Columns

A Canadian state of mind

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 1 2000
Columns

A Canadian state of mind

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 1 2000

A Canadian state of mind

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

Now, as July 1 approaches, several stories. In the summer of 1990, the small community of Canadians living in Moscow used to witness a curiously stirring sight. Each day at about 9 a.m., a line would start forming just outside the Canadian Embassy downtown. The people included everyone from retirees to middle-aged doctors and scientists to university students, trying to look westernized in plastic running shoes and polyester jeans. By the time the visa section started receiving applicants at 10 a.m., there were more than a hundred people waiting. They waited hours more lor the chance to pick up documents to fill out, so they could return a second time to apply lor the right to emigrate to Canada. The odds of success were slim—but as one university professor said, in fluent English: “I’ll wash streets if they’ll take me.” Back home, the debate over the Leech Lake constitutional accord was raging. Those Russians wanted a home where you could have three squares daily and free speech: the fact their hoped-for paradise might implode over whether Quebec is formally a “distinct society” seemed the kind of absurdity even Gogol wouldn’t have tried out.

Then, there’s the Canadianization of Ben Chin. Watch the smooth 36-year-old Chin as he anchors CBC television news these days, and you’d never guess that, 30 years ago, he arrived in Ottawa, the son of South Korea’s ambassador, without a word of English. Within three months, he understood enough to have about a dozen friends to his birthday party. He also began a love affair with hockey—and Canada. He watched Paul Henderson’s goal in the 1972 Canada-Soviet series and admired, he says, the fact that Henderson and other Canadians “never trash-talked, did these beautiful achievements on-ice, and then said understated things like aww, I did it for the team.’ ” There was also a shy neighbour who often offered up homemade treats: they learned later— not from him—that he was a decorated war hero. Those things, Ben said, “formed my image of Canada as a quiet, generous place.” The Chin family moved on to Germany, Korea and the United States, but Ben never stopped thinking of himself as Canadian. His dad fell into disfavour with the Korean government of the day, but wangled a fellowship working at an institute in Washington, so he, his wife and Ben moved there. The older Chin children had stayed in Canada to study. But instead of everyone reuniting in Washington, the Chins—father, mother and Ben—moved here.

These days, the immigration debate in Canada is almost hopelessly submerged beneath preconceptions, facile assertions, ill-will and name-calling between those who would raise or lower the number of newcomers. It’s undeniably true that some people who come from other countries do so ille-

gally, drain taxpayer-paid resources, or use Canada as a safe parking place against upheaval in their “real” home where they spend most of their time and money. But it’s also true that people whose families have been in Canada for generations cheat on their taxes, or earn expensive, taxpayer-subsidized university degrees as doctors or lawyers—and at once head south of the border, from which point they criticize the tax system that helped pay for their training.

It’s easy and often wrong to generalize about people. But so long as we insist on doing so, try this: the anecdotal evidence suggests that people who come to Canada from elsewhere appreciate it far more than most those of us who were born here. Those who emigrate do so for economic or political reasons, or both. When they come to a place where they can meet their material needs and say what they want when they want without fear, they’re often passionately grateful. Homegrown Canadians have never faced that sort of pressure, so we take what we have for granted—or exaggerate the severity of our problems. A while back, a prominent sovereigntist compared the federal Liberals’ so-called clarity bill to life in Serbia, with its genocide, while some federalists liken Quebec language policies to fascism. Neither would say that if they’d lived through the real thing. An old friend who’s a frequent TV talking head and former foreign correspondent was interviewed a few weeks ago by a CBC type who asked whether the recent Queen’s Park anti-poverty demonstration was the worst he’d ever seen. Actually, he’s worked in places where crowds are cleared by firing machine-guns—but the host clearly didn’t press for an answer, so my friend stayed silent.

Multimedia guru Moses Znaimer—himself born in Tajikistan—says people focus too much on generational differences: it’s attitude, Moses figures, that unites or divides more than age or ethnicity. In 1995, Japanese business guru Kenichi Ohmae wrote a book called The End of the Nation State. Governments, he said, don’t matter because they no longer control such levers as the flow of investment, information and capital. It’s also true that the concept of relatively homogenous societies is all but dead in many Western countries. But talk to a Canadian living in the United States, or vice versa, and they go on at length about differences between countries that have nothing to do with government. The nation-state no longer has the powers it did—but what still matters is the state of mind. As Canada has become more diverse, we’ve had to reflect more on what we stand for.

That’s what struck the Chin family, who could have settled almost anywhere—but felt at home here. Have a particularly happy Canada Day, Ben—and all you Canadians who love this place, regardless of where you were born.