05/15/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 07/15/2013 05:12 EDT

The Unlikely Place Where Diversity Thrives

There is one arena, literally, where questions of immigration, integration and assimilation melt in favour of the common bonds of citizenship and shared purpose: at the ice rink. We see this on our streets whenever a Canadian team chases the Stanley Cup or an Olympic medal.

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LONDON, CANADA - MAY 13: Mithcell Theoret #10 of the Barrie Colts skates with the puck against the London Knights in Game Seven in the 2013 OHL Championship Final on May 13, 2013 at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada. The Knights defeated the Colts 3-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

There is a new beer commercial floating around that's particularly insipid, even for a beer commercial. Over splices of generic bar, beer and hockey footage, resolute Canadiana all of it, a narrator asks "What does hockey need?" Pause for a beat and then: "Even more hockey!" Intelligence-insulting rhetoric aside, I think a more appropriate question based on last week's release of the National Household Survey might be what does Canada need? To which I would also answer, more hockey. Not as a paean to commercially-endorsed alcoholism but rather as a tool for building Canadian unity.

The self-declared survey reveals that 6.8 million Canadians, or just over 20 per cent of the population, were born outside of the country. Aside from Australia (at 26 per cent), this is the highest proportion of any nation in the Western World, yet an even higher proportion of the Canadian population was foreign born -- almost entirely from Europe -- during much of the early 20th Century. More interestingly, the Survey states that one in five Canadians is a visible minority (i.e. non-white), the result of a wave of liberalizing immigration reforms in the 1960's and 1970's that also echoed in the three other so-called "settler colonies" of the old British Empire: Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

These changes saw the institution of a meritocratic point system as the basis for conventional migration (as well as allowances for economic, student, refugee, and family reunification categories) replace quotas and racial/ethnic preferences, opening Canada to immigration from Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Today the largest of these populations are South Asians, Chinese, Black and Filipino respectively. Approximately eight million people entered the country over this time, most building lives as citizens and permanent residents.

Source: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

What's notable in this grim age of austerity and public-minded stinginess is how less-than-enthused some Canadians appear to be about where their new neighbours are coming from. Comments on newspaper stories and message boards often reveal an outright hostility directed at these populations of non-European descent and their supposed inability to integrate into broader society, with particular hostility leveled at the Muslim and Middle Eastern community. No doubt these perspectives are influenced by a string of very real events, but the usual criticisms -- that our current immigration policy has led to deleterious increases in crime, unemployment, '"enclaving" and welfare abuse -- are rehashed, though easily refuted, time and time again again. Still, an immigration system grown calcified and liable to abuse and deception on the one hand, and vagaries and bureaucratic snafus on the other is deserving of reform, as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is currently undertaking.

It would be simplistic and wrong to dismiss anyone who questions the current system and its results as simply racist or discriminatory. However those who complain about "losing the country" should remember their history, particularly when these same hysterics were directed at the waves of Germans, Italians, Ukrainians and others who came before (strangely, many of these same voices become silent when the conversation turns to the one population that can be said to have truly 'lost' the country: aboriginals). Yet in an era of "post-national politics", notions of culture, identity, rights and responsibilities necessarily come under scrutiny in our framing of the conversation on immigration.

But there is one arena, literally, where questions of integration and assimilation melt in favour of the common bonds of citizenship and shared purpose: at the ice rink. We see this on our streets whenever a Canadian team chases the Stanley Cup or an Olympic medal. As husband-and-wife authors Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac point out in Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds, sports play an inestimable role in knitting together a collective culture. They criss-crossed the globe from Marseilles, France to Kerala, India and from Russian Tatarstan to Sydney, Australia and Queens, New York City looking at how diverse populations live together in domestic peace (other overlooked institutions that promote harmony? Rap music and public libraries).

That playing and watching hockey is a national passion -- one that most obviously unites our English and French divides -- is so cliché it doesn't bear repeating here. It does in the United States however; a glowing New York Times piece highlighted the CBC's decision to simulcast hockey games in Punjabi to appeal to the country's 300,000+ speakers of the language, most of whom follow the Sikh faith. It touched on a particular anecdote when Nail Yakupov, the first choice in the 2012 NHL entry draft by my Edmonton Oilers (and the team's first Tatar Muslim player), tweeted his surprise at seeing the turbans and thick beards of Harnarayan Singh and Bhola Chauhan, the play-by-play announcer and colour commentator of Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi.

The piece hints at the rabid loyalty of first and second generation Canadians to a game they never encountered "back home." I felt this passion firsthand during the Gretzky years of the 1980s and during the '90s playoff battles between the Oilers and Dallas Stars with my friends Rahul, a Punjabi Hindu, Aaron, an Indo-Canadian by way of Tanzania and my Ukrainian-German pal Levi (and I griped with them as our team's fortunes have plummeted since). It still amazes me how those not born and raised with such an exclusive game can find it such an inclusive experience; at a recent house party my brother hosted in Calgary, I was surprised to see the two fans paying rapt attention to an otherwise inconsequential "Battle of Alberta" and gently razzing each other were a Scotsman and an Ethiopian.

If that still doesn't convince you of hockey's appeal to new Canadians, nor the performances of some of the most popular young players in the NHL like the Montreal Canadien's Norris Trophy candidate P.K. Subban (of Jamaican descent) or the Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri (of Lebanese ancestry and the president of his high school's Muslim Student Association) or the premise of Breakaway, one of the first big budget Indo-Canadian films about a team nicknamed the Speedy Singhs, then this maudlin yet admittedly effective Tim Horton's commercial should:

That this popular ad strikes such an emotional chord shows that however diffuse our bloodline may be, hockey clearly runs in it.

So let's take another step in building the collective passion by first making it accessible to all. With its equipment and ice time costs, hockey is a prohibitively expensive game, annually costing the average family about $1,500 per player. For low-income families, including immigrants busy establishing themselves in their new homeland, cost is by far the biggest barrier to participation. A recent report found 82 per cent of those surveyed believe corporate Canada should do more to help hockey families so lets encourage the one community that seems to be doing pretty well these days to step up and make the game more affordable for everyone, newcomers and native-born alike.

Looking at Canada as well as Australia and the United States, Meyer and Brysac found "reassuring evidence that diversity works on many levels: economic, educational, political and cultural." In all three countries, "the benefits of immigration are tangible but diffuse, cumulative rather than short term. Aggregate gains arising from pluralism tend to pass unnoticed whereas every bump in the road is promptly trumpeted." Inclusive nation-building isn't automatic, nor a foregone conclusion. It takes dedication and work but who says it can't be fun as well?

It would be wrong to suggest that sport is a comparable answer to the broad questions of integration and community that we face today. It won't solve ethnocultural discord but it certainly can ease it. These issues are fundamental to our national identity and should be debated openly, honestly and empathetically. Nor am I arguing in favour of the corporatized game represented by the National Hockey League where working-class families spend hundreds of the dollars to support millionaire players working for billionaire owners (or, obviously, that hockey as a particular activity should be blithely trumpeted at the expense of other sports). But if we accept that in an increasingly globalized world, where the concept of citizenship is ever more fluid than ever, organized sports could serve as a valuable pivot from which to wave the flag of national unity -- however contentious and incomplete that notion may be.

So before the Stanley Cup is awarded next month and our thoughts turn to enjoying an all-too short summer, lets remember that hockey is indeed living out the promise of beer commercials and making us all Canadian.