Canada, Ethnic Studies and the World

Who Does Canadian Multiculturalism Really Benefit – Revealed By A Young Chinese Immigrant

by Carl Ma

Former B.C. premier and Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh moderates a discussion called 'How racist are we?' for The Province and Laurier Institution on Monday, Oct. 21.

Part 1:

In January 2016, an outspoken former premier of British Columbia, Ujjal Dosanjh, published an article on his blog questioning Canadian multiculturalism article titled: In the case of white silenced, unable to Canada frank discussion of equality, racial and cultural issues.  Notice  Dosanjh uses the word “white” to refer to the power of mainstream politicians, since most of whom are white.

Dosanjh inspired me to write this article to respond to Justin Trudeau’s remarks on the Canadian national identity. Trudeau, who accepted the New York Times interview shortly after winning the federal election in 2015, said, ‘“There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada. There are shared values – openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”

Dosanjh gave an extremely sharp response: “Does that mean anything goes in Canada?

That there is no mainstream means there are many streams. It also implies that the streams never merge and mingle; the streams live on parallel to others, isolated and apart from each other. If so, how do we build a society with high degree of social solidarity and cohesion?

How do we develop shared values that the prime minister claims we have if all the streams do not at some point merge to create the mainstream? If the white men of Canada can’t overcome the fear of rebuke from the enforcers of fear (Note: Dosanjh implies under the politically correct multiculturalism, any criticism of ethnic minorities’ internal workings might get you labeled as a racist), Canadians can’t ever have an honest debate about the state of equality, race, culture and the place and space for religion and other languages in Canada.

These are important questions that need frank debates unless we want to live in our silos, isolated from others.”

Dosanjh’s statements are remarkable to me not only because he boldly challenged the Canadian federal government’s official multiculturalism policy, more important is his own special identity. Dosanjh was born in Punjab India, originally a Sikh before becoming an atheist, and later emigrated to Canada. His rise within the British Columbia New Democratic Party, eventually becoming the first Indo-Canadian immigrant to win the party leadership to briefly serve as premier. He loves Canada, but also concerned ethnic conflicts back in India, specifically tensions between extremist and moderate Sikh and Hindu groups. He made many political visits to India to help ease such tensions. Because of this, he even received criticism and even death threats from the Canadian Sikh-American community.

If this article is published anonymously, most readers would think a white conservative had written it, especially given how the author emphasized “the core of national identity”. These words, author probably will be considered a Canadian white conservatives – and that among conservatives willing to manipulate the “identity politics” populist-type character, right? But Dosanjh was by no means a right wing populist. Is it worth pondering why he strongly questioned multiculturalism as a minority himself?

A month ago, I found Dosanjh’s newly published memoir in the library. Now I have had a deeper understanding of his values after reading his memoir. In my opinion, Dosanjh was caught in three different worlds – mainstream Canadian society, Sikh community in Canada as well as the home country of India, which gave him multiple identities. He had the multiple identities and constantly adjust their own knowledge to the community. He did not stay in one isolated world and igore the other, but try to establish a dialogue in several different world.

So, I recall the question raised in the beginning of the article. Dosanjh’s article was “National Post” is reproduced in full, but did not cause any serious discussion he expected. Only a critical response to the article published in Huffington Post as for the other mainstream media simply ignored him. Mainstream society still immersed in a Trudeau honeymoon. Many Canadians believe that little can beat Trudeau by Muslim women wearing headscarves to manipulate the issue of identity politics Harper’s federal election victory, itself proves “diversity is Canada’s strength” (Justin Trudeau repeated this time and time again in his visit to the United Kingdom with Queen Elizabeth after winning the federal election) of legitimacy.

The Canadian national identity has been vague dating back to conquering Quebec. Despite winning the territory of Quebec, Canada never managed to have these French settlers assimilate into a more cohesive state. To this day, the Canadian national identity is still vague, and routinely evaded by politicians to avoid stepping on partisan landmines – specifically with the potential accusations of deploying divisive dog-whistle identity politics that never ended well. Trudeau’s remarks are only simple affirmations of multiculturalism. He did not touch on the fundamental problems however.

Hence I choose to align with Dosanjh’s side of the debate, as I feel it more accurately reflects the sentiments within minority communities. As a first generation immigrant from China who graduated from high school in Canada and thoroughly understand the cultures of both places my parents’ generation. I have personally been involved in local political activities of mainstream political parties, but also within the community to understand how my fellow Chinese-Canadians are doing. I feel a strong resonance with Dosanjh’s experience because I’m still being viewed as a Chinese-Canadian by the mainstream community despite speaking fluent English and understanding the local culture, often through a racially biased lens. I’m an ordinary young Chinese immigrant who couldn’t care less about the “community events” within my ethnic base in Canada. In the eyes of my relatives and friends back in China, I’m no longer being considered as “Chinese” even though I look like one. Given I now live in Canada, I’m being labeled as a “foreigner”. As a result, I feel I don’t belong to both groups.

