On September 30, 2021, Canada marked its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families, and communities. Canadians were encouraged to commemorate the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools as a vital component of the reconciliation process. While this is a commendable first step in righting a wrong that has resulted in generational trauma, it is crucial to avoid making the same mistakes that have led us here – a culture of subtle assimilation.
Canada claims to be a multicultural country, yet it is not accommodating of the cultural nuances of newcomers. Through settlement agencies, newcomers are assimilated into the Canadian culture with pieces of training that help them to mimic “acceptable” behaviour. For instance, immigrants are taught to make small talks, look people in the eye when talking, give a firm handshake, avoid folding their arms when talking with someone else, and smile at everyone, among others.
These trainings are not necessarily wrong in themselves. However, they inadvertently force adults to unlearn behaviours they culturally believed to be right all their lives and learn a new way of being within a short time to survive. While this is not as intense as the residential school system, the effects can be very damaging to first-generation adult immigrants and their children and upcoming generations.
Culture goes beyond language, food, and attire. These are no doubt essential aspects of the multicultural society that are somewhat embraced in Canada. Culture also includes learned behavioural patterns that dictate a person’s attitude in a given context. For instance, some immigrants culturally believe it is disrespectful to look people in the eye when talking to them. On getting to Canada, these immigrants are told that only dishonest people avoid looking into other people’s eyes when talking to them. They have to learn to look people in the eyes if they don’t want to be perceived as dishonest or weak. These immigrants are neither dishonest nor weak, but since the people who believe in the dishonesty narrative outnumber those who believe in the respect and humble interpretation, immigrants have to assimilate the dishonesty narrative to survive.
This compulsive change inadvertently leads to an internal conflict of truth and for immigrants with children, a conflict of interest. Will they ask their children not to look them in the eye when talking while they do the exact opposite with their seniors? Will they try to find a middle ground where they embrace the new culture without entirely compromising their culture? Will they stubbornly refuse to adopt the Canadian culture and risk their survival? Will they completely change and become “true” Canadians? Whatever their decision, it comes with a lot of pressure and extra work over a needless change.
If Canada were truly multicultural, people would be allowed to be their authentic selves and not be forced to act in a certain way perceived to be suitable to survive. Everyone should be allowed to be their authentic selves and only imbibe new culture voluntarily if perceived as beneficial rather than a survival tactic.
Canada should be built on a culture of intercultural learning rather than subtle assimilation of the perceived superior behavioural culture. People should be encouraged to show up as their authentic selves with personally defined cultural behaviours, as long as they stay within the confines of the law.
Rather than force people to act a certain way to avoid being misinterpreted, why not encourage everyone to ask questions about why people act the way they do and try to understand the cultural context that dictates their attitude. This way, we can all become more culturally aware, accepting everyone’s true self and charting the path to true multiculturalism.