By Prof Sehdev Kumar
However weary and mistrustful of it, the American Dream as an idea and a myth has persisted and flourished since the United States Declaration of Independence, which claimed that "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".
Over the last 200 years, the dream of unhampered prosperity and infinite freedom from any religious or political persecution has drawn hundreds of millions of immigrants from Europe, and later from other parts of the world, to the shores of America, where they were once greeted by the Statue of Liberty, erected in 1886, and with the ringing words of a young Jewish socialist poet, Emma Lazarus, inscribed on it in 1903:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Whatever the efficacy of the American Dream and however it has evolved, over the decades since I came to Canada, I have often wondered if there was ever a 'Canadian Dream'.
Has Canada evolved without a dream?
In 1880s, the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, boasted with great pride of Canada's restricted immigration policy as compared to the open door policy and ideological pollution in the USA: "Look at that mass of foreign ignorance and vice which has flooded that country with socialism, atheism and all other isms."
Starting in 1896, over the next twenty years, until the beginning of the First World War, Canada opened its doors to more than one million immigrants, mostly from amongst non-British and non-French Europeans.
It seems ironic today, when huge resources are spent on teaching English or French to new immigrants, at that time not speaking English, or French, and indeed having no common language among the newcomers, was thought to be a good thing; such people could hardly publicize any labour abuses in the local media, or mobilize for collective action and get any silly socialist ideas in their heads.
What was needed was hardworking and docile labour, given to rough ways of life. "I think," said the Minister of Immigration at the time, "a stalwart peasant in sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forbearers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half dozen children is good quality."
How not to change the British and the French, or certainly the European, character of country has long been part of Canadian policy, as well as its mentality. Whether one was a hard-core 'nativist', who wished to keep that character of the country, or somewhat of an immigration sympathizer, both believed that immigrants with common backgrounds - Italians, Portuguese, Estonians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Russians - created ghettos and common enclaves that were places of "filth, immorality and crime."
By what dream of a new nation could such people be touched!
Between 1881 and 1884, some 17,000 Chinese men came to B.C. to work as labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway for $1 a day. They were hard and loyal workers, even though they received one-third the wages paid to others. They lived and struggled in exclusive ghettos, ostracized by others because of their race, foods and customs.�
In 1903, at the turn of the new century, to keep Canada white, and to specifically discourage any Chinese from immigrating to Canada, the 'head tax' on them was increased to $500; that was equivalent of about two years of wages at the time, and could buy a house in Vancouver.
If there was indeed a Canadian Dream - or any whiff of Canadian values - it had bypassed not only the people of the First Nations (and their children in residential schools), but also the Chinese and most new immigrants.
Today we think of the Chinese, the Indians, Somalis, the Vietnamese as the 'visible minorities', but in earlier years the non-western Europeans were the visible minorities; they were not considered 'white'. In fact, the distance between an English Canadian and a Greek was - and still seems to be -- far greater than between a Greek and an Indian, or between the Polish, the Portuguese, and the Italians. These other Europeans were not quite 'white'; they were not Anglo Saxons; they were not Nordic.
That is why even today, Italians who have lived in Canada for 30-40 years, talk about 'Canadians in our neighbourhood'. They are talking about those Canadians whose native language is English, and who are English and seem often quite unapproachable.����
After the end of the Second World War, and particularly after the end of its racist immigration policies in 1960s, Canada's character has changed dramatically, and each one of us who has come here, has contributed, in myriad ways, to forging a new identity for Canada; in short, create a new Canadian Dream.
In these past sixty years, Canada has been generous and welcoming to refugees from Hungry and Czechoslovakia, Uganda and Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Somalia, Poland and Haiti. At each step Canada's face has changed, and its hues have deepened. It has become a Rainbow Nation; this despite the sad story of the people of the First Nations.��
Over the years, with changes in policies and laws, and in attitudes, there has been a widening of cultural and social doors; more diversity, fewer threats, more pathways to adaptation, assimilation, and integration.� New and old Canadians have seen and heard, and have participated in, debates over gay rights and same-sex marriages, over euthanasia, over Sharia law, over 'reasonable accommodation', and much more.
The debates have been civil; concerns, on all sides, have been expressed with thought and reasonably; no one has threatened to stomp over others' life and dignity.� There has been a great and sumptuous greening of Canada in a thousand different and colourful ways.
No country has seen such dramatic and radical change in its demography as Canada has witnessed in the last thirty years. Diversity and equity are the new watchwords in the media and in all public discourse.
It must be acknowledged, whether we have come from India, or Jamaica, or China, or Russia, that few amongst us were ever treated so fairly back home. Or, that we ourselves treated others of a different caste, or faith, or region, or class, with such equanimity.
The Canadian Dream is perhaps more gentle, more compassionate, and less delusional, and less swayed by a sense of the forever receding frontier.
Let us hope that it reflects the aspirations of the 21st century more than the American Dream.