So who am I? Where am I? Where do I go from here?

I believe identity is an important issue to discuss, especially given the rise of Trump-style xenophobic populism. When ordinary folks feel excluded from benefitting from a pluralist society, they give rise to this kind of xenophobic populism. Every Canadian should care about this, not just visible minorities. Yes, there will be the risk of the slightest mistake leading to conflicts between different groups. I have to admit it is difficult to find a policy to replace multiculturalism. However, I am convinced that if Canadian society finds the courage to these discussions, not only to make Canadian society becomes more cohesive, and even the rest of the world will bring enlightenment.

Founder and Chair of Yee Hong Community Wellness Foundation Dr. Joseph Wong, left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, right, take part in a traditional eye-dotting ceremony before a lion dance at the 27th Annual Dragon Ball Gala, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

Part 2:

I live in Vancouver, is labeled as a “global city”, there are different perspectives. Before I begin to discuss the Chinese community, we must first explain the the borders have changed. Chinese-Canadian residents are no longer living in a small densely-populated visible minority dominated residential areas. Chinese-Canadians today scattered in different areas, from a global point of view there are many Chinatowns have become tourism landscape for buildings, some of Chinatown residents inside the body is not even the Chinese. In fact, our own identity as well as other surrounding view of the world largely depends on our sources of information, which is controlled by media. Even though an immigrant settles to a new country for a long time, he or she could still rely on the media in the home country, keep the same mindset, and ignore what happened in the mainstream society. In the analysis of the Chinese community, we should pay special attention to that.

The past two years, the most heated local issue is the rising of housing prices. Local mainstream media, and that the Chinese capital from China is the main culprit of rising prices, some reports even suggested that China’s real estate capital is “laundered money.” Unfortunately, much of the discussion has long exceeded the prices range, in which local residents, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in the populist thoughts slowly grow.

For someone like me, concerned about young Chinese local affairs, this is a worrying trend. However, when I watch how the first generation Chinese-Canadian community consume Chinese media, specifically within public WeChat channels and Chinese newspapers, the tone of the discussion is different. They tried to create an atmosphere by describing real estate as the core interests of the Chinese community. According to the Chinese-language media in Vancouver, the mainstream discussion around housing price is simply racist against Chinese. The Chinese language media often claims that Chinese immigrants can invest in anything here because of economic freedom in the west and they shall not have to worry what local residents think.

As a result, all the local media are only interested in creating story lines that scare readers in order to sell real estate advertising, rather than doing their actual jobs – serving as public oversight and facilitating constructive discussions. For example, just recently Christy Clark foreign buyers tax-related reports, the Globe and Mail wrote a story talking about how Chinese media responded to the Foreign Buyers Tax, by quoting an WeChat article which worried about the impact on real estate industry. The Globe and Mail’s story implies the Chinese immigrants are adversaries of the Canadian national interests.

Under the influence of multiculturalism, the mainstream society usually doesn’t pay attention to the internal voices of ethnic minority communities unless everyone is talking about a topic like the housing crisis. It’s not racism to make mainstream society careless. Multiculturalists believe it is the best to allow minorities deal with their internal affairs in their own way. Mainstream should not  intervene that much, they only need to pay attention to what  “community leaders” tried to say. However, did “community leaders” and “ethnic media” actually represent the voice of ethinic minority communities?

Since the mainstream usually do not pay attention to discussions within minority communities, they often assume the voice of the Chinese media and community leaders represent the entire Chinese community, when in reality the community pays no attention to the former. For example, since many new Chinese immigrants relied on local Chinese media for information, mainstream publications like The Globe and Mail assumes what the Chinese media says represent how the Chinese immigrants actually think, even though the Chinese media is pushing these stories mostly to satisfy their real estate advertisers. However, the truth is given the difficulty for the survival of the local Chinese media, real estate advertising is a crucial source of their funding, that led to the focus of the narrative. Many Chinese immigrants themselves are also victims of unaffordable prices. (Note: Neway Opinion will have another article talking about the poor quality of local Chinese media.)

