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
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 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, Polish, German, Swedish, Austrian, Swiss, British, 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 on 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 British. 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 British, Swiss 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 we are pursuing it for him as well. I called my children Canadian because we were under the impression that they didn’t qualify as Metis, but we recently received information that may change things. I’ll be writing more about that tomorrow.
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!