Embracing cultural diversity in Canada

By Cynthia Lam

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Order of Canada, established in 1967 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as the cornerstone of the Canadian Honours System to recognize outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. The Order of Canada’s motto is Desiderantes meliorem patriam (They desire a better country). Some 6000 Canadians have been recipients of the award over the years; all have enriched the lives of others and made a difference to this country.

This year has also been my 50th anniversary of being here in Canada. I came to work at EXPO 67 in Montreal, 50 years ago, and then returned later to pursue my studies in social work. I spent my first 37 years of my Canadian life in Montreal.

[Blogmaster’s note – Cynthia Lam was honoured as a recipient of the Order of Canada in Montreal, Quebec, in 2002 for being one of the first women in Quebec and Canada to give voice and visibility to Asian communities. In 2004 she moved to Vancouver with her husband.]

The first wave of Chinese laborers who immigrated to Canada experienced state-imposed discriminatory laws and racial prejudices, specifically targeting the Chinese and the Aboriginal people, and bringing generations of untold suffering to the two communities. A deep bond between the two communities as well as intermarriage between them has grown out of their shared history of living with oppressive racism.

The city of Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, and until 1947, a period of some 60 years, Chinese were barred from many civil rights, including burials in cemeteries, ownership of property, right to join a profession, and the right to access regular medical care.

Waves of Chinese immigration followed the repeal of racist immigration laws in the 1960s, the handover of Hong Kong back to China in the 1990s, and the onset of the current economic boom in China. Each of these migrations came to Canada with different motivations, and they have had vastly different and diverse experiences here.

Canada has been a country of immigrants ever since the 16th century, beginning with the influxes of French and English immigrants. Having many important qualities as a nation, we continue to attract more and more immigrants whose skills, talents, and investments are vital to making Canada competitive and strong in the world. The multi-cultural diversity they bring along with them enriches our society.

The government of Canada has recently announced the raising of the immigration level to 1 million over the next three years, the most ambitious level in recent history. Four in every 5 of these immigrants will be from visible minority. It has been projected that within two decades, 7 in 10 of Metro Vancouver residents will be non-white.

Partly because of the proximity of being neighbours across the Pacific, and partly because of their increasing wealth, immigrants from China have become a major minority group. There are now 1.2 million people of Chinese origin in Canada, about 4% of the total population and 21% of all visible minorities. In Metro Vancouver 1 out of 5 new arrivals since 2006 is Chinese-speaking, comprising about 25% of the total population, and with more than 50% settling in Richmond. Percentage-wise there are now more Chinese professionals and managerial personnel than other immigrant groups within the Canadian population in general.

As we see in the daily news, immigration and diversity can bring about problems that need to be addressed. A case in point is the explosive growth of real estate values in Vancouver. However, such problems are not unique to Vancouver, nor to Canada, nor to the Chinese community either. It’s indeed a global issue. London, England, for example, is struggling to curb real estate speculation by buyers from Russia and Malaysia. Substantial purchase of American properties by the Japanese in the 1980’s was another example. The Arab language has now become the third most-spoken language in Montreal, after French and English, and that has engendered some anti-immigrant sentiment and some controversial legislation.

Yes, immigration brings opportunities as well as problems, but in this shrinking world with its global economy increasing population movements are inevitable. This complex problem must be addressed. If we can start by moving from a position of being afraid and of rejecting differences to one of tolerating differences and then eventually to appreciating the benefits of such differences, the door will be opened for embracing cultural differences and the celebration of diversity.

In my opinion there is a parallel between addressing the human diversity issue, and adapting to climate change. They both are global in nature, and both are confronting us at an unprecedented speed. Therefore, they must both be addressed with the importance and urgency they each deserve.

As we know, Vancouver is aiming to become the greenest city by 2020 . We should strive to take up the challenge to successfully embrace diversity and to set an example for other multicultural cities around the world to look up to and to learn from! And, to make Vancouver truly the most livable city in the world.

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3 comments

  • Cynthia, your story and understanding of where we’ve been, where we’re at now, and where we’re going is hopeful and enlightening. Thank you!
    And congratulations on receiving the Order of Canada! You are certainly inspiring!

  • Cynthia – thank you for telling your story so well.

  • Your noting the parallels between climate change issue and diversity is right on, I think. It goes to the need for us to adapt intelligently to change. But it’s so hard for so many!

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