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History Table of Contents
1997 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1997
Canada and the Asia-Pacific Promise: Hope, Hype and Reality

The Asian Dimension in Canada

Irshad Manji,
Vision TV, Toronto

I first heard about this thing Couchiching in junior high school. Don't know where I read about it, but I heard about and I thought to myself: Wouldn't it be cool if one day, one day I could be there, too!

Fifteen or so years later, here I am among three other very bright women and I'm proud that I don't have to say, only in America!

Being the deferential South Asian that I am, I take seriously the three questions that were asked about our session: First and foremost, how do Asian-Canadians view their experience? How do other Canadians see them? And finally, what has the Asian impact been on Canada's economic and political life?

Let me take each in order.

How does this Asian-Canadian view her experience? Let's put this in the category of Hope.

Sonny mentioned the responsibility to bend to the host country and I think she's very right. In many ways she said the unsayable. While I take issue with much of what she said, in this case I completely agree.

I think what Sonny, to put it more diplomatically, may be talking about is a social contract; the need for a social contract — not between governments and citizens, in many ways we already have that — but a new social contract among citizens. The conditions of which are: I take the responsibility to bend in exchange for the right to belong. Hence, the balance between rights and responsibilities.

It's interesting, an immigration officer first introduced me to this notion of contract when, in October 1972, he refused to settle my refugee family in Montreal.

The background of this is simply that when the nationalist dictator Idi Amin seized power in our native Uganda, thousands of Asians and South Asians, in particular, were given days to leave or die. Naturally, my family fled.

With absolutely no time to brush up on world geography, we landed in this place called Montreal. The immigration officer there asked my parents why we wanted to settle in Montreal. Keep in mind we're refugees; desperate not to blow our big chance.

My French-speaking mother replied to the immigration officer that, well, Montreal begins with the letter "M," and our family name begins with the letter "M," so it might make for a happy fit. She was thinking on her feet.

The immigration officer, upon surveying my two sisters and I, said to my mother, "The reason I'm asking this question is that your children are dressed for tropical weather. They'll never survive the oncoming Montreal winter. So, I'd like to send you all to Vancouver," which, of course, is the closest thing we in this God-forsaken iceberg of a country have to tropical weather.

So, a few stamps later, the family is bound for the other side of the country.

In retrospect, I would have loved to grow up in a bilingual city like Montreal.

But, I also realize that the immigration officer's move showed that he was paying attention. Yes, he had power over us. Indeed, he may have even relished exercising that power over us. Even so, this symbol of state hegemony, this gatekeeper of cheap labour, still saw fit to view a group of refugee kids as human beings with a Canadian future, rather than labels lost in a ditched past.

The immigration officer's move showed that he cared enough to wonder what we needed. My Canada includes that kind of empathy.

I hope that this observation of my, true or valid or invalid, or untrue though it may be, whatever the interpretation you embrace, that this observation of mine moves us through a paradigm shift that allows us to see Asian Canadians — not just as objects of study — but as Asians with expectations of their Canada and what kind of vision they want to have of their country as well.

That is probably my watershed experience as an Asian Canadian.

Question number two: How do others view Asian- Canadians?

Put this in the category of hype. When I say hype, here's an example of what I mean.

Picture it: 1995, Richmond, B.C. my hometown, otherwise known by me as an "asylum of racial tension."

In a uniquely British Columbia version of Quebec's Bill 101, a couple of years ago there was a controversy raging over the Chinese language signs — Mandarin, Cantonese, doesn't matter, all people knew was there were Chinese language signs being hung outside of the businesses in a Richmond strip mall.

What I found fascinating was that for all the hype about the "Asian invasion," of the lower mainland, this shopping centre continued to be called Aberdeen Centre!

Nobody had changed the name. The Scottish heritage of Richmond, B.C. was still honoured in the formal and actual and explicit name of that shopping centre, Aberdeen Mall.

As a journalist, I thought it was then my responsibility to ask further questions about this. So, I tracked down 15 to 20 shoppers, incidentally of all so-called colours and hues — South Asians among them — and asked if they were angry about this, because many Richmondites were.

And many of the were angry about these Chinese language signs, including the South Asians.

So, I asked, why, given that this is still called Aberdeen Centre. Everybody gave their own set of reasons, but what I found most interesting in this experiment is that a good number of them mentioned the word messy; they make us look messy — it looks messy, we feel messy, doesn't it seem messy.

Without reading too much into any of this, one of the messages I took away from all of this is that what people were saying is that, go ahead and make an economic contribution to our country — just don't cross the line and make a cultural one at the same time.

You can make one or the other, but don't get out of your assigned niche, thank you very much.

I will leave that observation there and you'll see how I try and wrap it up at the end.

Now the third question in the pamphlet for tonight is: What has been the impact on Canada's political life of the Asian dimension?

To my mind, there is no better, no more relevant case study to look at than that of Sunera Thobani, who was the president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women between 1993 and 1996.

I think it would be fair to say that distortion was the name of the game when it came to portraying Sunera Thobani.

Even those who think they were restoring balance caved to reductionist temptations.

The former Toronto Star columnist Donna Laframboise, somebody who has written for The Globe and Mail a number of times in the last year, including her most recent rant against the ills of feminism.

She came out with a book last year in which she fumes that "no matter how many hours you've poured into good causes, some feminists feel no compunction whatever about slandering your good name on the flimsiest of grounds."

She was referring to the accusations of racism hurled by some women of colour at June Callwood, co-founder of Nellie's Hostel for Women.

