Our part-time home and native land

TheGlobeandMail.com – opinion – Our part-time home and native land
June 28, 2008. MICHAEL VALPY

The dawn of our country’s 141st birthday breaks over a Canada astonishingly turned outward to the world in ways our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, would never have imagined — or, indeed, if he had, would have suspected himself too deeply immersed in his tipple.

It is a Canada that, at first glance, looks to be stretching social cohesion beyond limit, a Canada crumbling into author Yann Martel’s metaphor of the world’s best hotel, but where none of the guests make small-talk in the lobby. No getting together in the dining room for meals, no gathering in the bar to watch hockey.

It is a Canada that has arrived at multiculturalism Mark II and a generation of new adults who have moved decisively beyond nationalism to embrace a kind of transcendent planetary supranationalism. We are becoming the land of global citizens, by all accounts galloping out ahead of other advanced democracies.

It appears to be occurring within a broad consensus.
What kind of nation have we become?

University of Montreal political philosopher Daniel Marc Weinstock, who studies globalizing cultures, says there is little evidence to suggest it is causing Canada problems. A recent Environics poll found nearly 70 per cent of respondents thought it was a positive thing for Canada’s image that three million Canadians live outside the country.

Canadians comprise 10 per cent of the population of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more live as immigrant transnationals: maintaining a cultural and even physical presence in both Canada and the countries that they, or their families, may have left years earlier.

A huge majority of young Canadians — as well as a majority of all adult-age cohorts — say they want to live, study or work abroad, according to the same Environics poll done earlier this year.

Forty per cent of Canadians say they donate money to international charities. Twenty per cent say they send remittances to overseas relatives. An increasing portion of Canada’s international trade comprises Canadian Diaspora entrepreneurs doing commerce with their original homelands.

For an overwhelming majority of young Canadians, international issues such as climate change and global social justice are primary political concerns. What happens at home, while not absent from their agendas, takes a distant second place.

It is a phenomenon increasingly evident among young Quebeckers who dismiss as yesterday’s issue the politics of the Conquest that absorbed their parents’ and grandparents’ energies.

Does it mean that Canada is sliding into a state of non-being, a mere aggregate human habitation on a chunk of geography with maple syrup stocked in the shops?

Or does it mean a new Canada is emerging, wrapped in air travel, e-mail, mobile phones, the Internet and still the presence, if not a greater presence than before, of crystallized Canadian values that bind us together?

The firm evidence of common values is found in the Strategic Counsel survey published in today’s Globe and Mail, values consistently echoed in other polls, in the Washington-based Pew Global Attitudes Project and the World Values Survey conducted by political scientists around the globe.

Maybe Canadians need to better understand what makes their fellow Canadians tick.

Ask university students who their heroes are, and they readily name Canadians engaged in the world: Stephen Lewis; humanitarian physician James Orbinski; Maude Barlow with her global projects for public access to water and multinational corporate responsibility; retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, hero of the Rwandan genocide, who makes speeches to young Canadians urging them to become global citizens.

Canada has aggressively recruited immigrants with skills, money, entrepreneurial talents — and, by definition, options.

“The message our immigration officers put out,” said Prof. Weinstock, “is not ‘Come to Canada and, once you’re here, you have to give up all kinds of allegiances and have a single-minded devotion to this country alone.’

“We give a very different message. We tell them that it’s a good place to do business — implicitly ‘for a while’ — and that you don’t have to give up your prior identity, and by and large Canada has done very well in this way.”

This is how Canada won the Hong Kong immigration sweepstakes.

Queen’s University geographer Audrey Kobayashi has studied what are now in some cases three generations of families who have moved back and forth between Hong Kong and Canada, for education, for business, for periods of residence.

They speak with Canadian accents — Prof. Kobayashi talks of being in Hong Kong business offices and hearing nothing but Canadian accents. They have deep emotional feelings for the land, a pride in Canada’s public institutions, an engagement in Canadian affairs. Rooted in Canada, but from time to time living elsewhere.

Luz Bascunan describes how Canadian rooting takes place.

She and her husband, both educators, and their two small children fled to Toronto in 1977 from Augusto Pinochet’s brutal Chilean dictatorship — fully intending to return once Pinochet was gone.

He lasted longer than they expected. Their children grew older. First Ms. Bascunan got involved in organizing daycare. Then she organized a Chilean language and history school because she and other parents feared their children were losing their heritage.

Then she became a citizen because her children disliked being singled out as different when they went on U.S. school trips. Then — always intending to return to Chile — she was invited to run for the school board, and won. Then she gradually discovered more and more things about Canada she liked.

In 1990, when the dictatorship ended, many Chilean families who made plans to return found themselves opposed by their fully Canadianized children. Ms. Bascunan and her family today make regular visits to Chile. She still doesn’t rule out returning for good one day, but she acknowledges being fully engaged in Canadian life.

In her fascinating study of second-generation Indo-Canadian immigrants, University of Saskatchewan sociologist Kara Somerville portrays young people who think comfortably of themselves as belonging to both cultures, visiting India regularly, in constant touch by e-mail and telephone with family and friends on the ordinary subjects of their day-to-day lives: cooking, health remedies, child-raising, marriage, jobs.

Radha Rajagopalan, 26, born in Peterborough, Ont., the daughter of Indian immigrants, talks of living this double identity, about her Canadianism and her pride in maintaining a grounding in the rich Indian culture in which she grew up. She thinks of herself as Canadian in India but Indian in Canada. And the question she gets in both countries amuses her. When she says she’s Indian in India, she’s asked: “Yes, but where are you really from?” When she says she’s Canadian in Canada, the query is the same.

Ms. Rajagopalan, an aspiring filmmaker with a postgraduate degree in environmental studies, can answer on this July 1 national holiday that she’s truly a Canadian of the 21st century.

McMaster University historian Henry Vivian Nelles has crafted a lovely metaphor of Canada as a masked Haida dancer: the mask and the course of the dance changes through time, but the dancer remains the same. Sir John A. would get it, and raise his glass in a toast.

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