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Assimilation and Retention

Multiculturalism: An Inclusive Citizenship

In 1971, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada adopted multiculturalism as an official policy, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Canada's Heritage department describes multiculturalism as an inclusive citizenship:

Canadian multiculturalism is fundamental to our belief that all citizens are equal. Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry, and [can] have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to and accepting of diverse cultures.

Muskrat Pelts

Canada welcomes people from around the world and has one of the highest per capita rates of immigration of any country. Canada is thought of as a country of immigrants. Once in Canada, many people celebrate their heritage by taking part in such things as dance troupes, church groups, sports teams, and cultural festivities.

However, no matter how strong these associations are, for many people, leaving their land of birth for Canada involves a culture shock. Life in Canada is not the same as it was in their homeland even if they are surrounded by friends, families, and cultural associations. Although official multiculturalism allows and encourages immigrants to bring their culture to Canada if they wish, immigrants are also expected to adapt their lifestyles to Canada. Sometimes these adaptations are practical ones, such as wearing winter clothing over traditional or religious clothing. More often, however, they are social or legal. Customs and laws are different in Canada than in other countries and immigrants are expected to observe these differences just as Canadians are expected to honour different cultures.

Dogrib men at Great Slave Lake

In Canada, there are established and standardized norms that govern behaviour: greeting someone by shaking his or her hand. This may be different from other cultures. Immigrating means adjusting to these norms. In addition, some practices such as polygamy, while legal in other countries are illegal in Canada. While many immigrants wish to maintain their culture, language, and religion when they move, after they arrive in Canada, however, they find they are forced to make sacrifices in order to fit into Canadian society. What aspects of their culture to keep and what customs of Canadian society to adopt are some of the most important decisions immigrants make.

Cultural retention

Kainai (Blood) artist Gerald Tailfeathers

The decision to keep one’s culture as separate and distinct from the rest of society is known as cultural retention. Most often this choice is a group one: one such example is the decision by some of the first Icelandic immigrants who established a community known as New Iceland north of Winnipeg. They sought to establish a community of Icelanders where they could preserve their language, farming techniques, clothing, and religion from outside forces. Today, the Hutterites are an example of a group that has retained its culture.

Other groups may not enforce isolation from the rest of society as these two groups did, but immigrants are still attracted to areas where people from their home country have settled in the past. This can be seen by the fact that the large majority of incoming immigrants choose to live in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Living with people from a similar background allows new immigrants to continue speaking their native language, to eat food they are accustomed to, to practise their chosen religion, to wear traditional clothing, and to participate in cultural events (such as Chinese New Year or Ramadan).

Other times, the choice to retain culture is made by a family or individual. This might have to do with particular beliefs or because there is a small population of their ethnic group where they live.


Santa Maria Goretti Procession

The opposite of retention is assimilation. Becoming assimilated occurs when a person or group of people takes on the dominant characteristics of the larger group. The result is that that they are no longer readily distinguishable from the larger group. Some people may not fully assimilate but, instead, they may give up certain aspects of their culture for the dominant one while retaining others. Assimilation is easiest amongst groups that already share similar characteristics.

For example, Dutch immigrants in Alberta were, for the most part, assimilated into the larger society rather quickly because of their shared profession (farmers), religion (Christianity), and history (coming from Northern Europe). The Dutch also represent a group that saw advantages in adapting to the larger society and that attempted to assimilate.

For other groups wishing to assimilate, however, the act of assimilating is more difficult. While Canadian society is becoming more and more diverse, the majority of Canadians remain Christian and Caucasian. Immigrants who do not fit into these categories (e.g., Somalis) find it harder to assimilate. Even if a Somali adopts the language, dress, religion, and customs of Canada, the colour of his or her skin makes it difficult — if not impossible — to disappear into the majority.

Decisions and Dilemmas

Serving food at the Italian Pavilion

As mentioned already, immigrating to Canada makes it impossible for newcomers to retain all of their culture and way of life as they had been. The dilemma many immigrants face is how much to keep and how much to adjust. Most people retain their religious and cultural celebrations while at the same time adjusting to the majority by learning English or French — either to find employment or as part of the process of becoming a Canadian citizen. After these decisions are reached, though, many immigrants face tougher choices: should traditional or "Canadian” clothing be worn? Should cultural or “Canadian” food be eaten?

Calabrese handicrafts on display

For different people and groups, the answers are different. One frequent solution is to retain the culture at home: some Chinese people speak Mandarin to family members while adopting Canadian actions in public.

That the desire to retain a distinct culture diminishes over successive generations (though new waves of immigration can affect this) seems a common theme across all immigrant groups. People born in a foreign country are often hesitant about abandoning the customs and norms they grew up with and they may view Canadian society as strange and alien. However, younger immigrants or children of immigrants — that is, children born in Canada — may grow up seeing the Canadian way of life as normal and their parents’ homeland as foreign. The younger generation may not feel as strongly about holding on to the traditional culture or may feel more at ease with adapting traditions to their new way of life.

Calabrese display at the Italian Pavilion

This difference can cause tension between generations. One example of this is the difference in dating rituals between Canada and other countries, particularly for females. In Canada, interaction between males and females is encouraged and dating is often (though not always) an informal process. In other countries such as India, however, there are rules surrounding the interaction of males and females and dating is seen as a step towards marriage that must be approved — if not initiated — by parents. Immigrant parents from these countries often enforce the more conservative cultural rules while their daughters, having grown up in Canada, feel they should be allowed to act in the same manner as their friends. This can cause arguments as parents feel their children are not respecting them, while children feel their parents are denying them a basic right enjoyed by others.

While these adjustments require decisions on the part of immigrants, newcomers to Canada have no choice but to make those adjustments necessitated by law.

One law that may be different in Canada than in some immigrants’ home countries is gender equality. In Canada, males and females have equal rights and are treated equally under the law. Both can vote, run for office, wear clothing of their choosing, or work in any profession. In countries such as Iran, and often as a result of religious beliefs, women do not always have these rights. This affects families that immigrate to Canada because traditional gender roles are altered with the move.

While women adjust to exercising these rights, men adjust to their wives', fiancées', daughters', or sisters' new rights. Some immigrant women, for instance, enter into the workforce for the first time after arriving in Canada; sometimes they do so out of economic necessity. In Canada, the practice of polygamy is illegal. Some sects of different religions (e.g., Mormonism) follow this tradition. When moving to Canada, however, this custom must be discontinued.

Although Canada is a multicultural country, by expecting immigrants to follow the local laws, Canada places boundaries on the extent of multiculturalism practised. The goal is to have different cultures respected and practised throughout the country while at the same time establishing a cohesive society based on similar norms and values. Becoming a Canadian means agreeing to abide by these values in exchange for the rights and freedoms granted to all citizens.

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