If you are not White, you are not-Canadian-enough

Are you Canadian?

I am not talking legality on right to vote and accessing free healthcare, but the sense of being, being Canadian.

Let me walk you through a mini questionnaire to help you understand where I am going with this:

When you think of Canadian identity, what do you think of?

White? Hyphenated? Multi-racial?

(Did you think Aboriginal?)

What about culture?

South Asian? Asian? Polish? English? Latino?

(Again, did you think Aboriginal?)

Or Canadian?

So, what is Canadian culture?

Canada officially has a multicultural policy, which treats all Canadian citizens with dignity “regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation”.

Or simply, in the words of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who introduced the policy in 1971, “two official languages and no official culture”.

When there is no official culture, what is that we call Canadian culture?

Born and raised in India, identity wasn’t the first thing on my mind when I landed as a permanent resident nine years ago. I grew up in an urban enclave in India, where the first language of communication was English. I spoke Punjabi, my mother tongue, at home and am well versed in India’s national language Hindi.

On landing in Vancouver, the street signs in Punjabi language, and whole lot of services, both private and government, available in my mother tongue, pleasantly surprised me.

I realized there were services available in a host of other languages. I loved the respect given to plurality of cultures in Canada – the richness of different sounds, textures, and colours was fascinating.

I thought this is the place to be. After the few initial hiccups, my husband and I decided to stay for good. We eventually became citizens, had a family, and now cannot imagine living anywhere else.

But my faith in plurality of cultures was in for a rude shock when I went to register my daughter for kindergarten early this year. The morning of the day the registrations opened, I was first in line, excitedly waiting to fill the form.

As I filled in the details, I came across a harmless–looking column: ‘other languages spoken at home’. I have been home-schooling my daughter (basic pre-school material), so it has been in English. But my husband and I take great pride in our heritage, and speak both Punjabi and Hindi at home. We listen to English, Punjabi and Hindi music, and watch TV shows and movies in all three languages, so I wrote Punjabi and Hindi as the additional languages.

Little did I know that would change the way I viewed Canadian identity.

Apparently, if you speak a language other than English at home (I guess French doesn’t count here) your kid gets automatically assigned to the ESL program.

ESL? English as a second language program. The school secretary explained that at an orientation at a later date, my kid would be tested for ESL. I thought fair enough. For all kids to perform equally well, it only makes sense if all had the same level of English proficiency. I said to her, don’t worry my daughter will pass the test. And that’s when the full force of what lied ahead hit me.

It didn’t matter if my daughter passed, the secretary explained – there is no pass or fail in ESL, just levels. Every kid who listens to sounds made in a language other than English at home gets into the program.

It didn’t make sense to me. Next moment, I was sitting in the principal’s office, a Canadian educator with Asian roots (her ethnicity is relevant in context to this post). For the next half-an-hour or so, she tried to reason in her Asian accent the importance of the program. I told her I recognized the value of ESL; all I didn’t understand was – how was this language program relevant to a child who spoke fluent Canadian English?

Because ESL just didn’t cover a language issue, she explained. It was an introduction to Canadian culture. And what exactly do you mean by that, I asked her. She wavered in her replies, giving me examples of teaching kids about “ham” and “Canadian sports” and “traditions” or other things “Canadian”. She got personal to convince me – if it weren’t for ESL, her son wouldn’t be working in IT at The University of British Columbia!

I asked her if they put a White kid in ESL or do they assume that all White children have a good command of English language and know everything “Canadian”? She confirmed my worst fear: even if my daughter were a fourth-generation Canadian, as long as she listened to Punjabi and Hindi music, she would be in ESL.

The message I got was: if you are not White, you are not-Canadian-enough.

I thanked her, and walked out asking to sit on the Parents’ Advisory Committee.

The new definition of ESL sadly reminded me of the residential schools: the ill-fated program that destroyed the culture, identity and sense of being of Canadian Aboriginal peoples in the name of assimilation.

It is not fair on my part to compare a harmless-sounding program like ESL to a national tragedy of residential schools that destroyed generations and continue to evoke bitter memories for Canadians. But with my new understanding of ESL, veiled as a language program, and intended to teach non-White kids about “Canadian culture”, I can’t help but draw the comparison of a similar “assimilation” that the Aboriginal kids went through.

I calmed myself and reasoned, if a child who lived in a war zone in Afghanistan were to come and start school here, he or she would have to know more than just English to fit in. In this context, the program seemed fair.

But three things are out of place here: first, the wrong impression that ESL is only about language. It is actually about conversion to “Canadian culture”. (The fact is I didn’t get a clear definition of “Canadian culture” from the school principal I spoke to.)

Secondly, you cannot use a blanket column to put kids from varied backgrounds in ESL just because a language other than English is spoken at home.

Is it justified to club a child whose initial formative years were in an urban school in China with a child who spent first five years of his or her life in a refugee camp in Afghanistan with a Canadian-born, raised child who knows ice hockey from field hockey, took the first steps with Caillou, can tell a dime from a nickel, sings Canadian rhymes and a flag means the Maple Leaf, just because he or she speaks another language at home?

Still, I would give the benefit of doubt to the ESL program for better “assimilation” of my children but it’s my third point we need to consider seriously: the unfair treatment to the White child whose grandparents or great-grandparents or great great-grandparents came to Canada before the “Others” came in.

A nation with physical borders has to have a commonality (other than hockey) to exist peacefully. If we have the benefit of equality of all cultures, why this is not getting culturally crossed over?

If my kid is going to learn about “Canadian” things, doesn’t the White kid have a right to know about Vaisakhi, Diwali, or Eid? Not on a special multicultural day where kids dress up in “their traditional” wear and talk about “their culture”.

