That Sun op-ed, Bianca Andreescu, and Canada’s reckoning moment

It was a day of opposites.

First, the inflammatory Vancouver Sun op-ed by one Mark Hecht, a geography instructor at Mount Royal University. A not-so-subtle dog-whistle against the so-called “dogma of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion,” the piece pushed back against the merits of immigration and quoted from the anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute in arguing why Canada should strive towards homogeneity above all else.

It was ugly.

(“Instead of diversity being a blessing,” Hecht wrote, “many found that they’ve ended up with a lot of arrogant people living in their countries with no intention of letting go of their previous cultures, animosities, preferences, and pretensions.”)

The piece earned plaudits from white nationalists and neo-Nazis (surely the first sign that perhaps one is hanging with the wrong crowd) before it was roundly denounced by the reporters in the Sun‘s newsroom, the publication’s masthead, nearly all of Twitter, and scrapped from the paper’s website — though not before it went to press and ended up in the Saturday morning paper. And then there was that little mistake of leaving it on the website of The Province, the Sun‘s sister publication, until it, too, was later scrapped. Oops.

In any case, the Sun‘s editor-in-chief published an apology by Saturday afternoon, and promised a rebuttal piece would run in Monday’s edition of the paper. There are more faults to find with Hecht’s article, and plenty of fertile ground for other discussion — one thinker whom I admire, Robin Mazumder, has made the great case to strive for equity instead of inclusivity — but that is not what I am most interested in today.

What I am interested in is belonging. In what it means to be Canadian — perhaps, even, at times, a proud Canadian.

***

Too often in this past year, I have not been a proud Canadian.

The incidents seemed to resurface every few months, like a stubborn rash that wouldn’t clear. A white woman in my hometown of Waterloo who thought it appropriate to stop and question a group of young Muslim women on their choice of clothing. The Coalition of Muslim Women of KW’s executive director — one of my hometown’s most dedicated community-builders — being told “we do not want you and your people here.” Another teacher being told “go back to your own country.” Far too many other stories of racism in my adopted home of Victoria.

There is a myth of what Canada purports itself to be — diverse, tolerant, inclusive — and then there are these ugly realities. Canada: #NoFilter, if you will. The unfortunate truth is that for many people in this country, the experience of living in Canada is not always a welcoming one — that is, not unless you are white, straight, and middle-class or wealthier. (It helps to be a man, too.)

There is a myth of what Canada purports itself to be — diverse, tolerant, inclusive — and then there are these ugly realities. Canada: #NoFilter, if you will.

I would like to mention here that not all Canadians hold the same views as Hecht, nor the white woman in my hometown of Waterloo, nor the hateful phone-caller, the drive-by stranger, nor the far too many other perpetrators of aggressions large and small. Intolerance is an uncomfortable thing to be associated with. But I suspect hand-washing is not the proper response.

As much as I might like to let myself and others off the hook, claim to be one of the “good ones,” and pat myself on the back for such a distinction, it is also true that we Canadians — and in this, I mean we privileged Canadians, we who are not subject to death threats and harassment and told to return to some other country — have let intolerance fester far too easily. No need to worry oneself when the vitriol is directed elsewhere.

Perhaps, instead, the proper response is to sit with that discomfort for a while. Perhaps the proper response is to listen to those whose experience of Canada has not been so kind and welcoming. Perhaps the proper response is to speak out when the silence is deafening.

There is a passage in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where the Jamaican-American poet and essayist is talking with a fellow writer about the 2011 police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan:

“Will you write about Duggan?” the man asks.

“Why don’t you?” she replies. “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?”

***

There are things for which I am proud to be Canadian. Saturday delivered one such moment, on the opposite end of Hecht’s diatribe.

You might have seen it — watched, as I did, as 19-year-old tennis supernova Bianca Andreescu, unseeded mere months ago, toppled 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in the US Open final to become the first-ever Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title.

It was gripping. Not only the tennis, played on centre court at Arthur Ashe Stadium — a name itself steeped in civil rights history — but the storyline. Andreescu’s parents, reporters were quick to point out, had moved to Canada from Romania 25 years prior with nothing but two suitcases. Before the winning streak began, her main goal from tennis was to earn enough money for her parents to join her on tour.

Andreescu’s was the quintessential Canadian story: a child of immigrants made good. As a 16-year-old, she had written her name on a mock cheque for winning the US Open. Ranked 178th at the start of 2019, the teen’s wish had finally come true.

It was the perfect story for those looking to project Canada’s image as a diverse, tolerant, and inclusive nation. Behold, proof that our system works.

It is a tidy image to present, and a handy counter-point to the mess that emerged from the Sun. But I don’t think it tells the whole story, either.

One shouldn’t have to win the US Open to earn their Canadian citizenship. (In fairness to Savio, I am certain he would agree on this point and much else.) I should like to think there is room in Canada for all who have come from elsewhere.

Too often, there are those in Canada who are asked to earn their Canadian-ness by way of extraordinary effort, while a privileged few — those of us who were born here, or already spoke the language, or because of the colour of our skin, managed to skirt by without somebody asking, “where are you from, originally?” — treat our ability to belong as something to be taken for granted.

We celebrate the success stories of those like Donovan Bailey, who immigrated to Canada at 13 and later became the world’s fastest man; or Michaëlle Jean, who went from Haitian refugee to Governor General of Canada; or Nav Bhatia, who fled anti-Sikh violence in India and became one of Canada’s most successful car dealers, the Toronto Raptors’ second-most famous fan; and yet our largest newspapers and broadcasters are raising alarms about a growing Canadian opposition to immigration.

Bianca’s win deserves to be celebrated far and wide, just as we celebrate Bailey, Bhatia, Jean and the like. But we should also celebrate the stories of ordinary immigrants — no matter how they arrived, where they came from, or how many US Open titles they’ve won. Moreover, we should make them feel welcome. Treat them like neighbours. Look out for them, as others once did for many of our own families.

We should also celebrate the stories of ordinary immigrants — no matter how they arrived, where they came from, or how many US Open titles they’ve won.

In this, I am reminded of my Opa’s story. I don’t know that he ever held a tennis racket, and I doubt he could run the 100-metre dash in anything under 15 seconds. Certainly not in his later years. But he, too, was once new to Canada — a boat arrival in the years after the Second World War.

“At first, we did not know where we were headed to,” my Opa told us. “Hastily, they made arrangements in Ontario and BC.”

He arrived in St. Catharines by train on December 24, 1951.

“We looked out the windows at the colourful wooden houses, covered by equally colourful shingles, and toward the evening, we saw all the many Christmas decorations,” my Opa said. “The next day, Christmas Day, I was introduced to the Niagara United Mennonite Church in Virgil.”

He would remain a part of that community for the rest of his life.

What I wish for new Canadians is to find the same type of welcome my Opa found — be that in a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue; or perhaps in a community centre, or — yes, even a tennis court.

What I wish for new Canadians — what I wish for all Canadians — is to feel that they belong, regardless of the language they speak, or the way they dress, or the people they love, or the faith they practice.

That would be a Canada to be proud of.

2 thoughts on “That Sun op-ed, Bianca Andreescu, and Canada’s reckoning moment

  1. Thanks Martin. This really resonates. Especially after being in Elmira yesterday afternoon to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Lau family coming to Canada (Marv and I had been on the sponsorship committee from Hawkesville Church). Largely at the Lau family’s initiative and Marg and Lavern B’s hospitality, we have been together almost annually, watched their children grow up, get married, have children. We have become friends, even though they still refer to us as “their sponsors”.

    1. Thanks for reading, Ardith. And what a wonderful thing to celebrate!

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