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The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century - La distinction canadienne au tournant du XXIe siecle

Chad Gaffield
Karen L. Gould

The Texture of Canadian society / Le caractère de la société canadienne

The Multicultural Wheel: The Texture of Canadian Society and Literature in the Twenty-first Century

Maya Dutt

Note de l’auteur

The research on which this article is based was funded with the assistance of the government of Canada through the Canadian Studies Programme of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (SICI). Neither the government of Canada nor SICI necessarily endorses the views expressed herein.

Texte intégral

1 Multicultural questions have pervaded art, literature, and sociopolitical and economic studies for several decades now. The questions reflect the wide spectrum of concerns central to any discussion of multiculturalism. They critically examine problematic areas like canonization of specific cultures, affirmation of a mainstream ‘we’ as distinct from a marginal ‘other’ and foregrounding of ethnicity and literary response. They point out, curiously enough, that dual currents coexist – a community consciousness and an ethnic awareness together with a desire for a supra-ethnic national identity which will forge national consciousness.

2Canada has a rich and varied multicultural population profile. Ethnically heterogeneous, it has about 36 per cent white British Canadians, 32 per cent French Canadians, 2 per cent Natives; the remainder made up of diverse ethnic origins such as Asian, African, European, and Jewish. Immigrants from all parts of the world have contributed to its demographic evolution. Whereas at the turn of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants came from Europe and Eastern Russia, during the last thirty years, the major source of immigrants to Canada has been from the Asia-Pacific region. This ethnic diversity shows all signs of broadening still further in the twenty-first century. The evolving global, demographic, and economic trends seem to suggest that Canada's future immigrants will come from non-traditional countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Canada 1985:668). Many programs have been initiated to create an awareness of multiculturalism in Canada. The multicultural policy of 1971 as well as programs implemented to date, however, do not seem to have met the needs of the minority. “To a large extent multiculturalism has been treated as a folkloric extravaganza, a social handicap and a political football” (Passaris 1989:3). Many works of literature reflect the cultural and political bitterness of immigrant communities. As Passaris affirms, “it would seem that the federal government's original policy has run its course and is no longer an adequate foundation for visionary and creative programs and initiatives that will pave the way for a vibrant, dynamic and harmonious Canadian society by the turn of the century” (1989:3). A new approach needs to be devised that will ensure and guarantee the full and equal co-operation of all Canadians in the various spheres of nation building. The 1987 bill entitled An Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada has laid a legislative foundation for a new vision of multiculturalism. This bill may well become the springboard for a positive and creative multiculturalism, where the priceless asset of multiracial human resources in Canada can be used to its full potential to evolve a great nation.

3Literature reflects the times, and immigrant literary texts serve as major points of reference for the dual purpose of exploring and evaluating the different racial, cultural, religious, and value orientations that are in the process of evolving and merging with one another and with the mainstream culture. The texts are in fact authoritative cultural studies that “cut across diverse social and political interests and address many of the struggles within the current scene” (Grossberg et al. 1992:1-3). They are politically engaged since they question inequalities within power structures and seek to restructure relationships among dominant and subordinated cultures. They examine the entire range of a society's belief and institutions, the means of production of texts and other paraliterary questions such as publication, distribution, and marketing. Much of the immigrant and Native Canadian literatures produced in the recent past deals with multicultural issues that either posit unity in diversity or seek a merger of the various racial and cultural groups in Canada. The texts seem to suggest that both of these are myths where the core symbols are distance and difference. The literary construction of such myths can explain, justify, or even undermine an existing reality. Just as British colonizers justified their presence in the colonies on the basis of the myth of the racial inferiority of the colonized peoples, so runs a counter myth of a heroic past and a rich cultural heritage. It then becomes a celebration of difference rather than of unity.