Instead of telling our kids (White and non-White alike) to respect the Aboriginal land we live on and be thankful for the rich heritage they have given us, we “study” them like a species. To me, that is breeding White vs. Other identity.

This “Other”, who lived in huts and wore feathers or came from foreign mystical lands of flying carpets and snake charmers (doesn’t matter if two generations before him or her have lived in Canada) has to assimilate in the “White” culture. Where is Trudeau’s no official culture?

This reminds me of a video project I did sometime ago. The main character was a second-generation South Asian and was filmed in both Canada and at location in South Asia. The second person of South Asian heritage in the piece was I, since I narrated the story.

There were two minor characters, one Middle Eastern in descent and one White. For time constraints, we had to pick one of the two. For me, the Middle Eastern was a stronger character in terms of background story that gave depth to the narrative. For my partner on the project (a White guy), it made more sense to keep the White person – not on strength of background story but to make the overall piece more “Canadian”. I still remember his awkward laugh and hesitation as he said to me, if we keep the Middle Eastern character, the video piece wouldn’t look and sound “Canadian”.

My partner is a nice person and a friend, but I was disappointed to see how he viewed Canadian identity. A senior (another White person) called the final shot and dropped the Middle Eastern character. He didn’t say if it were for “Canadian identity” purposes, but just the White person suited the story more. It has weighed on my chest since.

I still cannot imagine living anywhere else, but I want the Canadian identity to truly reflect the plurality of cultures.

Categories: Canadian Identity, Racism

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54 replies

  1. Please keep in touch. Would love to know u more. Fantastic article

  2. Very interesting, and also disturbing article. I am a White immigrant and I have no children, but, when I start a family, I will want my kids to speak my native tongue (Romanian). I don’t know if my kids will be White or biracial, but, either way, I wouldn’t like to think they won’t be considered Canadian enough. Thank you for bringing up this issue.

    • You are welcome. Identity is a very strong issue and people across cultures have the same sentiment – to belong and of being. Look what happened to the Aboriginal peoples when their sense of being was taken away. We don’t want that happening anymore.

  3. I met the Principal of the school while obtaining admission for my daughter in the intermediate grade. During the conversation, without even checking the credentials, she mentioned in an authoritative tone that my will daughter find it very challenging to handle the level of English in Canada. When I responded that she had a well developed language proficiency due to her English medium education in India and is quite adaptable to learning environment, he told that it was a whole lot different out here. She was openly skeptical. My daughter was sobbing by the time we got out of her room, it was a real rude style of communication from a well eductated ‘educational professional’. There was no ESL in Toronto, though. Well, my daughter was among the top performers in the English as well as other subjecfts during the very first year and now (in the 2nd year) she has surpassed her majority (over 95% of them are 2-3 generation Canadians) native Canadian fellow students and has been receiving recogntion for her excellence. Yes, the bias does exist and victims can get hit hard. Positive side is, system is capable of recognising performers and encouraging performance. Overall, I am very happy that my children have the opportunity to be educated in Canada. Grass root issues, mainly arising out of insulated mind set and island mentality need to be addressed at various levels.

    • So sorry to hear that your daughter had to personally go through this. My five-year old who doesn’t know anything beyond Canada was saved this hassle. It’s a complex issue and that is why I am uncomfortable with general classification of the “other”. But good for your daughter’s performance. I am sure she will be a productive member of the society. Good luck! Stay connected: like my FB page at facebook.com/SandhuBhamra

    • This is the beauty of the Canadian Education system. Here is the test that anyone can try. Teach your child the proper use of the word ‘please’. e.g. Please may I play outside. Please may I have a glass of water. Please may I watch television. You will have no problem teaching them this correct usage. However once your child goes to a Canadian School, the teacher will ‘correct’ your children, and teach them to put the please in the ‘middle’ of the sentence. May I ‘please’ play outside. May I ‘please’ have a glass of water. etc. When you point out this amazing idiosyncrasy to the teacher, the response you will get it is. Canadians are very polite people and always use please, or the classic. You don’t have to put your children in school here (alluding to going back to your own country). Most of these teachers belong in an ESL school, as they need to be ‘oerientated’ (a classic Canadian Malaprop) to proper English usage. Keep up the good work

      • Sanjay, it sounds like the English you were taught puts “please” at one point in the sentence, while the English I was taught (as a native speaker not in Canada) puts it elsewhere in the sentence. You are not suggesting that yours is the only correct way, are you?

        The Oxford Companion to the English Language (which I’ve read cover to cover) and The Story of English (also read cover to cover) teach that there are many different correct Englishes. To hold that there is only one correct way to use English the world over is a type of cultural and linguistic chauvinism that those treatises each caution against.


      • Again, we are not here to argue the nuances and usage of English language as spoken in Canada because a language is influenced by culture. English has varied spoken/written forms and a lot of local lingo, culture and words creep in and slowly they stay for good. One of the latest Reader’s Digest cover with the headline, “Who do we trust” invited a lot of flak from readers who argued it should be “whom” instead of “who” and RD explained it was accepted with changing flexible language norms. So I don’t really see that as an issue as much as how we perceive ourselves in the modern global world, how do we define nationalities and how do we place ourselves in this increasingly multiracial, multicultural world? It’s not about debating what is good and what is not, but what is it? What is being Canadian? That can’t be discussed at the cost of saying one is better than the other. Well, that’s my take. Thanks for your opinion. Do connect with me on FB at my page at: SandhuBhamra

      • If usage is not the issue, and we are debating why bilinguals children are put in ESL class by default, that you are right. This is implied racism and ethnic cleansing.

