Author: Sam Thiara
Why ‘Canadian’ Is Not an Exclusive Statement
Like many Canadians, I grew up in the suburbs of a big city. I went to school, and then on to university. I traveled, I went to work and I got married. You know- a narrative that is all too familiar.
But each time Bill 21 is mentioned on the 6 o’clock news, or someone is ranting “go back to where you came from”, my heart drops. And I’m reminded for a short, uncomfortable moment, that the way I see myself and my identity is far from what some people would accept as ‘Canadian’.
While I was growing up in North Vancouver, I played road hockey with my friends, I ate TV dinners, and I went about my normal daily life just like any other kid in Canada. But as I got older, a regular part of that daily life soon became a constant reminder that I didn’t completely fit in. That I was seen as different.
You see, my parents come from Indian and Fijian backgrounds. I was born in the UK, and our family moved to Canada when I was very young. So young, in fact, this is the only home I remember. So naturally, I was Canadian, right?
I thought so. Then, in Grade 8, I was walking down the halls of my brand new high school when suddenly out of nowhere, like a gust of wind, I was knocked down by a Grade 12 student. Surprised, I demanded to know why he treated me that way. He spat back “I just don’t like Indians” and this shook me to the core because all along, I thought I was Canadian. It’s as if he was the one ranting “go back home” like on TV and I was the one who was the target.
What followed was several school years of me starting each term by making a point of letting the teachers know that my name was ‘Sam’ not ‘Ajit?’- the given name listed on my legal ID. It was just too much of a risk to let them call out that name and be embarrassed by its unusual sound in front of my classmates and my friends. I hid anything I thought was un-Canadian away from my public life. It was also the same motivation that caused me to skim over details about Hindu or Sikh celebrations that had taken place over the weekend when my friends asked me what I had been up to.
I was policing myself, the way Bill 21 polices others. I was setting my own boundaries of how a Canadian should be defined- what names were okay, what activities fit in, what meals were shared, and what didn’t belong.
When I got to University, things were a bit different. I met other students who came from immigrant families, including some first-generation Indians who had migrated to Canada when they were young, and still stayed connected to their roots. For the first time, I felt like I had made some new friends whose story was similar to mine and it was ok to be different. I realized for the first time that our uniqueness is what makes up our country.
But it also made me wonder, am I the same, a hybrid model or something different? After all I’m Canadian, British, Fijian and Indian. I wasn’t sure how to define myself, let alone explain that identity to anyone else. So, I started to segment myself into different categories. In one space, I’d be Canadian, in another British, then there was Indian and finally, not forgetting Fijian. These pieces were always something to be celebrated, and always something to be kept in their separate worlds too.
I consider that my ‘thali’ stage. You see thali is an Indian metal plate made up of 4 or 5 separate dishes segmented from each other in bowls. And that’s how I functioned for the better part of my childhood and young adulthood.
While I was in school, I was fortunate enough to travel to the places my family had started their journeys. I write about these experiences in my book “Lost and Found: Seeking the Past and Finding Myself”. And it was through these travels that slowly, carefully and cautiously, I began to allow myself to embrace all the parts of my identity as one whole, until finally I knew who I was, a British born Canadian with Fijian parents and ancestral ties to India. It was just that simple!
And what a relief to embrace all these aspects of myself, and to share them with friends new and old. At long last, I could clear the thali off the table. Instead, I could order up another dish- kitichari. Kitichari is an Indian rice dish famous for containing an exquisite blend of flavours all at once. And that’s me too, a blend of backgrounds, stories and identities- all perfectly unique and all perfectly Canadian. These days, I have such a deep appreciation that I don’t have to choose one identity or the other, but that all of
these cultures and backgrounds can just be a comfortable part of who I am.
To me, Bill 21 or the racists rants we hear more and more often these days are an attempt to strip people of their identity. I really feel for those individuals affected by this. These are humans with a story made up of many pieces too, and that’s okay.
Bill 21 demands that people change their story and leave in only what is deemed ‘Canadian’ enough and for what? These individuals aren’t showing their cultural identity to be rebellious. No, it’s just part of their background and culture- this is what matters to them and showcases who they are. In my early years, I might not have appreciated the value and importance of identity, but as I got older, it has become the very definition of who I am.
We all struggle to understand who we are and overcome many challenges as we grow into to our potential. I think Canada too is also working to adapt and grow up. Until we embrace every aspect of our identity of a nation of 37 millions unique individuals, we will never truly unlock what could be. But I have hope. Because I know how possible it is and how great it feels to learn, to explore and to become comfortable with your own story, which is why I decided to share my own journey in my upcoming memoir Lost and Found: Seeking the Past and Finding Myself.
Learn more about Sam Thiara’s Lost and Found.