The experience of a shifting perspective on Canada
“But we’re better than the U.S.” has never been a good excuse
I have moved to Canada twice in my life. The first time was to British Columbia in 2008,, but I eventually returned to my home country. Most recently, I moved to Saskatchewan in 2016. I must admit that the first time it just worked out that I ended up coming to Canada, but the second time I had made up my mind about Canada. That it was where I wanted to be, even though I have a sibling, and no small number of extended family, in the United States.
I am not the only person in my social circle who made the decision of Canada over the USA. Many of my peers have moved to Canada over the last decade, and many more continue to do so. We all seem to have felt that if we must leave home and family in search of better opportunities, Canada is the place we want to be.
Of course, for many of us there was one overarching reason not to live in the USA. While this may well be a worldwide phenomenon, in my part of the world there are grievances about the problematic past the USA has and the role they continue to play in nations around the world. The Middle East, and South and Central Asia specifically have suffered due to the foreign policy of the USA. My own nation, Bangladesh, almost lost their war of independence due to the Nixon-Kissinger duo’s insistence that Pakistan not split up right at the time they were looking to improve relations with China through help from the military regime of Pakistan.
Furthermore, there are concerns around the history of America’s mistreatment of its own citizens at various periods in history, from slavery, to internment camps for Japanese Americans, to the convenient whitewashing of the USA as being the story of immigrant success with little to no mention of the people actually indigenous to the land. Even today, the USA has problems like the a lack of proper healthcare, poor infrastructure, and police brutality. Certainly, the results of the presidential election in 2016 did nothing to help the impression that the nation continues to support and enable a very specific demographic’s ideal.
In comparison, many of us had always felt that Canada did better at treating its citizens with dignity. Naive as this may sound in the light of the past several weeks, I used to believe that Canada did not have a disappointing track record of human rights abuse, internment camps, and forced assimilation. In fact, during my brief stay in BC I was under the impression that Canada had a much better relationship with its Indigenous groups. I am not sure why this was the case, possibly because I was not as politically aware, or that the issues were not as widely discussed in my circles then.
Once I arrived in Regina in 2016, I began to feel like I was missing a big part of the picture. I began to learn more about the grievances of the First Nations groups in Canada and the continued poor treatment of our Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis populations. As an immigrant, one thing that continues to bother me is how many of us arrive in Canada and within six months have bought into every stereotype and negative myth about Indigenous people. I have written about this before, but it bears repeating: we need to stop serving as the token model immigrant, and we need to stop believing in the absurd propaganda that anyone who wants better opportunities just needs to work hard. Generational trauma, isolation, and constant prejudice everywhere you go are real barriers. Having a positive attitude sounds nice, but it does not solve real-world obstacles placed in someone’s path systemically.
Coming back to my positive impressions about Canada, the past few weeks have of course made me reevaluate my opinions. The best I can say now is that Canada has better PR compared to our neighbor to the south. A friend of mine is moving to Canada this fall, and we have been having long conversations preparing him for the move and sharing the things he can look forward to. Coming from a densely populated and poorly governed small South Asian country, there is much to look forward to. Recently, he asked me about the residential schools and the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves across Canada. Suddenly, our shared narrative of Canada being a utopia fell apart and we had to talk about what that means. The families that never saw their children again and were never granted the closure of knowing their child would not be coming back, and the residential school survivors who remember classmates disappearing. I told my friend how I wish those immigrants who accuse Indigenous people of just being lazy would pause to consider how difficult it would be to heal from the trauma of being taken away from their families and forced into these schools, especially with the barriers currently in place that make existing supports inaccessible to many.
There is a chance that if the last residential schools had closed far before I was born, I would be less emotionally overwhelmed while processing the news. This could falsely seem to be a distant horror, like many others in human history. However, it’s important to note how much of our lives are shaped by where we are born, which we personally have no control over. For example, if I had been born to Indigenous parents in Canada instead of my family in Bangladesh, I’d have likely spent some of my life in a residential school. Empathizing with that experience has helped me adjust my perspective; how can you avoid that while wondering if they lost someone to these “schools,” wondering what it is like to live with those memories.
I do not suddenly hate Canada. If anything, I am sorely disappointed precisely because I love this country and the promise it holds to many who, like me, wanted to make a new home in a society founded on kindness and empathy. It has been heavy, the thought that this country that gave me the opportunity to pursue graduate studies and live a highly fulfilling life has a history of denying not just opportunities, but life itself, to so many.
I want to end with an appeal to fellow immigrants. Just because we may not have been here when residential schools were operating does not absolve us of responsibility. Every opportunity we gain, every structural support we enjoy has come at the cost of those who were denied countless rights. The point is not to focus on the guilt, but to acknowledge this reality and to realize that if we glorify Canada as a model nation, we contribute to the pain of those it has historically oppressed and continuous to oppress. If we perpetuate the myth that hard work is all you need to make it in Canada, it denies how many are burdened with weights and barriers that cannot just be willed into nothingness. Canada must do better, and if we genuinely want to feel love and pride for this nation, we need to hold it accountable.