  4. You write so well! The words simply flow and the thoughts expressed herein are really worth pondering over. I only wish that your pieces were more frequent than they are. Once in ten days perhaps?

    • Thanks Vivek. Yes, I wish the same, it is such a flattering comment. As I mentioned in my first blog post, I am trying to balance kids at home with writing. My daughter starts school this fall and I hope to be more regular then. But – I will try. At present, it has been one post a month.

  5. Alas when some fill out the census regarding language(s) spoken at home, they can only fill in one box. As a kid who grew up surrounded by peers speaking “other” languages in playgrounds, there is some separation there that can, if not understood for what it really is, seem threatening.

    • That is because we are failing at cross-cultural communication. And that is the whole point of my post.

    • The plight of a mono linguistic Anglophone child. There is equal opportunity in Canada to be bilingual even multi lingual, no need to be threatened by others that are not like you.Furthermore no need for the system to be such that it threatens diverse children and forces them into submission. This is all the author is trying to bring forth. Why waste school board resources into humiliating proficient English speakers

  6. Being in administration in a rather small independent school outside of the lower mainland, I am a little surprised by the lack of parent choice. I would think an ESL program like this would be either voluntary, or dependent on a lack of English proficiency. Is there extra funding for ESL students?

    • I got a lot of feedback on other social platforms and some of the teachers have remarked that ESL is about filling in numbers. One emailed me saying that the program could affect my kid’s marks later on “as the school can’t justify ESL if your child is doing well”.

  7. Fantastic article, and you have pressed a very sore button. You would be surprised that this is not something native to Canada. USA is not too far behind, and we personally went through this hemorrhaging system with our older son. We are still absorbing the after shocks. We moved frequently, and new to US, had little idea about ESL. We happily put the language spoken at home – Bengali-on the form. As a result of a recent move, my 6 year old was trying to adjust to his new school and 1st grade class, and within a week the directive came that he would shunted off to a new school – 5 miles away, for the ESL program. We fought tooth and nail, but to no avail. We didn’t mind the program, we explained, but we did not want a different school. We had bought a house so that my son could avail of the neighborhood school, and yet he was put in a below par school because he HAD to be in ESL. A bad curriculum, and an equally bad management made sure his early years of schooling was sub standard. He stayed there, until in 3 rd grade, in some kind of a program, his ESL teachers visited home. And they saw a different child – well spoken, well read and with a very active mind – a far cry from the child they saw in school. Within a week, in April to be exact, he was ‘tested’ again, and passed with ‘95%’ in comprehension. This was in contrast to 35% he had scored in Feb. See a problem here?

    He was then moved back to his original school. However, in all this, my son developed low self esteem. How can it help a normal child when he has to go to ‘special’ school while all the kids in the neighborhood went to the normal school? He made no friends, no bonding. It took another move, a good two years, and a lot of patience to draw him out of his shell. Ironically, within two months of getting out of ESL, he was reading way above the reading levels of his grade and now he is gaining the grounds he lost out in those early years.

    When the time came for filling out the form for my younger child, I completely omitted the ‘other languages’ part, deliberately. No one was any wiser and my younger one was as much an American as his ONLY English speaking classmates.

    Three months later we moved from that state, and I kept it that way. English as the ONLY language spoken.I make it a point even to leave out ‘Ethnicity’ area blank. Legally, they can’t make me. It’s been great since.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story and giving your personal insight. I feel sorry for your son and I can empathize with your situation. But kudos to the way you brilliantly rejected the system and did what worked the best for your son.

  8. I have to say I find this article and it’s tone to be very disturbing. While I agree with the writer that placing a child who speaks fluent english into an ELS program because of languages spoken at home is both wrong and demeaning I very much disagree that it has anything to do with the colour of the child’s skin.
    Once again “The System” has taken it upon itself to try to help out or make things better for ESL children and in doing so it is not embracing them and nurturing the fact that many children are now multilingual. This is not helping the situation rather it is polarizing children and pointing out the little differences that make all children beautiful. This indeed is and should be wrong to all Canadians and as a 6th generation Canadian I am appalled. Children of all races, ethnicities and creeds need to be treated fairly and without prejudice.
    My problem with this article is its blatant racism. How does the term “white” even come into play in this story. As far as I can tell from the information given the use of white vs non-white was never used except by the writer. The question was simply on language. If a child is “white” and is German or Russian speaking at home then they would fall into the same ESL program the writer speaks about, correct?
    When the writer states “The message I got was: if you are not White, you are not-Canadian-enough”. Again the concept of skin colour was never raised here except by the writer. While stating that you and your family were the targets of racism you are now writing as a racist and that is breeding Other vs White identity.
    While I am truly sorry for the complete nonsense that you and you child have gone through at the hands of the school system turning this into a racial issue is not the way. I sincerely hope that all those who read this article and this response will open there hearts as well there minds and see that for all humans to get along we must look at each other as “humans”. Colour, race, and ethnicity have no place at the table.

    • Dave – the point I am trying to make is counter to racism. How I view racism is unfamiliarity of cultures, systems, languages and in my opinion and in the opinion of academics, researches and social scientists, we can increase the know-how and nip the “identity” crisis.
      As a journalist and writer, I do understand the implications of usage of words. I never say in the post that my ethnicity or any other is better over the other. From “White”, I mean and imply the European ancestry that Canada as a nation was initially founded on. It is not relevant in today’s terms. I give hundred per cent to learning English and French languages as they are the two official languages of my country. I don’t hold dual citizenship of any country and Canada is the only home now.
      My argument is within the framework of Canadian rules and policies according to which multiculturalism is a strong identity of our country. I do say that I support ESL but I am making a point of cross-cultural communication. If you read the above comments, particularly the one written by thelady8home, you will understand my point of view.
      But thanks for reading and giving me the feedback. That is the intent – to start a dialogue and get everyone in the society to be a part of it. I want to hear you, you want to know me and we should know the others. That is the making of a tolerant, peaceful nation. Please do connect with me on Facebook through my page at facebook.com/SandhuBhamra
      Again, thanks for putting across your viewpoint.

