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July-AugustJuly-August 2021

To newcomers to Canada, from someone who’s been there

Breaking down the myth of multiculturalism

Oyindamola Esho

Image by; marked with a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Dear new Canadian immigrants,

The multicultural Canada you imagined does not exist. There, I said it.

When I came to this country in 2006 at the age of nine, I, like you, had hoped for a better life than what a mismanaged Nigerian government promised. Canada seemed to have a steady flow of electricity, free education, and great health care. Most importantly—and proudly advertised—was a promise of multiculturalism, which I learned in elementary school meant that people of all cultures are considered equal here.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the mirage of a multicultural paradise faded away, but I do know that its disappearance was the beginning of creating a home here. The realization may have started among the shadows of the portable classrooms parked next to my elementary school building. This was the place students went to speak freely, away from adults, and it was here that I heard racist jokes about African people for the first time.

My Nigerian pride brushed off their words as nothing more than the ignorance of children who knew nothing. But even then, I realized that life in Canada is not like the newcomer brochures made it seem. Fifteen years later, I’m more disillusioned than ever at the promise of multiculturalism as it was advertised.
I know that the Canadian Multiculturalism Act does, in fact, exist. It was one of those things teachers would talk about in social studies class. What they didn’t tell me, and what they won’t tell you, is that this act is a superficial promise. It was introduced by Pierre Trudeau to “break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies.” In response, the Progressive Conservative opposition leader, Robert Stanfield, said, “the emphasis we have given to multiculturalism in no way constitutes an attack on the basic duality
of our country.”

It’s not often that I agree with a PC leader, but I have to say, Stanfield was right. The Multiculturalism Act in no way challenges how Canada has always operated. From its beginnings, people of different cultures gave Canada its economic foundation.

The genocide of Indigenous people made the land available to European settlers; the forced labour of Chinese immigrants built the railroad, and the enslavement of Black people provided the labour to work the land. See, multiculturalism is tradition—it’s quintessentially Canadian.

So, there it is. Now you know the truth. Multiculturalism does exist here, just not in the way it’s advertised. It may take some time, but the sooner you adjust, the sooner you can start to build a home here. One that honours your dreams for this new life. For me, building a home here went beyond cooking Nigerian food and listening to Wizkid’s discography on repeat. As cheesy as it sounds, my home here was built through friendships. One good thing that Canada’s multiculturalism campaign has done is attract different people from different corners of the earth to one place. Connecting with my fellow Bramptonians has been so valuable. As I face a system that’s built on oppressing people of colour, the support of friends who have been here, done that, helps me find my way through. They are the good part of the multicultural promise. In some ways building a home here means creating the multicultural dream yourself, one friendship at a time. As I navigate the hidden contradictions of Canada’s systems, having people along for the ride makes it much better. Don’t be afraid to reach out—as the stereotype suggests, we are nice people after all.

Wishing you all the best,
Oyindamola Esho

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