4Native and immigrant literary texts often seem to support the idea of a genuine aspiration to recognize and appreciate diversities, despite the differences among tens of thousands of Asians, Latin Americans, Mexicans, West Indians, not to mention the Native Canadians themselves. Newly empowered voices ask for their narratives to be heard. A few selected texts by some representative writers of both minority cultures are examined here with a view to prove that “the culture of the next century will put a premium on people's ability to deal productively with conflict and cultural differences,” as Graff and Phelan observe, for “learning by controversy is sound training for citizenship in that future” (Graff and Phelan 1995: v). Works of fiction by writers such as M.G. Vassanji and Bharati Mukherjee are evaluated as examples of the South Asian diaspora in Canada, while selected works of the Native Canadian writers Jeannette Armstrong and Basil Johnston provide the basis for studying the cultural differences inherent in yet another cog in the Canadian multicultural wheel. These cogs, as their works reveal, are engaged in the process of learning to participate meaningfully in all the issues critically important to society, culture, and government. This empowerment of the so-called marginal groups – retaining rather than submerging their distinctive identities – effects itself through the utilization of language as strategy and weapon. The problematic of cultural difference is linguistically embedded in the texts produced by immigrant writers in their attempts to vocalize the anxiety provoked by the hybridization of lifestyle and of language itself. As Bhabha asks: “Where do you draw the line between languages? Between cultures? Between disciplines? Between peoples?” (1994:59). The immigrant as well as Native Canadian writers have chosen to give voice to their psychic, cultural, and territorial anguish in an alien language that they have made as much a part of themselves as their mother tongues.

5The term ‘South Asia’ has acquired numerous imaginative identities for Europeans and others – in its various guises as the Subcontinent and its association with the isle of Serendip and the glories of the Raj. It has been both the cradle of Gandhism and a tourist's dream of uncountable riches and/or nightmares of teeming poverty. Although many Canadian writers have participated in this sort of conceptualization (from Sara Jeannette Duncan to Sharon Pollock), the literature written by the South Asians themselves has been less widely appreciated. At the outset, it must be admitted that an inherent weakness in the literature by South Asians in Canada is these authors' excessive concern with their countries of origin and not enough with Canada, their new land by adoption. Except for one slender novel, No New Land, the majority of Vassanji's novels are set in Tanzania, his country of origin, Rohinton Mistry's novels are set in India, and all except the latest of Michael Ondaatje's offerings are placed anywhere but in Canada. This leads to a certain degree of decontextualization or rather dual contextualization. An answer to this may perhaps be sought in the fact that so many South Asian Canadians are caught between two cultural worlds, and any understanding of their actions presupposes this type of dual contextualization. Immigrants carry with them the cultural baggage of old traditions, familiar forms of ritual practices, and aspects of culture such as dress, lifestyle, songs, stories, and folklore. Their immigration constrains their ability to live a tradition-based lifestyle, but not their overwhelming need. Encountering the challenges of the new traditions in their new homeland, they become part of the challenge merely by their presence in the environment. South Asian immigrants belong to different racial, cultural, religious, and value orientations and have found it difficult to adjust to the new and complex mix of peoples and cultures in their changed environment. This is obvious from the wide variety of South Asian Canadian writing that cannot be treated as one cohesive unit. The term “South Asian writing” includes more than it excludes. It implies not only immigrants who have come to Canada directly from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, but also those generations of Caribbeans and Africans whose roots can be traced to India. Many first-generation writers communicate the tensions of psyches that have been doubly displaced, portraying not only the physical and economic deprivations that drove them from their native lands, but also the hostility, racism, and neglect they had to face in their new homeland. There is evidence, among most South Asian Canadian writers, of a consistent pattern of dealing with the countries of origin in their earlier works, and then moving on to Canadian subjects and themes.

6Vassanji's No New Land (1991) is an example of the writing of a South Asian Canadian writer taking on Canadian subjects in his work as he develops a greater affinity with his new homeland. Yet his latest work, The Book of Secrets (1994), goes back to his racial past, as did his earlier works, The Gunny Sack (1989) and Uhuru Street (1992). This evinces a felt need on the part of the immigrant writer to rediscover the shared communal/cultural past that will function as a frame of reference for the uprooted community to know who it is in relation to what it was and thereby acquire self-knowledge and self-pride. Vassanji, in his writings, endeavours to provide such a map for his people. So great was his urge to assume the role of transmitter and preserver of his cultural inheritance that he took to fiction writing as a full-time job. He says: “I write about my own people because we are a people without any sense of history and place... We know the name of the place we stay, we know our immediate surroundings, but we tend to look towards a future-of a better future maybe. But where is our past? Where are our roots?” (Quoted in Gill.)