    • I read your response, Dave, and I think your act of coming to the blog of a person of color to tell her that she doesn’t know how to look at race issues is racist in itself. Even if you honestly disagree with her point, the fact that you think you get to say what has or doesn’t have place at the table is racist.

      • My act of coming to a blog of a person of colour? The fact that I “think” I get to say what has or doesn’t have place at the table is racist? That in its self is RACIST! Are you joking? I truly hope that you are. Its bigoted comments like yours that fuel racism. Who are “you” or rather who do you think you are to decide that what “I” have a say has more or less merit than anyone else commenting? The simple fact that you choose to call me by name and hide behind a pseudonym shows a lot about your character.
        If you would truly like to speak out on issues that you believe in then at least have the courage to do it under your real name. The internet can be a great place to learn about ideas and grow into new and exciting cultures but it can also be a dark and foreboding place where hate mongers and bigots can lash out and not be held accountable. I am not interested in your colour, race or ethnicity. Nor you political background, education or how much money you have. I am simply interested in people not pointing coloured fingers at each other.
        I am not angry with the writer. She has been wronged and is speaking out. Misguidedly speaking out but I believe she is trying to bring a touchy issue to light. Where it should be. I will add here that someone very near and dear to me was put though this same issue but at the tender age of thirteen. She was pulled aside in high school and asked to do an ESL exam because her family spoke Dutch at home. She is a blonde, fair skinned 1st generation Canadian and she went through the same ordeal. So how is this racism? How did this even get the label of “White”? I am not flaming this blog or its writer I will continue to follow Mrs. Bhamra and her journey as the leader and moderator of this blog.
        You sir/madame are welcome to your views and I hope to hear from you soon.
        Dave Whitfield

        • The username I am “hiding” behind is my WordPress username that links to my public blog – in the blogosphere that is not considered an anonymous comment. I don’t owe anyone my personal information. Welcome to Internet 101.
          Even if the incident mentioned in the article had more to do with nationality than colour (something with which I happen to agree), I still think your dramatic comment and reverse racism schtick were racist. But not everybody’s falling for it. And yes, in case it never ocurred to you, the “table” belongs to the author of the blog, and it is for her to say which topics have a place and which don’t. Welcome to common decency 101.
          Congratulations on your courage though. It was about time someone stood up for White people…

          • Catintherain thank oh so much for introducing to the internet and to common decency. I wonder where I would be without people like you to guide my ever lost soul. Too bad your class in common decency does not come with a side of common sense. I will reiterate again “who” are you to to decide which table I may sit at? Am I not welcome at this table because I am “white” and of “European ancestry”? As you said it is up to the author to decide and you are not the author. Oh and yes the author of this blog has invited me to sit at her table and share. So your dramatic comment on my common decency has no place.
            Reverse racism schtick? I don’t think you fully grasp the understanding of reverse racism. As a “white” Canadian of “European ancestry” reverse racism is to be used against whites of european ancestry not by them but lets not go down this road. This banter is misleading to the true focus of the article.
            The issue mentioned in the authors article I believe is about language first and nationality second. Let me start with this. I am a blue eyed, brown haired 6th generation Canadian of English, Scottish, Finnish, and Ukrainian heritage as far as “White” goes I am pretty darn “White” and I have no idea what “Canadian” heritage/culture is other than what the Native Americans of each area hold as their culture. No country has a distinct culture of its own. Countries are made by warlords and politicians not by the people of a culture. All countries are a mix of natives, invaders and travellers. Cultures change with the times as they always have as they always will. Why are people so interested in culture? Why do we fight and die for the things that set us apart and yet yearn to be treated as an equal? What I do know is as a “Canadian” I do not care what your skin colour is, nor what language you speak but as a “Canadian” it is not ever a question whether or not you are welcome at my table. You are welcome at my table because I am “Canadian”. Canadians are passionate and compassionate not passive. We love fiercely and fight the same. We are friendly and always looking to help someone in need. A Canadian is someone you want watching your back and someone to share a meal with . Being Canadian is a state of mind not a culture. It is who you are, not what you are. This is what being “Canadian” is to me. Come one, come all and be “Canadian”, but you can keep your culture.

            Warmest Regards,
            Dave Whitfield

      • Unless Dave is invisible, he has a colour.

        Am I to believe that one can not be critical of a “person of colour” when it comes to issues of race. Is it your opinion that people of colour are infallible in this regard?

        I believe the author is encouraging discourse on this matter.

      • What I am encouraging is a dialogue on Canadian identity. My intent is purely that. Let’s all focus on the core issue. Each one of you has an invaluable insight, experience, thought – let’s all bring it to the table and discuss how we can define Canadian identity that is reflective of your plural cultures.

    • I agree with you Dave, White is a RACIST term. The true colour is Pink, but this sounds stupid and inferior. People who use the term White to define themselves are racist. . Caucasian is better, most of us Indians are Aryans but we don’t brandish this term on others in society because we are not racist. We are a secular people with amazing diversity. Christmas in India is celebrated by one and all in urban centres. In Canada it is a private family dinner.Anglo-Canadian society has it’s limitations. You will agree with me that ethnic cleansing using such ESL programs are quite ridiculous, and not required. When you intimidate one generation of people with poor outcomes of speaking a second language, it is only logical that coming generations will desist from being bilingual. Keep mispronouncing easily pronounced foreign names, and one will have a uniform mono linguistic mono cultural Canadian society. Kudos!

