Oh Canada!


I am the Canadian dream. But I must be dreaming if I think I’m Canadian. I love this country but it doesn’t love me. Or people who look like me. People who were born in this country, but whose parents were not. People who must always refer to their parent’s homeland as their own. People who feel like foster children to the country that’s nurtured them since birth. So then how does one create their own identity in Canada when their parents are from another land?

The question of citizen engagement in Canada is a tough one to answer, especially when the person doesn’t even feel Canadian? How can a person engage in the democratic process when they are still internally questioning their citizenship to the place that birthed them? They are torn. They have absolutely zero connection to “the homeland”, yet despite pledging full allegiance to their birthplace, they will never feel a sense of belonging to their place of birth. They feel like a stranger in two lands. The one in which they live and the one in which their parents once lived.

No stat, figure or expert can convey this feeling. All I’ve got is me. I live this reality everyday. The feeling of being a second-class citizen in a first-class country. I am not dirt poor nor am I filthy rich, yet I don’t feel any sense of ownership to this country. In fact, I feel like I’m renting.

As many broadcasters say, “people are hungry for real stories”. It doesn’t get any realer than this. Every conversation I have, no matter with whom, someone is trying to locate me because I don’t “look” Canadian. A typical Q&A might look like this:

 ‘Where are you from?’

‘I’m Canadian.’

‘Haha, yeah, but where are you really from?’

I want to say Canadian, but I’m not allowed! I was born here but I can’t say this because it is not the accepted answer. Try to tell me this doesn’t have an effect on a person’s psyche. Although I was born in Canada, I’ve been socialized to answer “Pakistan” when people ask me where I’m from, even though I’ve probably only visited there for, at best, 3 months of my 25 years.

Consider this recent conversation with two other media friends:

South American female: What's your name?

Me: Aadel.

South American female: Oh, is that Arabic?

Me: Yes, but I'm not. My parents are from Pakistan.

White Male: Wow, so this is a long way from home!

Me (to self): Is he serious?

Me (to him): Um, actually no. This IS home. I was born here.

White male: Oh yeah, it’s just that I mean, uh, I just meant.

Me: Yeah, don’t worry about it, I know what you meant!

We often talk about a glass ceiling with reference to upward mobility, but how about a glass door preventing one from even entering the house! My parent’s were born in Pakistan, so therefore, I’m Pakistani. It doesn’t matter that I’m second-generation Canadian and was born in Ottawa -- the nation’s capital, of all places! It doesn’t matter that I barely speak Urdu and have only a marginal understanding of Pakistani culture. Aadel Haleem is not a Canadian name, so Aadel

Haleem will never be Canadian. I was recently invited to audition for a national Juicy Fruit commercial. Obviously, I was ecstatic. Then I got the call.

Casting Assistant: "This is what we want you to wear."

Me: "Okay."

Casting Assistant: "Okay, just wear track pants."

Me: "Cool."

Casting Assistant: ". and a turban if you have it. If not, it's okay, we've got one. And, oh yeah, you won't be wearing a shirt. You'll be playing the role of an Elephant Trainer. Cool?"

Me: "Uh, okay. hmm, actually, I think I'm gonna pass."

This is my reality. If I do get a callback for an audition, it's probably to be cast as a terrorist or now,  if I'm lucky, as an elephant trainer! Is this the illusion of progress? Forget "keeping it real", this film aims to make it right. Further, the notion of cultural tourism -- be it during Caribana, Ramadan, Diwali, etc. -- signifies how un-Canadian we are. It is a satellite-relationship between our parent’s home country and their adopted country.  So then, who has culture? Apparently, people of colour always have culture, yet we never talk about white culture. Does that mean culture makes us less Canadian?So while I am questioning my own identity, I am also questioning Canadian identity. What does it mean to be Canadian? Picture me wearing a Team Canada jersey, holding a hockey stick, a beer, and some bacon, asking: “Am I Canadian now?” All with the backdrop of a group of kids (white and non-white) playing road hockey together. Or I could be situated at Canada customs, showing my Canadian passport and Canadian birth certificate, with the officer asking, ‘What’s your citizenship?’ ‘Canadian.’ ‘Okay, but where are you really from?’

U.S. based clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch was sued last year for only hiring White sales associates and pushing Black, Latino, and Asian employees into stockroom jobs to project what the company calls the “classic American look.” According to AlterNet.org’s Carrie Ching, this case was “simply yet another manifestation of the prevalent belief that ‘American’ still means white.” (AlterNet, June 20, 2003) Clearly, whiteness determines everything else that comes into contact with it. Just as there is no rich without poor, no hot without cold, no day without night, there can be no white without “the other”.

I think this piece is important because, it promises to break new ground! It is timely, yet timeless. It will spark discussion about an issue that is never discussed. An issue that permeates the everyday reality of many born-and-raised true-blue Canadians, yet is not discussed because it is an accepted reality. People accept this reality because they know they will never truly be “Canadian”, so the longer they can accept this reality, the longer they can live their Canadian dream.

Written by: Aadel Haleem