7Salim Kala's quest for his roots, for his self, for the traces of his past in The Gunny Sack becomes writer Vassanji's quest as well. Where The Gunny Sack is an assertion of the historical presence of African Indians in Africa, The Book of Secrets is part generational history, part social chronicle, part detective story, a living tapestry joining the past to the present. Sandwiched between these novels is No New Land – a novel which Vassanji says he wrote “purely for fun” (Nasta 1991:21). No New Land illustrates the writer's continuing preoccupation to write his community into existence in Toronto; it centres on the lives of some of the Asians who emigrated from Dar-es-Salaam to Canada, and how they re-defined themselves in an alien land. He gives a voice and a being to his people who are silent and, by the same token, “absent from or invisible” in the dominant discourse in Canada. Vassanji re-presents Toronto with its superstores, high-rises, and CN Tower blinking a message that these Asian immigrants cannot decode. It is a Toronto seen through the eyes of an ‘othered’ Asian – a world of wonders and concealed booby-traps where every step is a mystery “fraught with belittling embarrassments, and people waiting to show you up” (No NewLand: 32). These Asians had left Africa-their home for several generations-and come to Canada “with a deep sense that they had to try to determine [their future], meet it part-way and wrest a respectable niche in this new society” (No New Land: 43). To their dismay they find that the new society is not so eager to open its doors to them. Jobs are scarcer to come by than hen's teeth. Nurdin Lalani realizes that subtle racial prejudices work against him in the arena of job-hunting – “Canadian experience” being the trump card they always call:

The first few rejected job applications he took in stride: a few disappointments only to enhance the sweetness of eventual success. But the pattern persisted, and slowly in his mind the barest shadow became discernible, of impending despair, the merest possibility of a jobless vista ahead, but nonetheless frightening (No New Land: 43-4).

8This is Canada. The Lalanis uncover a new meaning of this oft-repeated phrase – one altogether different from that obtaining in white Canadian discourse. Vassanji's concern is to show how Asian immigrants adjust to the new reality. The past in which the immigrants are firmly rooted becomes a deadly quicksand in a changed environment. They have to come to terms with their past: not escape from it but acknowledge it in order to face the present reality and move toward the future. “Before, the past tried to fix you from a distance, and you looked away... Now it was all over you. And with this past before you, all around you, you take on the future more evenly matched” (No New Land: 207).

9Jamal, as well as Fatima, shows the pragmatism that is essential for survival. Jamal emerges as the most vibrant of all the personages in the novel. There is no doubt that No New Land is more clearly identifiable as Canadian, dealing as it does with the harsh realities of the immigrants' experiences, and of the angst of the human spirit caught between two worlds. However, it is ironic that this novel, which is about exile, does not have the scope, grandeur, or significance of Vassanji's earlier works, such as The Gunny Sack, Uhuru Street, or The Book of Secrets, which seem to be works of exile. As another immigrant writer, A.H. Itwaru, claims, “To be in exile is considerably more than being in another country. It is to live with myself knowing my estrangement” (1989: 202). No New Land is all about this sense of alienation experienced by a displaced community as its life intersects with the larger population. It is paradoxical that this more ostensibly Canadian work takes second place to The Gunny Sack. Texts such as No New Land fit more precisely into the debate about multiculturalism while not representing immigrant writing in Canada.

10The most impressive novels of the South Asian fiction writers are set outside Canada, have nothing to do with “Canadian experience” or the Canadian landscape, and cause a Frank Davey to marginalize them by offering the excuse that they “contain few if any significations of Canada or of Canadian polity” (Davey 1993:97). Such an exclusion is paradoxical, considering the claim inherent in the title of Davey's book, Post-national Arguments, and the ideals enshrined in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1985, that seek to dismantle the danger of any one group asserting its influence and hegemony over another. The bottom-line is that writers perceived as ‘ethnic’ are offered, at best, the promise of inclusion without assimilation in the much-publicized trope of the ‘mosaic’. The divisiveness within the term ‘South Asian’ is itself too vast and entrenched, allowing the danger of not finding a common ground for discussion. The concepts of colour, ethnicity, and race cannot be subsumed within the comforting pieties of an inclusivist theorizing. The notions of pluralism and multiculturalism offer various options. While pluralism maintains that human beings should be viewed as unique persons, race being their least important attribute, multiculturalism holds that people should be seen first and foremost as representatives of their groups, race being crucial to the argument. Such simplifications cannot do justice to the cause of the immigrant writer in Canada. Although many have been published by leading publishers, they are not received in the same manner as white writers.