      Nothing wrong with speaking up, regardless of you playing the race card.

  9. Dear Dave, I appreciate your honesty and your open dialogue. That is the underlying purpose of my blog: to engage people in dialogue. We all can hold different opinions, but we have to learn to respectfully disagree with one another (if we don’t agree). I understand your point but let me reiterate that I am not playing the racism card, I am not saying I am a “victim” of racism. If that is what you are taking away from my post, I will kindly ask you to give the article, another chance, go through it once more and then think again.

    I am not doubting your intelligence, because you are bringing a valid point to the discussion. Your example is pretty solid and I agree. But the whole point of my post it to question the identity of “Canadian culture”. What exactly it is. And again, I repeat, by “White” identity I am referring to the Euro culture. I am just referring how that is being defined as the Canadian identity in 2012. (And let’s not forget Aboriginal people; the core identity of Canada)

    I am well aware that the foundation of Canada as a nation was founded on Euro-French identity that in common parlance is known as the “White” identity. Post the multiculturalism policy, our government recognizes the plurality of Canada’s cultures. I am not offering any solutions, but I am asking you all, how do we redefine the Canadian identity by giving respect to different cultures in the context of English and French as national languages. I am not saying let’s make Hindi and Punjabi the national languages of Canada. I am not.

    I am not saying the school board, by putting my kid in ESL, is being racist. NO, I didn’t say it, I didn’t imply it. I am questioning the Canadian identity, we all have a right to question it if we don’t see ourselves being included in that definition. In fact, I think I will write another post and include all the other stories parents, educators and people from other minorities have shared with me in private messages. Thanks to you for raising this and making me think to expand on it.

    All I would say is don’t say I am “misguided”, I am not saying that to you and as respectfully disagreeing adults, we can engage in the dialogue without launching personal attacks. Because the core issue here is to define Canadian identity, not how guided or misguided you and I are. Let’s focus on the topic and bring our perspectives and possible solutions to the table. Thank you. I look forward to hearing from you more. Warm regards – Anu

  10. My son is white. But we speak Hebrew at home to him, he listens to Hebrew music. I wonder if he would be “white enough”. Your great article has made me decide that I might just not admit to him knowing Hebrew when I fill out the forms.

    • You mean not “Canadian” enough. If you’re concern has a basis in reality then you have just refuted the basis for the title of the article. You can’t get any whiter without bleach and yet your son may be seen as not Canadian enough.
      Dave also provided an example where being white – very white -did not spare a Dutch person from ESL.

      • Rob, again (I just left you a reply on your previous comment) what is “Canadian”. When I use the word “White” it implies “Euro” ancestry. I am saying the 2012 Canadian identity needs to be plural. I am asking everyone to redefine being “Canadian”. Best.

    • Gareth – I am glad we all are engaging in this dialogue. We as a society, collectively need to come up with suggestions how we can be more inclusive without losing out on learning English and French language skills.

  11. Thank you for writing such a wonderful and thought-provoking blog post. I really enjoyed reading it as it gave me another parent perspective for my job. I am an Elementary school ESL teacher (now called ELL – English Language Learner) and ESL myself, born in Budapest, Hungary immigrating to Canada at the age of 3. My particular school district’s mandate has always been to test students entering Kindergarten ONLY if their FIRST language at home was anything other than English (including French). For the past two years, I have been presenting our ELL program to new parents at our Kindergarten orientation meetings, specifying the first language on the registration forms, explaining the five year government funding (for resources, teachers, programs) and allowing the parents to sign up for testing. Parents are also made aware that they have the right to exit their children from ELL coding at any time within the five years of funding. Our particular program focusses mainly on literacy skills such as oral language development (vocabulary/grammar), reading and writing. An introduction to Canadian hobbies, foods, games and sports, etc. is usually reserved for newly immigrated families, perhaps 2 to 5 students in any given year. We honour our South Asian students’ cultures by celebrating Vaisakhi and Diwali with whole school assemblies every year, not on Multicultural days. I hope that I have given an “inside” perspective from a teacher’s point of view. I would never dream of “Canadian-ising” any one as I am a proud Hungarian-Canadian, my husband a proud French-Canadian and my son, a French-Hungarian-Canadian. Hopefully your school becomes more sensitive and empathic when it comes to ELL labelling. I know I will further the discussion with my colleagues. My kindest regards to you!
    With appreciation,
    Gabriella Bruxelle

    • Dear Gabriella, thank you so much for the insider’s view. Much appreciated. I felt strongly about how the concept of ESL was introduced to me, so I wrote about it. I think it is a topic that a lot of people feel strongly about (going from the reaction I am getting on the blog and in personal email messages, so many varied views) and am so glad that we all are hearing different sides – that was my intent – engaging in a dialogue. Your info is very useful.

    • Hi Gabriella, you have explained it pretty well, almost everything we talked about at school. The only thing I would add is that during my experience as a teacher, I have seen kids of all colours in ESL (or ELL). It is sad that true essence of the program was not explained well.

      • Dear Gabriella and Mankirat, thanks for the invaluable insight from an educator’s perspective. As I say it in the post as well, the whole experience made me think about “Canadian identity”. Never do I say this program isn’t right or we don’t need it. I am questioning the way it is framed (as Mankirat said the true essence isn’t explained well) and secondly, the bigger underlying question: “What is Canadian identity?”

