Canadian Values

Report written by Sammy Roach

What is a “Canadian value”? On March 23, 2017, the LYAC held a discussion on Canadian values, led by Ward 8 councilor Hassan Yousuf, with the goal of tackling this question. Together the group questioned Canada’s projected values and images of equality and community versus the realities of racism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry, and the pressures to assimilate encountered in a country that claims to welcome all cultures.

Who Should Read This?

  • Anyone who wants to interrogate Canadian identity
  • Anyone who has encountered forms of bigotry in Canada

What is a Canadian value?

Hassan began by asking: What are Canadian values? Here are some initial thoughts from the group:

  • being nice to your neighbour
  • openness
  • multiculturalism

Kayley paused the discussion to ask for clarification: is Hassan asking for ideal Canadian values? She explained that the first ideas that came to her mind were humanitarianism and the image of Canada as a leading peacekeeper, but also there was the fact that Canada doesn’t perform peacekeeping duties as often as it once did. On this tangent, some new opinions arose from the group:

  • Melissa added that Canadians tend to be self-congratulatory, particularly when comparing Canada with the United States.
  • Meegan noted that in Canada we try to separate ourselves from the U.S., but we have had our own share of similar divisive policies such as Bill C-51 and Canada’s participation in free trade agreements
  • Asala noted an attitude of Canada being closed off, and reserved. She explained that in her view, in other countries people get invested in each other, but in Canada we look straight ahead without concern for others. There’s a sense that Canada is too polite to speak up, for better or worse.

Several of the councilors immigrated to Canada or are otherwise from outside of Canada, and they offered some perspective on how other nations view Canada. Some of the traits that came up were perceptions of Canada as being weaker, being protected by the US, or being spineless.

Hassan noted that in Somalia, people had not heard of Canada, so he would say he was from America instead. One member of the group noted that Canada is well received in some places, particularly in relation to our WWII history. However, this reception can be in reaction to realizing that a Canadian is not an American, again defining Canada favourably in relation to the U.S.

Certainly, Canada is not without issues such as racism or Islamophobia. The group noted that Canada’s racism tends to be more subtle, hidden in looks or side comments, going back to Asala’s thoughts about Canadian politeness. Raghad described Canada’s racism as a knit blanket in that there are many smaller holes that it pokes through, as opposed to a more overt, in your-face bigotry. At the same time, Hassan sharing his own experiences being yelled at because someone in his group of friends was wearing a hijab as an example of the more overt racism that is still present. Melissa noted an example of a Quebec town that has banned Muslims as another intertwining of racism and Islamophobia. She wondered if a group of white Muslims moved into the town, who would know? These prejudiced people tend not to encounter Muslims and know them as people in their day-to-day lives, instead demonizing them from afar.

Code Switching

Certainly when thinking about questions of integration and assimilation, language and dialect are big discussion points. Hassan shifted the topic of the meeting to code switching, that is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or dialects. Several members of the group offered their thoughts and experiences with code switching.

  • Hassan spoke about his experience at work, noting that when he interacts with customers, there is a style shifting, a higher tone of voice, and greater enunciation while also speaking faster. Hassan explained that on the flip side, he gets accused of whitewashing his dialogue
  • Raghad noted that many of her friends and family have a “white voice” for the phone. Raghad herself will get called out sometimes for using “white people words” because she does not code switch very much. She expressed frustration with the apparent stigma attached to speaking properly, and the alienating association of intelligence with whiteness.
  • Kayley noted that even amongst white groups, there is the ideal white accent, providing the example of dialects in the American south being perceptually linked to lower intelligence. She explained her own experience switching dialects and vernacular between her small hometown in rural Ontario and in London. She observed that there is an unachievable ideal white way of communicating that is out of reach of white people.

With the discussion on communication and code switching winding down, the deeply critical investigation of Canadian values came to a close. How achievable are any of the “ideal” values we seem to want as Canadians when we continue to face issues of Islamophobia and racism, and worse, when we try to view them only as outliers or favourable in comparison to other countries? Change can start by speaking up: if we want to change the idea that Canadians are “polite enough” to look the other way, we need to take the action to make that change.

Big Questions:

  • Why do we still place so much importance on having unified national values?
  • Where do our Indigenous populations fit into these ideal Canadian values?

Things We Still Need to Learn:

  • How welcome do new residents feel in Canada?
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