11An immigrant woman writer perhaps is doubly marginalized as is evident from an examination of Bharati Mukherjee's work. Her writings tend to be treated as part of South Asian Canadiana despite her having changed her country of domicile – they deal with specifically Canadian experiences. Some satirize the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration, some encapsulate the insularity of Indians in Canada, some reveal the abyss between the races despite good intentions. Mukherjee is a controversial writer in that she has managed to alienate the Indian audience while endearing herself to non-Indian readers and critics. Perhaps this is attributable to the “Indian-bashing” evident in such novels as The Tiger's Daughter, Wife, or Jasmine, which is a trivialization of the Khalistan issue interspersed with shallow delineations of stereotyped characters. However, her short stories, collected in Darkness (1985) as well as The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), draw on her immigrant experience in Canada. Perhaps one can detect shades of paranoia or a persecution complex when Mukherjee says:

In the years that I spent in Canada – 1966 to 1980 – I discovered that the country is hostile to its citizens who had been born in hot, moist continents like Asia; that the country proudly boasts of its opposition to the whole concept of cultural assimilation... in Canada I was frequently taken for a prostitute or a shoplifter, frequently assumed to be a domestic, praised by astonished auditors that I didn't have a “sing-song” accent. The society itself, or important elements in that society, routinely made crippling assumptions about me, and about my ‘kind’ (Darkness: 2).

12If a well-educated, even Westernized Asian, can be traumatized by such experiences, one need not wonder about the shattering agony and growing insecurity experienced by others less fortunately circumstanced.

13Many of the Indo-Canadian protagonists of Mukherjee's stories are innocents abroad, lost souls in an alien environment, trapped by forces they cannot hope to control. Their quest for love, friendship, communion, security, and identity are systemically blocked by overt as well as covert racism. Their transplantation on alien soil has generated ills that cannot be cursed by old-world mores. Mukherjee's “uneasy stories about expatriation” in Canada (Darkness: 1985:2-3) as well as her more exuberant and confident stories about slow-but-sure assimilation into the melting pot of the US – effectually underscore the helplessness of the immigrant in the no-man's land between two cultures – the one they have left behind and the other they have yet to gain. Mukherjee clothes the travails of her disenchanted characters in the garb of self-conscious parody that assumes an ironical dimension:

Like V.S. Naipaul... I tried to explore state-of-the-art expatriation. Like Naipaul, I used a mordant and self-protective irony in describing my character's pain. Irony promised both detachment from, and superiority over, those well-bred post-colonials much like myself, adrift in the new world, wondering if they would ever belong (Darkness:2).

14The question to be pondered is whether old-world beliefs can offer some measure of relief in the climate of “new-world reasonableness” (Darkness: 64). Learning by controversy is sound training for the citizen of the future. Learning to participate meaningfully in all the issues pertinent to the new society's culture and government seems to be an uphill task for the average immigrant. Yet it must be done. The two distinctive cultures between which the immigrants and their progeny find themselves need not necessarily be in conflict if one is seen as a support to the other. No Asian can hope to ignore his roots – the ‘visible’ nature of his ethnicity disallows it. Old World tradition and culture, like religion, are best seen in the nature of moral and spiritual support. The writer's cultural-cum-spiritual contribution to the process of nation building takes shape in empowerment through language, utilization of the word as strategy and weapon. As Cyril Dabydeen remarks, “The collective Canadian spirit is enhanced and enriched by the varied cultural streams and in the fusion of old and new traditions towards a vital celebration of the oneness of the evolving Canadian consciousness” (1987:10).