  12. First off, I would like to say that the most Canadian guy I know is my Vietnamese born friend, Long Quang. Secondly, I’d like to point I’m Caucasian. A smorgasbord of Irish, English, German, and Spanish. I emphasize the Irish to the boys and the Spanish to the ladies. Mind you this type of self identification only occurs in pubs.

    While I can appreciate how a provocative title can generate interest, I have to point out that its based on a non sequitur. You’re inference that “. . . if you’re not white, you’re not Canadian enough.” does not logically follow from:
    “I asked her if they put a White kid in ESL or do they assume that all White children have a good command of English language and know everything ‘Canadian‘? She confirmed my worst fear: even if my daughter were a fourth-generation Canadian, as long as she listened to Punjabi and Hindi music, she would be in ESL.”

    Did the principle explicitly state that a white child who listens to or who speaks Dutch or Hebrew (for example) at home would be exempt? Otherwise, the only logical conclusion I can get from the above quote is that speaking fluent English wasn’t necessarily Canadian enough, as opposed to anything to do with pigmentation. In fact, Dave provides an example where an English speaking girl’s white skin, blue eyes and blonde hair did not spare her from the ESL program. This alone directly refutes the basis for the title.

    From my perspective, I don’t think its necessary for a child who is fluent in English to be forced to take ESL. But a course on Canadian society might be a nice elective or extracurricular.

    However, my perspective doesn’t amount to hill of beans when it comes to the objectives of a government run school system. The Canadian public school system may accommodate and celebrate cultural diversity but one of its main objectives is to groom children into consumers who consent with, work for, and be leaders within the framework of the current status quo. I think we are all grown up enough to understand that our elected representatives that we’ve entrusted to make decisions on our behave are more greatly influenced by large corporations and special interest groups. And with that in mind, conformity with an eye towards uniformity is more valued than diversity when it comes to core values and norms of behaviour; less variables to control. There is a certain type of citizen that the current power structure, via the school system and media, has developed a pretty good handle on how to rule and tax. All children are more or less assimilated towards this end. The public school system (and most private) is kind of like the Borg [Star Trek] that way. The extreme means that the government will utilize to this end is how they have dealt with aboriginals as you have touched on.

    The educators may determine that some children may require extra work to be assimilated and some children who experience more culturally compatible experiences at home may not. For example some black kid from England, listening to his cockney parents squawk back and forth when he’s at home may not be required to take ESL.

    So, while it may appear the assimilation of your daughter may have a racial motivation its de facto political and pragmatic. A government is not going to bend to every possible idiosyncrasy of an ethnically diverse labour force they are trying to rule. So they would rather have less core diversity while allowing superficial diversity. Everybody loves Folk-fest.

    As you can probably tell, I don’t believe they are only altruistic forces behind multiculturalism. Canada wants to attract workers, preferably skilled ones and those who will work for less. Or better yet, a combination of the two. However, the government also wants those workers to be pleasingly predictable employees and consumers. Thus the indoctrination in the school system. Of course we can change this if enough of us hold are representatives to task instead of allowing ourselves to be distracted by TV and the like.

    In my opinion, what your daughter is experiencing has more to do with a government trying to deliver a compliant work force for its corporate masters than it has to do with pigmentation. There is just simply more whites who have been conditioned. If there were more purples here than you could substitute the word purple for the word white in your title (and still be essentially wrong in my opinion). I am not trying to justify any of this. I am just stating why I believe current system operates the way it does.

    I also am of the opinion that when too much focus is placed on race it spotlights what is the most easily identifiable and the most superficial difference between groups of people: pigmentation, which can then act as a barrier to truth. The response to the criticism of Obama is great example of this. He taught constitutional law at Harvard and yet he renewed the Patriot Act (broke a big election promise in doing so) and has made it legal for the first time in American history for a sitting president to be able to have an American killed with out due process. We can be critical without having a racial bias and yet this accusation still persists by some. It’s a fools game. Think of it this way, according to neuroscientists there is only one race.

    That is not to say racism is not an issue in today’s society but I think that sometimes people are biased towards there being a racial bias as a motivator when there isn’t one.

    OK well I think I rambled on enough, cheers.

    ~ Rob

    • I don’t think you have rambled Rob. First of all, thanks for reading my post and secondly, I am glad it stirred emotions that you wrote strongly about it. As I said to another reader, Dave Whitfield above, I am not talking about facing racism of any sorts, I am talking about redefining the concept of Canadian culture. You give a very good suggestion when you say, “From my perspective, I don’t think its necessary for a child who is fluent in English to be forced to take ESL. But a course on Canadian society might be a nice elective or extracurricular.”
      I like this – that is what the purpose of the blog was – to engage people in a dialogue, so we can collectively come up with a definition of Canadian identity and culture. I am no authority to say it should be one and you alone can’t define it either. It’s through a dialogue like this, we as a society can bring a new definition. Thank you so much for your time. Do connect with me on my Facebook page, user ID: SandhuBhamra. My warmest regards – Anu

  13. Great topic for discussion. My 1st concern is I just wish this came from someone who wasn’t effected by it but saw someone else being effected, that’s the only way I could have said our society is milti cultural(as we claim it to be)
    Rather than having something called ESL why not have something to learn about this society where immigrants should be taught about accepting each other with their differences, encourage them to live richness of their own culture and mingle with others instead of trying to bend them in some other way. On one hand when i(or another immigrant)tells others that I know more than 2 or 3 languages, people look at us as we are smart but on the other hand same thing is discouraged by putting kids in ESL.
    There will be a day when Diwali visakhi and Eid will also be national holidays just like Christmas but only by dialogue like thus one. Keep up with good work Mrs Bhamra.