In April 2015, Eveline Xia, a young Chinese Canadian lady, started on Twitter #DontHave1Million social movement, with participants holding a placard #DontHave1Million, writing their income and occupation, take a picture to send to Twitter to show rising prices concern. Aren’t there many people inside of the Chinese community arguing that we should be represented in the mainstream society? Having a Chinese Canadian lady to start the movement is the best way to keep those xeophobic crowds quiet.

However, although the mainstream media echoed Eveline Xia’s action, but they don’t consider her as a Chinese. Local Chinese media’s attitude is cold toward her. She did not get interviewed by them at all. None of the Chinese community leaders participated in her event. I asked some people who always participate community events. They say “she came here at an early age”. Her mentaltiy is considered as a “white socialist” rather than typical Chinese.

So, who is qualified to represent the Chinese Community in Canada? In Canada and the United States, various local Chinese media from time to time claim they represent “all Chinese” descent citizens in their communities, when it’s really a small portion who only consume information from them given their limited language skills – specifically the older first-generation immigrants who don’t have enough English skills to consume mainstream media. Western mainstream media often portrayed Chinese community as a homogeneous society. At the same time, China often use the term “overseas Chinese”. It also portrayed overseas Chinese as homogeneous. The term “overseas” implies that China is the core of the Chinese identity so all the Chinese should be loyal to the home country. These statements conceal the fact that overseas Chinese are very diverse reality.


In the case of Canada, the way mainstream politicians show respect to Chinese Canadian community, is to help build many Chinese cultural landscape, which tend to have matchmaking community leaders. These leaders are mostly ethnic Chinese businessmen. During campaigns, mainstream politicians are wearing Chinese clothing, standing next to a Chinese political figure, appearing in Chinatown or Chinese shops intensively to express wishes for the Chinese voters. According to the concept of multiculturalism, these moves is to show Canada for the protection of minority cultures.

However, multicultural policy is based on an essentialist understanding of culture, which is already been challenged in sociology studies today. All cultures are constantly evolving. If we consider the cultural evolution, many multiculturalism values will have to adapt to accommodate. For example, in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park in Vancouver’s Chinatown, there is the largest token Suzhou garden outside of China. But do you really think building this garden means much for the ordinary Chinese Canadians? Does it imply that all Chinese Canadians are the heart of the China’s great rivers and mountains? Multiculturalism has not only failed to actively encourage minority communities into mainstream society, contrary to the claim of protecting minority cultures, it has only promoted tokenism whereas so called “community leaders” are made legitimate, since they know how to play the game of marketing so called “traditional culture” better than others.

Compared to other minority communities, the Chinese situation is one of the most complicated, because the political and cultural beliefs of Chinese immigrants are not necessarily unified, it’s difficult to find leaders who can represent all kinds of Chinese Canadians. Moreover, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants to be busy adapting to the new environment. They have no time to think about strategic future of the community when they are struggling to survive in the new environment themselves. Those who do have the attention to dedicate to the community groups to become “community leaders” often come from elite business background.

I had a conversation with a friend who’s a Canadian-born Chinese regarding the political climate.This friend used to be very active in politics and found a job in one of the major parties. Many believe he would have a bright future in politics. However, he decided to give up his political career. He relocated to Ontario and found a new job in a very different field. He explained his decision to me, “I started volunteering in politics at all three levels since Grade 9. I was naive at the time to think I can change the world through politics. After many years, eventually I realized that regardless of how hard I work, I am just being viewed as a tool to get ethnic votes. They always put me in ridings with highly concentrated Chinese constituents to recruit volunteers and assist candidates, even though my Chinese is simply not fluent enough. If they think of me only as a ‘Chinese Canadian’ who can get Chinese votes, how can I compete with a political veteran like Raymond Chan? How much donation can I get and how many zombie party members I can recruit from Chinese community?”


I’m confused about the Chinese community in Canada and “what is/who are Chinese Canadians”. I do not know who I should talk to.  Many Chinese around me do not feel the identity struggle that I feel. They are comfortable to live in the little circle of Chinese new immigrants. I cannot convince them to pay some attention to local news. Since Canada as a country doesn’t even request new immigrants to care about this country, who am I here to tell them to care? I know some of the people in the mainstream society have a lot prejudices (although not discrimination) about my ethnicity and community. Others of the mainstream society tend to blindly believe the current multicuralism in Canada is nearly perfect. They don’t see the identity crisis people like me are experiencing. With both groups of the mainstream society, I managed to have meaningful dialogue with neither of them.


Related articles:


By Silencing White Men, Canada Can’t Have an Honest Debate about Equality Race and Culture. by Ujjal Dosanjh posted on National Post


Trudeau’s Canada, Again. by Guy Lawson from New York Times