15The situation in Canada is rendered more complex because of the presence of Native Canadian writing that is always about Canada, unlike South Asian Canadian writing which sometimes occupies a slightly different spatiotemporal region. There is no more a homogeneous identity to Native Canadian writing than there is to South Asian immigrant writing. The differences in culture and tradition, and even more so in language, are equally vast and apparently insurmountable. There are fundamental rifts between the Native peoples of Canada and those who colonized them centuries ago. An ongoing internal colonialism affects the multiple layers of their relations in Canada, including art and literature. The rifts are manifest in the inequality of economic, social, and cultural power between the two groups, rifts that can perhaps be traced to the ambivalent attitude toward Natives that has prevailed since the white man first set foot on Canadian soil. Native Canadians were long imprisoned within the twin stereotypical formulations of ‘noble savage’ and ‘implacable foe.’ Today, the image encountered is more often one of poor victims of circumstances beyond their control.

16Contrary to expectations, Canada's Natives have not become extinct, although much of their religions, languages, and entire tribal cultures have been submerged in the attempt to ‘civilize’ them through Western education and the Christian religion. History has proved the falsehood of the doomed culture theory. Far from disappearing, Canada's Native population is now increasing at a faster rate than the general population. There is also a strong indication that an erstwhile oral tradition is emerging into a highly articulate and formal literature. “We have not faded into the earth like snow before the summer sun of ‘progress’ nor have we stagnated in some sort of retrograde time capsule. We have survived and will continue to survive because of, and in spite of, the changes,” asserts Kateri Damm, Native Canadian critic and poet (Armstrong 1993:16).

17Critics and writers like Maria Campbell and Lee Maracle strongly affirm that indigenous cultures and languages have survived because of Native peoples' strong links to the land, the ‘Mother’ despite the onslaught of Euro-Canadian culture on their resources and their lands. Deep-seated resentment exists among many Native Canadian writers towards the paternalistic, colonial policies that were initiated supposedly to civilize and Christianize indigenous peoples, towards the residential schools and missionaries who conspired to remove the gynocratic influence from the spiritual, political, economic, and social realms of the indigenous peoples' lives. Nonetheless, these peoples' very numerous and distinct cultures have continued to be transmitted from one generation to another through language, song, dance, traditional economic practice, and governing structure. These specific indigenous ways continue to provide a spiritual, social, political, and economic context that distinguishes Native peoples from non-Native peoples and contributes to the formulation of self.

18The issue of identity seems to affect all layers of existence of the indigenous peoples. In the past, their ‘Nativeness’ had so often been defined by others, and to such an extent, that at times their awareness and knowledge of themselves had been obliterated. A multiplicity of definitions – status, non-status, treaty, urban, on reserve, off-reserve, mixed bloods, enfranchised, and the like-has forced Native Canadian writers to reconsider some of the assumptions underpinning their own literature. During the past two decades – despite cynical and skeptical reactions from the domain of mainstream literature – more and more Native Canadians have found their voice and have recorded the multitude of problems that have affected them. Their common aim seems to be “to distinguish once and for all, right from wrong, truth from fiction – to set the record straight... Understanding themselves in this challenging social context is their task” (Petrone 1990: 139). Many of these writers are already able to deal with the culture clash and their own identity, with perception, detachment, and control, moving beyond the worst excesses of emotion and diction that marred earlier protest literature.

19One of the reasons why Native literature is so interesting is that while it enshrines very old traditions, as a literature it is very young, and so are most of its writers. These writers have learned to draw on their ancient traditions – renewing their bonds with a biospheric world where all manner of things participate in a dynamic cosmic relationship. Many of the recent works of literature incorporate the significance of ancient ceremonies and rituals, the special role of elders as wise counsellors and custodians of cultural and spiritual beliefs, the importance of community life, the bonding between the young and the elderly, the voice of vision and prophecy. This, then, is their answer to the deadening, strangling effects of a modern civilization that denies the societal instincts of man. The so-called mainstream culture has much to imbibe from these traditional influences, instead of relegating Native literature to the margins as a ghettoized literature and a historical curiosity. As Daniel David Moses comments: “My image of that mainstream is that it is pretty wide but it's spiritually shallow. I don't think we are worried about being ‘subsumed.’ If we become part of that mainstream, we're going to be the deep currents” (Moses and Goldie 1992: xiv).

