A Canadian Family: Heritage and Identity

In May of this year, Canadians from coast to coast to coast (yes, we really do have three coasts) completed the national census. We do this every five years, to help the government to make decisions and plan resources. Sometime in early May every household gets the envelope in the mail, and the radio and TV airwaves are flooded with reminders about how important it is to complete your census. It’s so important that completing it is, in fact, a legal requirement.

The envelope that we received this year bore the header “Census 2011” and the tagline “Complete the census – it’s the law.” You can see it for yourself online. It really is every bit as catchy and hip as you would expect a census tagline to be.

Not one to break the law, I completed my census immediately upon receiving it by visiting the website and entering the code that came with the envelope. Five years ago I was selected to do the long-form census, and this year I was selected for its replacement, the National Household Survey. I must have been born under a lucky star, indeed, to be randomly chosen to give even more of my information to the government in two consecutive census years. Ever dutiful, I answered the extra questions, even though they are technically voluntary.

One of the areas that the extra questions touched on was your family’s heritage. In Canada, we don’t really identify people as just plain old Canadian. The Multiculturalism Policy of Canada, which was adopted in 1971, encourages new Canadians to retain their cultural identities and add them to the mosaic of our country. This has led us to be people of hyphens – Indo-Canadian, French-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, Polish-Canadian and so on. The census form that I completed reflected this, by asking what countries my family’s ancestors came from, and giving me four lines on which to enter the responses.

My Canadian Family
My Canadian Family

I was completing the survey for the four members of my family. My parents and grandparents were all born in Canada. Jon’s parents and grandparents were all born in Canada, too. This means that our children are at least fourth generation Canadians. It also means that if we were to hyphenate their national identity, there would never be enough room on the census form, no matter how long. Between Jon and me, our children’s ancestry includes Norwegian, French, Polish, German, Swedish, Austrian, Swiss, English, Scottish, Irish, Ukrainian and Metis roots. How was I to fit that onto four lines?

The truth is that I didn’t try to fit my kids’ ancestry onto four lines. There just wasn’t room, for one thing. But to a much larger degree, my kids truthfully aren’t Norwegian or Polish or Ukrainian or English. Some of their great-great-grandparents were, it’s true. But my children never met them, and they don’t identify with that heritage. Even I don’t, to be honest. Most of my grandparents were raised in Alberta, and I think of that as my ancestral home. It’s fun to learn about where our ancestors came from and what kind of lives they lived, but it’s not something that affects our daily life. Hannah and Jacob are just Canadian. That’s what I wrote on their census forms.

For my part, I wrote out the countries that my forebears came from, because I felt that’s what the government wanted and I don’t second-guess the government. For Jon’s part, once I made mention of his Metis heritage, the form wanted to know nothing else about him. For all intents and purposes, his English, Scottish, Irish, Swiss, French and Ukrainian heritage didn’t matter. I decided to list Jon’s Metis ancestry on the census because Jon’s siblings and cousins have their Metis status, and he is pursuing it as well. I called my children Canadian because, for now, that is the closest to the truth.

For today, I’ve decided that while I’m proud of my country’s approach to multiculturalism, and I’m proud of the people who braved so much to move halfway across the world so that I could have a better life, I’m losing the hyphens. I’m not a Norwegian-Swedish-Polish-German-Austrian-Canadian. I’m just a Canadian. And that’s a very fine thing to be.

What’s your heritage – and how closely do you relate to ancestors that you’ve never met, with cultures different from yours? I’d love to hear!

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  1. Adam always just says he is Canadian. Doesn’t care about the heritage stuff which means nothing to a 9 year old
    I always find it funny that as soon as you say you are of European descent…the forms don’t care. That which might be important to us and is multicultural too only seems to count for certain labels, first countries and languages.

    When I say I am an immigrant they tend to say ‘yeah right.’ No thought that it was just as scary for us as any other new Canadian.

