By Hussein Hamdani
Events and circumstances in the last few weeks have forced me to think about defining what it means to be a Canadian.
In other words, how can we define Canadian identity?
I started by turning my mind to the issue around Remembrance Day. I reflected on the 117,000 Canadians who lost their lives in defending this country. The next day, I wrote my (now controversial) column on these fallen soldiers. I will not restate the article here, but it recognized the sacrifices made to make Canada what it is today: A bastion of democracy, pluralism and affluence.
A few days later, on Nov. 14, several hundred Muslim Canadians, me among them, attended the Inspired and Engaged Citizens conference in Hamilton.
This was a large gathering of Muslim Canadians collectively focused on discussing what it means to be a practising, observant or secular Muslim in Canada today. It was a profoundly successful conference in that it assisted attendees in recognizing that one can remain a devout Muslim (as part of their spiritual path) and a Canadian patriot (as part of their national identity).
Various speakers at the conference reminded us that the question of Canadian identity was traditionally dominated by three fundamental themes: first, the often-conflicted relations between English Canadians and French Canadians, stemming from the French-Canadian imperative for cultural and linguistic survival; second, the generally close ties between English Canadians and the British Empire, resulting in a gradual political process towards complete independence from the imperial power; and last, the proximity of English-speaking Canadians to a southern neighbour who is militarily, culturally and economically a global powerhouse.
However, as some speakers stated, the gradual loosening of political and cultural ties to Britain (the repatriation of our Constitution in 1982) and the increase of non-British immigration from source countries found in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia have reshaped the Canadian identity.
This process will continue with the continuing arrival of large numbers of immigrants from non-British or non-French backgrounds, adding the theme of multiculturalism to the debate.
Supporters of Canadian multiculturalism argue cultural appreciation of ethnic and religious diversity promotes a greater willingness to tolerate political differences, and multiculturalism is often cited as one of Canada’s significant accomplishments and a key distinguishing element of Canadian identity.
It is quite ironic that only a few days after the conclusion of this conference, where hundreds of Canadians gathered in Hamilton to discuss being Canadian, a bigot reacted to my article the way he did. His demands that we all “go home” presupposes that “home” is somewhere else. Fortunately for Canada and for us, and unfortunately for him, Canada is our home and native land.
The issue of defining a Canadian identity is a challenging one. The definition must take into consideration our national history along with our current realities. Perhaps, it is foolish to think that we can come up with one, monolithic definition of what it means to be Canadian.
One thing is for certain: Whether you are a new immigrant or you can trace your ancestral roots in Canada to the time of Confederation, we are all blessed to live in a country where such discussions can take place without fear of persecution or torture or a dilution of civil liberties.
Hamilton should be congratulated once again for hosting a conference where hundreds of Canadians discussed and debated the very profound issue of Canadian identity.
* Hussein Hamdani lives in Burlington, and works as a lawyer in Hamilton.