    • I meant to say someone who doesn’t has to go through ESL, someone who is already do called canadianized, someone who already knows about ice hockey, I wish this issue came from someone like that after seeing someone else going through this instead of looking away and ignoring it that’s the only way I could say yes it’s a society where we care about each others concerns we value each others cultures and we welcome others as much as they love to be called Canadian.,
      I still remember the day I saw a Facebook group keep Canada Canadian, I kept they in my mind n wanted to join it the day I got my citizenship because now I was a Canadian also. But just like most of us I just didn’t bother to be part of such a “non Canadian ” attitude. I believe as English and French are two official languages one should know one of these official languages before they move to Canada but when there is NO official culture then why are you forcing me or our kids to learn about ice hockey, about bacon, what’s the need?so we can fit in none existing Canadian culture .maybe embarrassing and accepting each others cultures and be proud of your own is what needs to be basics of that ESL.
      Definition of “being Canadian” needs to be redefined and be part of our education n media for everyone to be aware n more accepting of others.

  14. As a non-Canadian, the answer to your question of what I think of when I think of Canada would be that I think of the variety of cultures there (the Sikh customs official who greeted us at the airport in Toronto might have some bearing on this, so Sat Sri Akal, my friend). Trudeau’s notion of there being no official culture is just a recipe for disaster, as it can lead some to the idea that officially Canada is culture-less, when anyone can see that is the furthest thing from the truth.

    Here in california it is impossible to miss the culture mix, whether it’s looking around town or dealing with government bureaucracies. As a member of a family blended from two people whose ancestors originated from two separate continents (neither of which is North America), we’ve dealt with it with the kids and government too. On forms asking for ethnicity, I just skip checking any boxes.


  15. Remember what Mark Twain said, don’t let school interfere with your education. In Canada it is play school till grade 8, let your children (not kids) enjoy their play time. This Anglo-Canadian pigeon holing is seamless and very deceiving. You picked it, and made your point. Hopefully it will be be taken by prospective ESL Candidate families. My personal opinion is that ALL Anglo-Canadians should be in ESL programs as they speak very poor English. Almost all of them are raised by the television, and speak TV Slang. This makes the argument you have raised a non issue.

    As visible minorities we should try and keep out own language and heritage intact, rather than fight for a piece of the mono linguistic English Pie. शायद हिन्दी में एक ब्लॉग

    • Dear Sanjay – thanks for your comments and expressing your opinion on the subject. My take is when a new culture “sets” in an established norm, both have to make space for each other. That is why I argue, ESL shouldn’t be one way, but another program should flow to the “established culture”, only then can we find a true Canadian identity. I don’t debate the merits and demerits of the program itself, because I still think it is a useful program for those who don’t know the language and come from different backgrounds, or less privileged circumstances.

      • The other programme you refer to should be ‘outlawing racial harassment’. We have heard of sexual harassment where one can say innocuous things to a lady co-worker and get in trouble. (e.g nice legs). However how many times do people of Indian origin have to answer to people of ‘Anglo’ origin that they did not have an arranged marriage! (An arranged marriage is where one has no choice and has never seen the spouse before marriage). This was true in India in the early 1900, but also true for the British royalty.

        I don’t ask a Canadian born Anglo-Canadian why his/her mother is still dating and maybe even seeking marriage, as this is racial/cultural harassment. Hopefully you will address this issue in your future posts.

  16. Brilliant Article…I wasn’t aware of the fact that the Public schools in Canada insist on enrolling the Non-white ( if that’s the correct term) in ESL program. In Toronto, I did not encounter any such issue. What I thought the ESL program was -a program meant for kids who weren’t doing well in school and needed additional help and not doing well in school was established by the grades,they were getting in school. In other words, it wasn’t just assumed that since you aren’t white , you have to be in ESL. It meant the kids grades show he needs help in English language. So this article came as quite a shock to me. I am still not quite sure that this happens in Toronto as well. But the fact that learning ESL means learning about the Canadian culture???? Now my question is, so from this we can assume that the curriculum, the projects taught in school aren’t sufficient to teach the kids about the Canadian culture. Ten or whatever years spent in a school in Canada are not enough to teach them about the culture but some extra time in ESL would make up for that lack???? It doesn’t make sense. I mean the fact that whether we have done MBA, CA or MBBS ( degree to become a doctor) we still have to study here again ( the same rules & information, just the way the curriculum is set is different that’s all) because our education isn’t considered good enough for Canadian standards. Now our kids have to be subject to this…hmmmm!!!

  17. Canada is an English Colony, and colonialism rules. Enjoy your second class status all, non English decent people.

  18. Hi Anu,
    I liked it very much. Please forward this article to the BC Minister of Education. It should be recognised as Multiculturalism-101 for every teacher in BC.

    • Thanks for the kind comments Suresh. Yeah, I strongly feel multiculturalism should be adopted in practice – it remains as a policy on paper or more like a service of sorts. It needs to become the way of living.

  19. My post is still waiting to be moderated, so I guess it was too heavy stuff. However, for the blogist, here is one documentary about the formation of Israel and extremist judaism, explaining the events that take place in the world that I was referring on my previous post. And how the different ideological waves(communism, feminism, multiculturalism etc.) in every sector of society in the West are often rooted on that story and Talmud, the most racistic and supremacist book in human history.

    It’s 25 years old, but still valid more than ever especially now when the conflict in middle-east has flared up again. It has Christian point of view, but is very well and academically researched.

