My first year in Montréal, Québec, has been full of learning and adventure. My coursework in the Master of Arts in Second Language Education program at McGill University has expanded my knowledge of the developmental stages of language acquisition, the types of corrective feedback most conducive to students’ learning, and how to think critically about the social contexts surrounding second language education today. Beyond the classroom, I’ve prepared for my thesis research, improved my snowshoeing abilities, and have thus far evaded the clutches of death whilst navigating Montréal’s bike paths. But perhaps the most interesting lesson this city has taught me came in the form of a self-discovery. This year, I learned that I am a “typical Canadian.”
Several times throughout the year, classmates, colleagues, students, and neighbours of various races and nationalities told me that I looked, sounded, and acted like a “typical Canadian.” This is a comment I had never received back home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, so I was intrigued. What exactly made me a typical Canadian? When I would press my friends to elaborate, they would explain that I embodied several characteristics inherent to “the Canadian identity,” such as being polite, friendly, and outdoorsy. Evidently, this was intended to be a compliment, and I would accept it as such. Nevertheless, this answer seemed incomplete. There were many students in my cohort, colleagues in my workplace, and residents in my neighbourhood who were equally courteous, gregarious, and adventurous. What was it that made me more typically Canadian than the rest of them? I’m beginning to understand that this designation must have something to do with being white. After all, to be typical of a group is to represent that group without further qualification, and it is only white people whose identity as Canadians is free of conditions, caveats, and hyphens.
Discussing race and privilege is often challenging and uncomfortable, both for those of us who represent dominant demographics and those who are marginalized. Wise (2007, p. 2) provides the following explanation for the reticence of white people to discuss issues of race: “Being a member of the majority, the dominant group, allows one to ignore how race shapes one’s life. For those of us called white, whiteness simply is. Whiteness becomes, for us, the unspoken, uninterrogated norm, taken for granted, much as water can be taken for granted by a fish.” Indeed, the extent to which white people are able to avoid examining race and privilege is itself an embodiment of white privilege, as no other group of people can afford to willfully ignore such issues. Here in Canada, how does uncontested white hegemony influence who is considered a “typical Canadian?”
I believe that my year in Montréal has been shaped significantly by white privilege. My landlord offered to furnish my apartment upon learning that I was a “good Canadian boy.” Students have entrusted me to watch their books and computers in the library, rather than asking the people of colour sitting beside them. Servers are not surprised to hear me speak English, nor are they surprised to hear me speak French. Classmates have likened me to Canadian politicians, and peers have deferred to me as a leader of group projects. Indeed, my year has been characterized by a sense of belonging so extreme that my presence in Montréal is not only accepted, but also welcomed.
Meanwhile, another young man would experience a very different encounter with race and belonging this summer in a rural community near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Colten Boushie, a twenty-two-year-old Cree man, went swimming at the lake with his friends on August 9, 2016. The group was driving back to the Red Pheasant reserve when they got a flat tire and pulled into a farmyard to ask for help. Tragically and senselessly, the farmer shot and killed Colten, an active member of his community and an aspiring firefighter (Heroux, 2016). Now back home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, visiting schools for my thesis research, I can’t help but wonder how differently I might be treated if I have car trouble as a “typical Canadian.” Those who minimize the extent to which racism influences belonging in Canada need only compare our stories.
For every up, there is a down; for every in, an out; for every yes, a no. For every “Dude, you could be our Prime Minister!” comment that I receive, someone else is suspiciously asked, “But where are you really from?”, and still another person is greeted with unspeakable violence. It is time to think critically about the processes by which we deem certain people “typical Canadians” and others “atypical Canadians” and confront the racism that these images reinforce. Let us challenge the single story of Canadian identity and acknowledge our diverse realities, mindful of the people inside and outside of the spaces we create.
Heroux, D. (2016, August 23). Who was Colten Boushie? Saskatoon – CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca.
Wise, T.J. (2007). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press.