20If literature provides an avenue into the perceptions of reality by other people across cultures and generations, then it behoves non-Natives to stop and listen, to try to understand what it means to be Native. For Natives have access to cultural traditions that have enabled them to survive under extreme conditions; they have ways of perceiving and dealing with life and literature that derive from an ecosystemic, non-anthropomorphic perspective on the world which we are all in dire need of.

21If Jeannette Armstrong has dealt with the brutal themes of colonialism, cultural and physical deprivation, and racial genocide, she has ameliorated these by attempting to find a way out through spiritual reaffirmation and active political struggle. The protagonist of Slash realizes that he has to rebuild the life of his people:

I had to find out what things were left of the old ways in my own Tribe and make it usable in our modern Indian lives... Like our language. We couldn't preserve it by having a linguist come and record it... We could only preserve it by using it. It was the same with our values and our rights (Slash: 210-11).

22Issues of assimilation and integration have continued to remain problematic for Native Canadians, as much as for the South Asian immigrants. A fresh answer to the question, “What does it mean to be Canadian?” has to be sought; the basic philosophies inherent in this discussion have to be re-examined in the interests of nation building. Most Native Canadians unequivocally feel that adjustments must be made on both sides. As Basil Johnston explains in his foreword to Rupert Ross's book, Dancing with a Ghost:

as long as the governments and the agencies of this country fail to recognize that many original peoples of this country still cling to their different values and institutions, and so long as they insist that the original peoples abandon their ancestral heritage and embrace European culture, so long will penalties be unconsciously imposed upon the Natives and injustices and injuries be committed. And so long as the government and the officials of this country continue to act as if the original peoples are the only ones in need of instruction and improvement, so long will suspicion and distrust persist (1992: ix).

23Native Canadian literature has in recent years given the lie to the criticism that it is all about the agony of a segregated and marginalized existence. The horror stories are offset by works, such as Johnston's Moose Meat and Wild Rice, that bear testimony to the fact that a rollicking sense of humour underpins the Native temperament. The exhilarating stories in this collection depict present-day Indians and Indian-white relations, with the gentle satire cutting both ways. Light, but nevertheless realistic, narrated as fiction but based on fact, the escapades undertaken by the populace of Moose Meat Reserve encompass havoc and hilarity, prejudice and pretense. The impression these stories leave behind is that all is not lost – that bridges of understanding can be built between two worlds (red and white) that exist now as separate realities. The predicament of the Native Canadian is one of non-existent choices: to assimilate or not to assimilate. It seems, ironically enough, that they are damned if they do, damned if they don't. But there is a glow of optimism here in these stories – the spirit of indomitable courage and resourcefulness in the face of a multitude of social and psychological problems that seem grim to an outsider. As Edward Said remarks, “narratives of emancipation and enlightenment in their strongest form were also narratives of integration not separation, the stories of people who had been excluded from the main group but who were now fighting for a place in it” (1993: xxx). The mainstream culture has to be flexible enough to admit new groups since basically all cultures are involved in one another and no single culture is pure.

24I would like to conclude with a quote from one of the most powerful voices among Native Canadians – that of Jeannette Armstrong:

In my quest for empowerment of my people through writing, there are two things of which I must steadfastly remind myself. The first is that... although severe... damage has been wrought, healing can take place through cultural affirmation... The second... is that the dominating culture's reality is that it seeks to affirm itself continuously and must be taught that numbers are not the basis of democracy, people are... It must be pushed, in Canada, to understand and accept that this country is multi-racial and multi-cultural now... It is this promotion of an ideal which will... make possible the relearning of co-operation and sharing in place of domination (Armstrong 1992:209-10).



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Professor of English at the Institute of English, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, India and co-director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at the University of Kerala since 1991. She has been associated with Canadian Studies in manifold ways, presenting papers at conferences, publishing articles in research journals, and guiding MPhil and PhD theses in Canadian Studies

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