    Patrick has Metis in his background too on his dads side and his brother (I think) got a status card years ago. Patrick has not felt any reason to as he has no connection to his dads side of the family despite their long and historic Canadian past.
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  2. Ugh, I would do such a horrible job of filling out that form! I don’t know much about my heritage at all. I know that my dad’s side of the family is of Irish descent, but I don’t know what other countries. As for my mom’s side, I don’t have a clue. I think there actually is some First Nations or Metis when you look back to my great, great grandmother, but I don’t have much information.

    My husband has his Metis status. He was going to get cards for our kids, too, but I don’t really see the point, to be honest. I look forward to reading your post tomorrow and what your take on it is!

    • I’ll write more tomorrow, but aside from the major perks of connecting with your heritage and taking part in the Metis community, the point for many people is that if your kids have Metis status, they may be eligible for some serious perks, including having a portion of their university tuition covered. My brother-in-law, for instance, was able to pursue a portion of his post-secondary schooling without having to pay anything.

      • Interesting! I wonder if it depends on which province you live in, since getting Metis status is done by province. We live in Quebec (I’m from NS but hubby is from here). I have not heard of this benefit, and my father-in-law is quite knowledgeable about Aboriginal rights. I just read your other post… I have the same feelings about my super-white kids being identified as Aboriginal, but if there are benefits that may help them in the future than maybe I should reconsider! I’m going to look into this – thanks, Amber!

  3. In the US we do a census every 10 years, and I’ve been having a good time reading all about the data collected in 2010!

    I’m curious: Hypothetically speaking, if you were of Indian descent, could you say “I’m just Canadian”? Would the people around you second guess that? Would they “hyphenate” you? I’m just wondering if “Canadian” kind of implies “European”? A norm that non-white people can never really attain?
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    • It’s a very good question. I honestly think that someone who is less, ahem, lily-white than me would be better able to answer it. As long as white is the “default”, I imagine that someone who isn’t white will be described by their racial background in a way that I won’t. For example, if you were to describe my physical appearance you might say “short, blond and blue-eyed”, but if you were describing someone who wasn’t white you might say “Indo-Canadian” or “South Asian” as the first descriptive term. And there are certainly people who would view them as always being “the other”.

      Having said that, the place that I live has a long history of immigrants from India and China, in particular, and I personally think that they’re just as likely to lose that cultural connection to their country of origin as anyone. Once you don’t speak the language and don’t have any living ancestors who’ve lived anywhere but Canada, you’re pretty much just Canadian.

  4. lol, when Mike was born waaayyy back in ’73, his dad went to vital statistics to register the birth. They had a huge argument in the vital stat office about this, as Mike is 4th generation born in Canada on both sides. Dad wanted the register to say “canadian” and the vital stat officer kept insisting that he had to be _______-canadian. There’s Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English, French and Metis for sure, I think there might be German too. In the end they agreed to disagree and settled on White. So, my dear husband is officially a White man in the eyes of the government.

    I find this uber funny as I always told my parents I’d marry a white guy one day (ie: not asian – as we’re from Hong Kong), just didn’t realize at the time how true that offhand statement would be!

  5. I’m also a hodgepodge of things. I have ancestors from England, Germany, Bavaria (now part of Germany), Poland, France and supposedly some Native American. The ancestor closest to me to not be born in the US is one great-grandmother. The other branches go further back. My maiden name was anglicized some time after after my ancestors arrived in Minnesota so when people ask what kind of name it is, I say it is American. My husband’s family is German and Irish with strong German and Irish names. So even though they’ve been in the country nearly as long as my family, they are more likely to identify with those cultures than my family is.
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  6. On my side my Grandma was born in England. I’m not sure about my Grandpa as I never met him and I just realized I have never asked. My other set of Grandparents are English and Spanish but both born here in Canada. On Joe’s side his Mom is Native and his Dad is Irish (born here but his parents were not).
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