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Giving Thanks for 'New-Stock Canadians'

10/10/2015 10:07 EDT | Updated 10/10/2016 05:12 EDT
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A week or so before Thanksgiving, I took a cab downtown to the Eaton Centre. On a good, fast evening it's a 10-minute ride. A bit of traffic can stretch it to 15 minutes, but rarely longer than that. 

Cab drivers are the unsung heroes of urban life. Anonymous backs of heads by default, they work in a virulently competitive field for a relative pittance, when measured against their investments. By definition they are vulnerable: their shifts are spent with their backs turned to the people upon whom they depend for their income.

They do it because they have families to support in a new land. In some cases, they barely see those families because of the punishing hours they are forced to work. 

That night, however, I recognized the driver, and he recognized me. He was Sri Lankan, probably in his 30s. A handsome man with a wonderful voice, he would not have been out of place in a Gap ad, portraying hip, multicultural urban dads. He plays cricket in the summer in a park near my house.  

We fell into the easy banter of cordial acquaintances. He was enjoying the Blue Jays' recent winning streak. He calls them "our Jays," and was hoping that the streak would continue.

The immigrant son of immigrants, his pride in Toronto -- and Canada -- is passionately above par. His description of the city in which we both lived was an invitation to see it afresh through his eyes. "We're all Canadians," he said proudly, when I told him how much I loved the idea of cricket being played in a field that normally hosts baseball teams in the summer. "We're all Torontonians."

As we spoke, I felt more and more drawn to him. His smile was beautiful and I felt I could catch fire from his joy in life.

He shared with me that this was a special day. It was the 23rd anniversary of his life in Canada. He'd arrived with his family as a small child. He'd thrown himself into his Canadian life with a passion, unfazed by either snow or the new culture.

In due course, he got married, and he and his wife were now raising their two daughters in the suburbs. He worried that his hours didn't allow him all the time he wanted to spend with them, but he had to work to make the life he wanted for them in Canada possible. 

I congratulated him on his anniversary. Again he said, "I love Canada. This is the greatest country on earth."

Although that's a phrase I've heard dozens of times in my life, I'd never heard it quite that way before.

Like his daughters, I too am the descendant of immigrants.

I am a sixth-generation Ontarian. My family has never not thought of ourselves as the descendants of immigrants. Furthermore, I can honestly say that I never heard the phrase "old-stock Canadian" until recently, when Stephen Harper's Australian campaign mastermind introduced it in the election dialogue as an invitation to Canadians to identify themselves in opposition to their fellow Canadians.

Aside from the ludicrous notion that anyone other than Canada's Native population is truly "old-stock Canadians," there is a certain divisive, chamber-pot snobbery to the term. It's not a celebration of "lineage," it's a wedge. It has no use other than to separate the speaker from others. Without even having to wonder why it was never used in our house, I know that my parents would have considered it vulgar.

As we shared our commonalities in conversation, I pondered the cheap politics whose sole raison d'être was to degrade those commonalities in the service of dividing and conquering.

And again, in the company of this joyful man, I wondered what had happened to the Canada I'd known and loved.

The Canada I've known and loved is not the country of dead Syrian children washed up on beaches. It's not a country whose prime minister defends a $15-billion dollar arms deal with despots, who flog their citizens and crucify teenagers, by boasting that it's the most lucrative arms deal in Canadian history.

It's not a country where scientists are persecuted for telling the truth. It's not a country that looks the other way when the environment for which it is justly famous is decimated beyond rejuvenation.

It's not a country where missing and murdered aboriginal women are written off with what amounts to Oh well, what can you do about those people? At it's best, it's a country recoils from that in disgust and horror.

It's not a country where politicians play God with the lives of Canadians by pitting them against each other based on their ethnicity and traditions and looking the other way when violence ensues as a direct result.

Canada already has its own genocidal history of attempting to strip Natives of their cultural traditions in an attempt to turn them into a version of "Canadian" considered palatable to the descendants of white colonists. There are lessons there that should have been learned decades ago, but apparently still have not been.

What, then, is our "heritage" as Canadians? For one thing, it's a heritage of tributaries of immigrants from all over the world flowing into the larger river of national identity, each bringing with them the great gift of their own history, a history that becomes part of Canada's history -- a history we all share. They strengthen the fabric of our nation. The Canada I've known and loved is set of ideals, not heredity and bloodlines. Those ideals include respect, not just "tolerance," for our neighbours. It elevates "responsibility" to a level at least as high as "rights."

The opposition to those ideals is intrinsically un-Canadian by default, whether that opposition is brought over on a 747 in the first generation, or if it's nurtured over the course of a century of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Sunday dinners, or tea and fruitcake at the church women's auxiliary Christmas tea.

Canada's real heritage -- my real heritage, our real heritage -- is the essence of what Canada is at its best. That heritage is available to anyone, new Canadian or old, who commits to it. By hewing to those ideals, indeed to the vision of Canada at its peaceful, glorious best, we are all "old-stock" Canadians, no matter where we're from, or how recently we've arrived.

What I really wanted to do was hug the driver. I wanted to take him out to dinner to celebrate his 23rd anniversary in Canada. I wanted to tell him what an honour it was to have shared fifteen minutes of his 23rd anniversary with him. I wanted to tell him that I felt more "Canadian" in his shared company than I'd felt in a long time.

I wanted to share with him how, after months of increasingly ugly politicking in an increasingly desperate election, he'd reminded me of what our country is, at its best. I wanted to tell him how proud he made me to be Canadian that night.

But being sane men, we settled for a handshake, as sane men do, and that was that. I got out of his cab at the Eaton Centre, and he drove off into the night.

This Thanksgiving weekend I'll be with my family and my godchildren, enjoying what I have always thought of is the quintessence of Canadian beauty, autumn by a northern lake. The air is crisp and bright, and even in the sunlight filtering through a cathedral of orange and yellow leaves, there's a taste of winter's bite in the air. 

One of our traditions is sharing the things for which we are grateful that year. 

This year I'll be sharing that I'm grateful for that fifteen minutes in the back of a Beck taxi driven by a countryman to whom I wish a long and joyful life our mutual country, whose mosaic fabric he and his family enrich with their presence. My Canadian identity isn't threatened by their presence. It's confirmed by it.

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