But two pages earlier in the same book, Laframboise replicates the very sin she castigates; "slandering a good name on the flimsiest of grounds."

In her first mention of Sunera Thobani, Laframboise describes her simply as, a "graduate student who'd been living in Canada for just four years" when she became NAC president.

No mention of the "many hours" Thobani had already "poured into good causes," that she'd been a peace activist since her college days in Britain and the U.S.; that she finished her feminist apprenticeship in Canada, sitting on the co-ordinating collective of the Vancouver Status of Women; that she chaired NAC'S committees on violence against women and reproductive technologies; that in the latter capacity, she steeled her spine to challenge a doctor who was gaining popular in Vancouver's South Asian community because his fertility clinic catered to couples wanting baby boys.

Above all, no mention that Thobani has been credited for the maturity of the abortion rights movement in B.C. today.

Instead, Ms Thobani is introduced — and reduced — to a "student" who has been here for "just four years." Read: Unemployed, inexperienced immigrant.

The trend of distorting Thobani was set even before she took office. In covering her election to the NAC presidency, the national media focused not on her resume, but on the words of one rarely-heard-from man.

John MacDougall, a Conservative member of Parliament, who declared Thobani to be an "illegal" immigrant with little knowledge of Canadian women's issues. MacDougall said he received his information in an unmarked envelope, but neither he nor the media cared to investigate further.

If the media had cared to investigate further, what they would have discovered, of course, is that Thobani was in Canada on a student visa; that she'd been juggling single parenthood and full-time study for years which, of course, are already relevant credentials for NAC's top job.

As for her understanding of Canadian women's issues, I've mentioned all of the committees that Thobani sat on and all of the things she did was finishing up her feminist internship in his country.

The day after John MacDougall's accusations, Thobani set the record straight in a news conference. She was joined by her predecessor, U.S.-born, Brooklyn-raised Judy Rebick — also an immigrant to Canada, but one who's legality was never questioned.

A year later, there was a similar double standard as the Parliamentary press once again grilled Thobani. "Wasn't it just a gimmick?" referring to NAC's noisy but failed attempt to meet with the supposedly populist Reform Party about its anti- equality policies.

That day, a NAC delegation had marched on Parliament Hill. The march ended, admittedly, in some scuffling with security guards in Parliament which, I have to remind you, was a common occurrence during Rebick's tenure.

But, the tone of the reporters' questions suggested Thobani should be skewered, not merely covered. Even an Ottawa Citizen columnist noted that, "there was clear disapproval in the media questions, which, incidentally, all came from female journalists." She suggested that Thobani's rise to the top of the feminist movement suffered from the discomfort these women felt at letting someone outside of their galaxy influence the national agenda.

I have to say this: It wasn't a simple matter of journalists hating feminism. That week, Janice Kennedy, another Citizen columnist and avowed feminist, declared hockey commentator Don Cherry — and someone I call a pucking chauvinist — less embarrassing than "these shrill little interest groups."

The message, of course, was that NAC now matters only to Asian lesbians with a limp and lisp which, quite frankly, even excludes me!

I could go into more detail about how untrue that is; the fact that NAC hardly got radical under Sunera Thobani — I mean radical to the point of being worthy of marginalization.

NAC's conference on social policy, for example, was not only the first such event in Canadian history to be jointly

sponsored by women's groups in Quebec and the rest of the country which, believe me if you've ever been in the women's movement you know how difficult that is.

But, it was also the first nation-wide challenge to the federal unraveling of social programs. And if NAC concentrated on defending social programs in 1994, its priority campaign in 1993 was jobs; deliberately geared to the federal election campaign.

As Sunera Thobani wonders: "Who in their right mind would argue that these are issues only for immigrant and racial minority women?"

Perhaps the media didn't know about Thobani's mainstream approach because her accent can't be understood. That was the theory politely posed to her by one female journalist. The journalist also noted that Thobani wears baggy, brightly embroidered Indian pantsuits. So optics, along with accents, can overshadow substance.

The way Thobani interprets this is if only you sounded like us, or were like us, we wouldn't have this unease; that's what the media is saying.

I want to wrap this up by reiterating a couple of points and I hope that the case study of Sunera Thobani points to this.

The first point is this: that her political influence was limited to being seen as a political statement before she was allowed to be a complicated person.

In the process, and this is my second point, the media helped reduce Asian Canadian culture to something static; something that has to choose between East and West, rather than the inherently dynamic and fluid intermingling that it is.

As a closing note, let me read a viewer letter that I received in my first season of TV debating:

"That Manji woman couldn't help herself. Arrogant immigrants are being more and more vociferously noticeable. That is why a non-Canadian like Sunera Thobani has clawed her way to the top of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women..."

"On the basis of her ethnicity, her non-citizenship, subtle pressures have caused NAC to put her at the head to give an impression that they care about minority women, and would probably have been lambasted if they had put a white Canadian woman in charge."

Clearly, the public is influenced by the reductionism of journalists. This viewer regurgitated the same media myths about Thobani, and decided that I, as another South Asian woman, must be just like her.

Curious isn't it, that nobody wrote to say that the British accent of my co-debater, Michael Coren, was too thick?

When I tie together these three observations — the immigration officer, the shoppers at Aberdeen Mall and the portrayal of Sunera Thobani — I can't help but think that to be a self-loving Canadian is to be comfortable with and, perhaps even comforted by, the inconclusive messiness of life itself.

I'll let that serve as my conclusion, for now.