On the myth of Canada

I'm just trying to figure out this whole school thing. Bear with me while I ramble into the void.

When I told my mother I was reading about racial capitalism for school, she did as she has the habit of doing: she honed in on the words she did understand, formed an assumption of my stance on the topic, and tried to gently communicate her disagreement with a non sequitur of an anecdote. 

“You know, when we came to Canada, it was the first time I felt like I belonged,” she said, turning to project her voice toward the car’s backseat where I sat. My father wheeled us around the corner. “In Malaysia, I felt like a second— how do you say it? What do you call— second-class citizen. I was like a second-class citizen. Everything you can do, everything is based on the colour of your skin.”

Malaysia has a complex racial-economic history associated with heightened tensions between ethnic groups — particularly relevant is Chinese immigrants’ participation in the British colonial capitalist economy, an economy which facilitated the rise of the Chinese in Southeast Asian trading and pitted an image of Chinese immigrants as reliable and hardworking against depictions of native Malays as lazy or indolent. 

My mom went on to describe the injustices she felt she had been subjected to when she opened a business as a Chinese Malaysian. 

“In Malaysia, if you wanted to have Chinese on your advertisements or signs, they had to be teeny, tiny characters underneath huge Malay or English letters. When we got to Vancouver, wow, I was amazed. You see—” she pointed out the car window at a Pender Street sign with Chinese writing on it— “there were signs and billboards with giant Chinese characters on them. You were too young to understand,” she told me.

Only seven years old when I first stepped off the plane onto Canadian earth, I’d understood only what my parents told me— that we had moved to blustery, overcast Vancouver “for a better life.” As I grew, I only became increasingly aware of the narratives that shape my family’s and my peers’ understanding of “Canada.” The words “tolerant,” “multicultural,” and “polite” (along with “hockey,” “moose,” and “maple syrup”) often float to the forefront of the discussion when teachers in high school and university question our understanding of our national identity. 

Nowadays, you’re more likely to hear criticisms of notions of Canadian democracy, pride, or exceptionalism— a phenomenon I’m especially privy to as a TA for a discussion-heavy undergraduate course on power in Canadian society. But these criticisms rarely move beyond comparisons to US exceptionalism and sentiments surrounding acts of discrimination or violence toward racial minorities in Canada. 

The myth of Canada is not just the consequence of capitalist, nationalist, and white supremacist ideologies but also an integral cog in the system upholding such ideologies and modes of domination. This image of a multi-racial/ethnic/cultural safe haven is a carefully curated one, but deconstructing it can open up room for examining exactly how the myths that constitute “Canada” shape trajectories of migration and the life outcomes of migrants here.