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Posted at: Feb 13, 2018, 12:25 AM; last updated: Feb 13, 2018, 12:25 AM (IST)

Trials of Canada, the rainbow nation

Sehdev Kumar
Is there any country that has not had some skeletons in its closet? Surely, the sign of a wise man, and of a mature country, is how it deals with those skeletons, and how it dares to acknowledge them, and heal and reconcile.

The Canadian Dream

  • The Canadian Dream may become the dream for people all over the world, because it is a dream of justice and dignity, it aspires to be woven by the free and equal will of all.
Trials of Canada, the rainbow nation
Sehdev Kumar 
Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo, Canada

ON   the other side of the globe from India, with its population of 36 million, Canada is not much bigger than Punjab; there are, in fact, almost 40 Canadas in India. But it covers a vast landmass that is second only to Russia. When I went to Canada some 50 years ago to study physics, one rarely saw a man there with a turban, or a woman in a hijab. Women students in the universities were a miniscule minority. Women were rarely seen in politics. With its two distinct cultures — English and French — Canada was a country of 'Two Solitudes', hardly to be found on the map of the world. It was buried not only under snow but much more importantly, under the heavy weight of elephantine America on the south. 

All that has been slowly changing, sometimes quite dramatically. Now the Minister of Defence in Canada is a Sikh; the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship is a Muslim immigrant from Somalia; the Minister of Justice is an indigenous 'Indian' woman; half the federal cabinet comprises women. Almost 60 per cent students in Canadian universities are women. And almost 60 per cent people in the city of Toronto were not born in Canada. 

The 'Canadian Dream', as a 'mosaic', 'a salad bowl', is very distinct from the 'American Dream' of a 'melting pot'. The Canadian Dream, through its universal healthcare, old age pension, multiculturalism, and generous welfare programmes and rigorous commitment to human rights and freedoms for all is defining an ever-evolving sense of social justice, compassion and dignity for the world for the 21st century. 

Yet, none of it came easily, or without protest; it has been, in fact, an arduous journey: in the 1840s, in the aftermath of the devastating potato famine in Ireland, as the famished and the diseased Irish men, women and children landed in Canada, they were shunned and treated with utmost disdain. 

In the 1880s, more than 17,000 Chinese labourers worked on railroads under the harshest of conditions linking Canada from one end to the other over 5000 km, and laying the foundations for the dream of Canada as a nation, and then only to be struck with an odious 'head tax' for decades. 

At the same time, in the mighty land of the USA, south of Canada, in 1888, the great Statue of Liberty was being erected in the New York Harbor, with the ringing words of a young socialist Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, welcoming millions to its shores from far and wide: 

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

"Look at that mass of foreign ignorance and vice which has flooded that country with socialism, atheism and all other isms," moaned the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, as he boasted with great pride of Canada's restricted immigration policy at the time. 

At the same time, as 'White Man's Burden', and to solve the 'Indian Question', thousands of indigenous 'Indian' children were being taken away from their homes and their cultures and shoved away in residential schools so as "to take the Indian out of the child", perpetrating, in the words of the Chief Justice of Canada, a 'cultural genocide' over many decades, until 1996. 

Is there any country or community in the world that has not had some skeletons hanging in its closet? Surely, the sign of a wise man, and of a mature country, is how it deals with those skeletons, and how it dares to acknowledge them, and heal and reconcile. 

That is how, Canada as a nation, has come to acknowledge, and express heartfelt apologies for historical wrongdoings against the Chinese for long years of 'head tax'; against the Indian Sikhs for the Komagata Maru incident a hundred years ago; against the indigenous 'savage' children for their abuse in residential schools, and against more than 100,000 'Home Children' who were shipped to Canada from Britain from 1869 to 1932 as cheap domestic labour. 

As a 'Rainbow Nation', all these, and many more, have been sure signs of reconciliation and the will to move forward rather than be mired in the past. 

In this spirit, in the past 50 years, Canada has been generous and welcoming to immigrants and refugees from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, India and Jamaica, Uganda and Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Somalia, Haiti and Syria, Chile and Columbia, and to thousands of Vietnam war-resistors from the USA in the 1960s. 

At each step, and every year, Canada's two cultures have been slowly becoming a hundred cultures, and its face has assumed many new colours and hues, and its roots have deepened through new social policies: from the 1960 Bill of Rights to the 1983 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, thanks to such visionary leaders as Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of the present PM. 

At each step, there has been a widening of cultural and social doors; more diversity, more inclusion, more individual rights. Fewer threats, more pathways to adaptation, accommodation, and integration. New and old Canadians have seen and heard, and have participated in debates over gay rights and same-sex marriages, over sex education and prayers in schools, over euthanasia, over Sharia law, over 'reasonable accommodation' of different cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, and much more. 

It is thus that now cricket is vying with ice hockey; kathak with ballet, taiko drumming with flamenco. Tandoori chicken is becoming the national dish; chai-latte is cool, but mocking accents or attires of others, is positively uncool. 

However, with all that, it must be acknowledged, whether we came to Canada from India, or Jamaica, or Argentina, or Russia, that few amongst us were ever treated by our own brethren so fairly back home. Or, that we ourselves treated others of a different caste, or province, or class, or religion, with such equanimity.

That is how the Canadian Dream may become the dream for people in all parts of the world, because it is a dream of justice and dignity, and because it aspires to be woven by the free and equal will of all.

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