The Plight of Belonging for Second-Generation Immigrants

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The Vocabulary Dictionary defines belonging as a sense of fitting in or feeling like you are a vital member of a group. When you belong, you are an official part of a group or are compatible with certain people or suited to a specific place. A feeling of belonging describes this sense of genuinely fitting or meshing with a group without a question or doubt.  

Belonging is a strong and natural human desire that is often filled by a complete acceptance by the group’s other members. Without an efficient coping mechanism, the lack of acceptance can have adverse consequences ranging from low self-worth to depression.  

Although most first-generation immigrants struggle all their lives to achieve a sense of belonging in Canada, they manage to develop an effective coping mechanism by keeping in touch with their home country. Many buy properties with the plan to eventually return to being among the people they truly belong with. Others build a community of support in Canada and closely follow the news from home. 

However, the same cannot be said of their second-generation immigrant children. Statistics Canada defines second-generation immigrants as individuals born in Canada with at least one parent of non-Canada origin. In 2011, this group consisted of just over 5,702,700 people, representing 17.4% of the total population. For just over half (54.8%) of them, both parents were born outside Canada.  

These individuals were born with dual identities by virtue of their country of birth and the country of birth of at least one parent. They are Canadian citizens and immigrants but often have limited to zero foreign experience. They talk like Canadians, act like Canadians, and fully understand the Canadian system and culture, but most have a limited sense of belonging in Canada, especially visible minorities. 

In 2011, just over 1.7 million of second-generation immigrants were members of a visible minority group. They accounted for 3 in 10 (29.8%) of all second-generation immigrants. For this group of immigrants, their right to belong is often questioned by curious strangers. They ask, “where are you originally from?” While this question may not be offensive or confusing for first-generation immigrants, it can be very confusing and unsettling for second-generation immigrants who know no other existence apart from their life in Canada because they are originally from Canada. Perhaps, if the curious strangers asked, “where are your parents originally from?” it may not be so unsettling. We see people of colour and automatically assume that they are not fully Canadians, even though they are as Canadian as they come. Often, these individuals have little or no awareness about their parent’s home country, and the little they know, they learn from their parents and not from experience. If they were to visit their parent’s home country, they’ll likely not fit in as well because even though they may fit in by appearance, their cultural nuances, accent, and general outlook will completely alienate them.   

So if they cannot fit into their parent’s home country and do not fully belong in Canada, where exactly do they belong?   

To be entirely accepted within a group, individuals may convey or conceal certain parts of their personalities. This is known as self-presentation. If we continue to define being Canadian by a specific appearance, we risk alienating some of our own. No level of self-presentation will make a person of colour fit into the preconceived picture of a ‘true Canadian’. Nobody should have to experience subtle alienation and the consequences of rejection due to physical attributes they cannot change.  

Many immigrants have found ways to cope with the alienating questions and practices that threaten their sense of belonging. Some have found a community within which they are completely accepted. Others have gone on an origin-discovery mission to learn as much as they can about their parent’s home country and culture because they know that the persistent question of their originality will never go away. They’d instead be prepared to answer the follow-up questions about their ‘country of origin’.  

Parents have also learned the importance of teaching their children to take pride in their originality because of their children’s unfortunate reality as they grow older. The more they know about their parent’s home country and culture, the better prepared they will be to answer the question of belonging without feeling any severe consequences for the implied unacceptance. 

Oyin Ajibola
Oyin Ajibola

Oyin is passionate about closing the information gap for newcomers and also fostering conversations on issues that matter to the immigrant community in Canada.

Email: oyin@immigrantmuse.ca

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