has been a defining characteristic of the country this must mean that Canada too is in crisis. But is it multiculturalism or our antiquated ideas of what multiculturalism is that is in crisis?
At the root of multiculturalism is the idea of the hyphenated Canadian. It is the belief that you can not be just Canadian, you must identify by a more established culture or nation first and as Canadian second – even if aboriginal groups are occasionally subject to hyphenation. There are French-Canadians, English-Canadians, Scottish-Canadians, Irish-Canadians, German-Canadians, Ukrainian-Canadians, Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, American-Canadians, Indian-Canadians, Russian-Canadians, etc, etc, etc. Multiculturalism tells us that being Canadian is not enough, we must continue to identify through a culture that in all likelihood has little or no bearing on how we live our lives in 2010. Oddly enough, it is the ethnic histories of Canada which back this up.
Consider Roy Loewen’s study of three generations of Mennonites in Manitoba and Nebraska – Family, Church, and Market (1993). He shows that regardless of whether the settlements integrate into a capitalist economy or maintain their traditional distance from modernity and capitalism, with each successive generation the traditions which mark Mennonite culture are watered down. Of course in this not as pronounced in the colony which does not integrate but it still occurs. Now consider Frances Swyripa’s Wedded to the Cause (1993). The markers of Ukrainianness which were so evident in the first generation of immigrants are slowly lost and rendered nostalgic show of a romanticized past by the second generation is born in Canada. Sure there are still perogies, and ornately decorated eggs at Easter, and maybe a dance class or two, but for all intensive purposes the second generation Ukrainian-Canadian has integrated into the host culture. They have become…gasp…CANADIAN!
We are taught Canadian is a nationality not an ethnicity but I would argue that 143 years into nationhood it has made the jump. Multiculturalism is an important part of the Canadian ethnicity because it recognizes that we are nation of immigrants and that each group that has or will come here brings something new to the ever evolving idea of what it is to be Canadian. Any immigrant group could write a pseduo-history like the recently published “How the Scots Invented Canada” and it would be largely accurate.
What makes Canadian an ethnicity? Regardless of where your parents or grandparent or great-grandparents came from there are certain things which are held in common with everyone else in this county. Freedom to practice the religion of your choice. There is no need for a common religion to define an ethnicity when the constitution is based in non-invasive secularism. There are two common languages to choose from – most of the population has only mastered one but that is a topic for a separate post. How you dress says more about your socio-economic standing than anything else so it is kind of a mute point. But food, the plurality of food option in Canada is unbelievable because of the multitude of diverse cultures that make up the population. Each with a distinct cuisine that has mixed and mingled and become something new in the cities and towns from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Since religion, language, and external identifiers like food and dress are the base of any ethnicity, it is possible to see “Canadian” – unhyphenated – as a legitimate option.
Consider this too. Ethnicity is defined as much from the outside as by the inside. Any Canadian how has travelled overseas and been confused with a different nationality based on appearances knows how difficult it can be to explain being a hyphenated Canadian. That “Canadian” is seen by those outside Canada as a signifier that goes beyond simply the country on your passport speaks to the existence of an Canadian ethnicity.
The importance of asserting yourself as an unhyphenated Canadian struck me repeatedly in the first few weeks of October. It was a combination of comps prep work on ethnic histories of Canada and going to a wedding. The reception for this wedding was at a Ukrainian community hall. The dinner was made by members of the community organization and included cabbage rolls and perogies. Neither the bride or the groom were of Ukrainian lineage, yet there we all sat enjoying fresh made perogies. It was so Canadian because it didn’t matter there was no blood claim to the cuisine as the tables asked for second serving in both official languages.

I am an unhyphenated Canadian. How about you?

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About Lauren Wheeler

Just a reformed history phd student working as a public historian and staying connected with the environmental history world from remote Edmonton. Requires coffee, music, laughter, and regular escapes to less Edmonton-like places.
This entry was posted in Canada, Opinion, Procrastination and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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