    The Other Israel, presented by Ted Pike

  20. With respect, this article makes major errors.

    1. First of all, Canada HAS a CULTURE. I know, I was born here, and grew up in this country. I don’t have to prove to anyone I, as a Canadian, I have a culture that is not Indian, Chinese, British, or French. It is your job to accept our CANADIAN identity and culture NOT even question it. Would you question a First Nations culture? Or say the tribe has no culture because it is blended from several tribes years ago? Would you question someone else’s personal identity? Reasonable people recognize how rude and intrusive it is to question or seek to tear apart someone else’s identity, which is deeply integrated with their culture.

    Canada has as much culture as India does, although both have some diversity within that. Yes, there is SOME diversity in Canada, but the PRIMARY culture is Canadian, the Canadian ethnicity, divided clearly by Aboriginal, French, and English regions. People who have been in Canada 2 or 3 generations have far more in common with Canada than their ancestral homeland. That’s what binds us together, and defines us. English and French languages define the Canadian culture, but so does mentalite, lexicon, values, accent, and practices. The same things that define all other cultures. The very same things that define your general Indian culture.

    If you are having trouble perceiving Canadian culture, consider that you can’t claim to have a distinct culture (ie. Indian) without something to compare it against, can you?

    2. Those of us BORN here have a RIGHT to retain the culture of our homeland. Immigrants are wonderful people who bring some diversity, but they CHOOSE to come into OUR sphere, and have no moral or ethical right to IMPOSE onto us changes in national identity. It’s about healthy boundaries. Boundaries. A concept lost on the extremists who seek to redfine Canada for their own needs.

    3. Canada has had the highest immigration levels in the world for the past 2 decades, and among the most open immigration systems for decades. Unlike Russia, China, India, and most other countries of the world, Canada made the decision to allow in people from all over the world. A good decision if done right. Now some immigrants have become so entitled, so self-satisfied, that they seek to redifine the whole nation in their own image. The intent is for “equality”, but the result is a kind of invasion, the end of the Canadian culture that pre-existed them.

    4. Despite all this openness, all Canada has is a couple ESL programs to protect our culture, and still people complain??? ESL programs that teach kids Canadian culture are crucial to the survival of Canada as we know it. Yet, you question even these. What do you think will become of Canada in 100 years if we decry any sense of pre-existing, pre-eminent culture and bring in another 40 million more people from regions of the world vastly different from this countries Western foundations??? Obviously, the original inhabitants wil be totally overwhelmed and the culture transformed to meet the needs of those from other countries. Not rational.

    Put another way, the problem with Sandhu’s conception of Canada as a country with no culture, is that it gives absolutely no respect for those here before her, and paves the way for immigration without end, and change without limit, regardless of whether or not it benefits Canadians here first and who built the country she found just 9 years ago.

    5. Yes, newcomers have every right to practice their own culture at home as they see fit. However, they have no right whatsoever to impose their culture on the rest of us, that is, the institutions, the schools, the government, the mainstream media, and the like, in the name of “equality”. As stated, they CHOOSE to come into OUR sphere. They are lucky to be here in the first place (and we lucky to have them). Those of us born here — we got no place to go. We were here first. The line must be drawn in the sand. We have no obligation to loose it all, as Sandhu implies.

    6. One other note. Often the fact Aboriginal people were here before the English and French and Europeans is often used as a crude justification to claim even Canadians do not have any claims to Canadian land or even boarders. Let us consider the logic of this assertion.

    It is true that Aboriginal people were here first. Which is precisely why we must respect their identies and the uniqueness of their 500+ cultures. Being logically consistent, we must accept the Canadian culture prior to mass immgiration on the VERY SAME GROUNDS. It’s about WHO IS HERE FIRST. We don’t support natives because they are brown. We support them based on principle. They were here first. Likewise, we respect the Canadian society constructed to the tune of about 95% by Anglo, Franco, and other Europeans up until just about 20 years ago. We respect the contributions of all minority groups in CONTEXT, reasonably based on historical facts, going back to 1867 and earlier. We don’t pretend there was no society here first and that Canada just bubbled up out of the ether by itself or was created by the People Of The World like some carefully crafted Square Dance. Equality means we take into account historical and international context.

    The rational way to help the First Nations is to settle land-claims, make treaties, renegotiate dubvious treaties, devolve self-government over the long term. Just as countries in other parts of the world with mistreated indigenous minorites ought to resolve their domestice issues.

    But giving people form other India or Russia or China or anywhere else special claims because of the bad way Natives were treated is fundamentally illogical, deeply convenient, and unfair to the vast majority of Canadians whose family members contructed this country and who were born here. Let’s be honest.

    7. The above article brings up the issue of race. This ought to be addressed. Equating assertions of Canadian culture as racist is in and of itself racist. Because it assumes that because the majority of Canadian-born are White, they must be defined by their colour. Why can’t you accept their culture, the fact they were here before you, and the fact they built most of the country you joined?

    Let us not forget, MILLIONS of Canadians who eptomize the “mainstream Canadian culture” are not white. Many are of South-Asian, African, or east-Asian ancestry. You want to pretent they don’t matter? They don’t exist? It would seem that those who equate assertions of Canadian culture as Whtie racism as themselves racists.

    But go ahead, Try to shame that big ol White Bear with the claims of racism. Play on their deepest fears and wimpies aspects of self-loathing. But don’t expect it to win you the day. Because in the end, it is based on a race-based criticism rather than principle itself. And fails to acknowledge that culture and race are NOT the same thing.

    White racism is a real problem. But so is racism a human phenomenon that knows no national boundaries and no real limits. We must learn to recognize racism and route it out, wherever it may exist, until all are seen as one.

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