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Is Canada's Multicultural Identity Only Skin-Deep?

03/23/2017 03:44 EDT | Updated 03/23/2017 03:45 EDT
Lyle Stafford / Reuters
A proponent of the anti-Islamophobia federal government motion M-103, listens to speeches during a rally at City Hall in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Lyle Stafford

It's 1989 and my family and I have landed back in Canada after a few years in Pakistan. I'm five. I'm ready to start school. I don't speak a word of English, let alone French. But because my parents learned from their citizenship test that French was the official second language of the country, I'm enrolled in French Immersion anyways. And since we are in Alberta, I am bound to learn English. This is the reasoning my mother often gives -- it's the effort they put in to make sure I would understand what it meant to be Canadian.

In 1988, the year prior to our return, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act took effect, recognizing the cultural and racial diversity of the country and acknowledging the freedom of all Canadians to preserve and share their cultural heritage. We are a proud multicultural society, and we wear it as a badge of honour.

So what does that make me? A French speaking-first generation Western Canadian-Pakistani? I don't imagine anybody identifies this way in his or her day-to-day life. I don't imagine anybody has to. I didn't identify this way because I never felt like I had too either. And for the longest time, I chose not to. I was Ozman or Oz (both of which are nowhere near the pronunciation of my name, Osman). Maybe this was naïve of me. Maybe I knew it was wrong, but I willfully ignored it. I don't know.

It wasn't until recently that I realized what a disservice I was doing by not making my many identities clear to those around me. And it's not until recently that I realized why: we are a country that celebrates multiculturalism without knowing what that means for the people who actually makeup the multicultural fabric of this country.

I came to this realization when I saw the reaction against the fight to combat Islamophobia: when I saw the reaction to Motion-103.

Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid introduced the Motion last December. It calls for the condemnation of Islamophobia in Canada, including other forms of racism and religious discrimination. This latter half reads as though directly pulled from the Multiculturalism Act, which gives the freedom of cultural and religious expression.

Most Canadians support an ideal without having any understanding or experience of what multiculturalism actually is or means.

In addition to condemning Islamophobia and systemic discrimination, the Motion calls on the House of Commons Heritage Committee to study how the two issues can be eliminated while collecting data on hate crimes.

It all seems reasonable to me. Especially given the current context in different parts of the world, and especially when different religious and cultural groups across the spectrum have endorsed M-103.

But even as I was writing this, opposing groups were fighting against M-103. Those opposing the Motion are arguing for the preservation of free speech, with many believing that it gives special attention to Muslims over other groups - a select few even believe that the Motion is a disguised push for Sharia law in Canada.

This points to a deeper issue that I also came to realize: how can we be against M-103 and combating Islamophobia while still claiming to be multicultural?

Can we say we are a multicultural society if we're unable to fundamentally accept its most basic concept: tolerance of other cultures and religions? Why is there a discrepancy between the support many Canadians show to multiculturalism -- and who often feverishly argue is the basis of Canadian identity -- and combating Islamophobia? If we're (arguably) a multicultural society then why are we also not an anti-Islamophobia society? An anti-anything that's against our fundamental identity as a multicultural society?

It's because most Canadians support an ideal without having any understanding or experience of what multiculturalism actually is or means.

If being multicultural is being tolerant and accepting, then raising your voice against Islamophobia is part of being Canadian.

This is why I realized that I've done a disservice to my fellow Canadians by not identifying more strongly as a French speaking-first generation Western Canadian-Pakistani: It's allowed them to carry on believing in an ideal that they've never really had to work towards; an ideal that they've never really felt the burden of.

And now, when the time has come, though many are raising their voices for action against Islamophobia, the cracks in our understanding of ourselves as Canadians, in our identity as a multicultural society, is becoming noticeable from the other side.

It's showing the thin depth of our character. It's laughable that we can on the one hand accept refugees -- we can accept the very people that will carry our identity as a tolerant and multicultural society forward -- and on the other hand, simultaneously oppose a Motion that aims to protect the very people, whether Muslim or Christian, that give us this identity.

And yes, I take responsibility for my part in this: for not making myself more visible and for not making the layers of my identity more accessible and understandable.

If I'm being honest though, it's tiring carrying the luxury of what allows this country to declare itself tolerant and multicultural while not being supported for the reasons that permit those claims. Especially right now -- but especially knowing the efforts to integrate that my parents have undertook.

More than ever, it's a time for sharing the burden and taking onus, and the responsibility is on each of us to do so. As M-103 continues to be debated, and though it will pass, there will be fallout and repercussions. Taking onus and sharing the burden means creating tolerant spaces. It means reaching out and checking in with your neighbours and the people around you. It means more than declaring yourself an ally -- it means taking ACTION.

Because if being multicultural is being tolerant and accepting, then raising your voice against Islamophobia is part of being Canadian.

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