VIEW: The Canadian cauldron — Saleem H Ali
If there is any lesson to be drawn from the iterative process of realising identities within the Canadian cauldron, it is one of due process and positive engagement with all citizens, no matter how difficult and fractious the interaction might be
Residing only thirty miles from the border with Canada, I frequently follow the politics of our friendly neighbour to the north. Out of all the American states, perhaps Vermont has most in common with Canada in terms of its historical connections with Francophone and Anglophone Canadians. The name of our state has French lineage, meaning “green mountain”, as does the name of the capital city Montpelier. Politically independent Vermonters, who are known for electing the only socialist senator in the United States Senate, often joke about seceding to Canada if American politics becomes too unpalatable.
However, recent convulsions within Canada’s political scene leave us feeling that the grass is perhaps greener on our side of the border. What is particularly amusing and alarming to me is that a Pakistani-Canadian member of parliament has been a major protagonist in the recent rumblings in Ottawa.
Canada has one of the largest and fastest growing population of South Asian immigrants and it is thus not surprising to find a growing number of representation from these communities. Mississauga, a sprawling suburb of Toronto, where naan kabaab happily compete with hamburgers on the street, was the constituency for the first Pakistani-Canadian to be elected to the national parliament. Mr Wajid Khan immigrated to Canada in 1974 after an early career with the Pakistani Air Force. After making his mark in the automobile sales business, Mr Khan was able to garner enough financial and political support to win the Liberal Party’s nomination as candidate for Mississauga.
On January 5 of this year, a surprising press conference was held in Ottawa, where Mr Khan appeared jointly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and announced that he was switching parties and joining the ruling Conservatives. This was a shock to many of his constituents, who were frequently heard comparing him in Urdu to a vessel used for ablution. On the other hand, more secularly inclined citizen activists such as Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress, were more sympathetic to Mr Khan’s change of heart, claiming that if political expediency was his goal, he would have stuck to his political base and stayed with the faltering ways of the Liberals. Regardless of our view of the matter, what is striking is how a Pakistani immigrant to Canada has become national news. This is perhaps an achievement in and of itself.
There is, however, a rather troubling dimension to this episode which goes back to the summer of last year when a group of young Muslim men, many of Pakistani lineage, were arrested in Toronto for allegedly planning a terrorist attack. Many South Asians were immediately on the defensive about this matter and the political pressure on leaders such as Wajid Khan was immense. Through careful calibration of concern for the safety of Canadians and his allegiance to Pakistani and Muslim constituents, Mr. Khan was asked to help the Canadian government in combating extremism.
What followed was a series of visits by Mr Khan to several countries in the Middle East and a confidential report with recommendations to the Prime Minister. Clearly this entire effort brought Mr Khan closer to the Conservative party and won him considerable praise from many Canadians. However, his constituents appear to be livid about the matter and in my last visit to Toronto earlier this month, the mood was one of tremendous disdain among average Pakistani immigrants.
Sociologists have often compared Canada and the United States with culinary analogies. America’s multiculturalism has been likened to a melting pot where all ethnic tastes are assimilated into a homogenised soup of the dominant culture. Canadians, on the other hand, have been likened to a salad bowl where each vegetable might retain its distinct identity while providing a flavourful dish. The major reason for the Canadian way has been the perennial question of Quebec’s identity within Canada. Ancient rivalries between the French and the British have gained a mild re-enactment in Canada, and in order to maintain unity the country has two official languages and has even declared the Quebecois a distinct “nation” last month. This raised some red flags for the country’s original Aboriginal inhabitants, who constitute less than 2% of the total population but pride themselves as Canada’s “First Nation.”
Canada deserves our respect for giving the Native communities tremendous autonomy in some areas, as compared to other Aboriginal groups in the United States and Australia. The extreme northern territory of Nunavut was granted to the Inuit communities as a self-governing entity with unique rights and privileges, including a billion dollar land claims settlement in the early nineteen-nineties. Nevertheless, there are still concerns on this matter as well, since most Aboriginal Canadians in the dominant provinces live in atomised reserves with a high degree of alienation
The latest wave of immigrants within the Canadian salad bowl are now testing the system once again. Nationalism in a globalised world is still alive and kicking at various levels. In Britain, the latest poll suggests that the Scotts and the English both want to separate from the United Kingdom and form separate countries. The velvet revolution led to a peaceful disintegration of Czechoslovakia more than a decade ago. Yugoslavia collapsed in more bloody terms and the resulting states continue to harbour tremendous antipathy towards each other. On the other hand, countervailing forces of economic integration such as the European Union, are also in motion, with occidental values clashing with oriental lineage to address the question of whether or not Turkey should join the union.
As Pakistanis contend with their own challenges of ethno-nationalism, we may want to learn some lessons from Canada’s experience with pluralism. How much are we willing to embrace multiple identities within Pakistan while pushing forward with an overarching binding element? Last week there were calls for renaming the Frontier province “Pakhtunistan”, in an effort to assert the dominant ethnic identity of the region. If we are to follow the Canadian path, this might not be a bad idea, but then we must also work towards providing constructive economic engagement that would allow for the Pakistani identity to shine through in such hinterlands.
In the past, the Pakistani and Indian governments have used mutual aversion of each other as the binding element towards forming a national identity. Thankfully such negative patriotism was not a dominant force in Canada despite the occasional rifts with their dominant American neighbours to the south.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from the iterative process of realising identities within the Canadian cauldron, it is one of due process and positive engagement with all citizens, no matter how difficult and fractious the interaction might be — a lesson which we Americans might learn as we simmer away in our melting pot.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com