Owe Canada

The debate over what it means to be a Canadian “citizen” or what is Canadian “culture” is an old one that returns with every new discussion of immigrants and immigration.

As a new year approaches and the government plans to admit another 250,000 new immigrants into Canada — about the same amount as 2009 — the debate will no doubt continue. Part of that debate will be how to integrate newcomers; in effect, how to make them more “Canadian.”

The government’s new study guide for newcomers to Canada (Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship) offers prospective new Canadians information on the country’s history and discussions on values, rights and responsibilities. Some people have applauded its focus on the country’s military history, as well as its encouragement of new citizens to do volunteer work.

On the issue of gender equality, the document is quite blunt:  “In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, or other gender-based violence.”

Ironically, this directive is reminiscent of the controversial Herouxville Guidelines that in part launched the reasonable accommodation debate and provincial commission in Quebec which stated: “We consider to be outside the norm all actions or gestures….such as the practice of stoning women to death in public places, burning them alive, burning them with acid, circumcising them, etc.”

I can’t recall the last time these things ever happened on Canadian soil, but the good people of Herouxville obviously felt the need to put this in writing. I suspect a good number of Canadians would agree with their intent but not the execution. The Guidelines seemed out of place in pluralistic and inclusive Canada.

But what is citizenship? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy offers some  interesting thoughts on the subject. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/.

According to Aristotle, citizens are, first and foremost, “those who share in the holding of office”.  This is considered the republican view. Under Roman law, the more liberal view of citizenship meant being protected by the law rather than participating in its formulation or execution.

To make things even more complicated, in a pluralistic society like Canada where multiculturalism is celebrated (sometimes grudgingly), immigrant groups may demand exemption from laws and policies because of their religious practices. They may even want the state to support their desire to maintain their cultural traditions through educational programs or cultural events.

To paraphase the Stanford article: Rather than seeing these “demands” as an attempt to be excluded from the dominant culture, they ought to be seen as a real desire to become part of the whole; to be fully integrated.

In his book Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism, Michael Adams points out that Canada’s version of multiculturalism has “always been geared toward helping minority groups participate more fully….not to helping them opt out.”

And that ultimately, I believe, is the challenge of being “Canadian.” We are not a melting pot where everyone becomes part of some colourless gruel; rather we are the salad where each contributes to the whole, yet retains that which makes us distinctive. That is part of the Canadian culture.

Culture is a system of values, beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and standards of behavior that govern the organization of people into social groups and regulate both individual and group behaviour.

The Canadian culture — and what it means to be Canadian — is an ever changing kaleidoscope. It is what makes us the envy of the world and demands of us to be better than most. (A case in point is the world reaction to our government’s tepid performance on climate change in Copenhagen.)

But do newcomers — new citizens — have an obligation to their new country? Absolutely they do!

As Canadians open their arms and hearts to welcome newcomers, the new arrivals should open their minds to accept the best that our country has to offer and to give Canada their best in return. They should contribute to the salad, knowing that their uniqueness will be valued and celebrated, not seen as a hindrance or a burden.

My wish this Christmas is for all Canadians — newcomers and citizens — to ask themselves, “What do I owe Canada?” The answers may surprise us and urge all of us to be better than we believe we can be.

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