Real Canadians ...

I’m sitting in the food court of the Cross Iron Mills mall at Balzac enjoying a cup of frozen strawberry/banana yogurt. It has been very a long day and I’m taking a break from job hunting. There is a young family sitting a few feet from me. The man is tall and wears a dark, sweat-stained cowboy hat. His features are angular and his face is young but bronzed in the way that only the prairie sun can make happen. His wife is in slacks, a slightly aged blouse, and carries a large shoulder bag. She wears a tight ponytail that pulls her long hair away from her face. One quick glance tells me that she carries the weight of a young family on her shoulders. Their two girls, probably a year or so apart in age, are both wearing matching dresses with bright floral patterns. The girls are young enough that they can sit and swing their legs without their feet touching the floor.
“I don’t get this.” I hear the man say to his wife.
I see his face from the corner of my eye. He appears grim and troubled.
“Mmmm?” his wife replies.
“What are those people doing here?” He mutters, emphasizing the word ‘those.’
They have a brief conversation that is laced with remarks like, “real Canadians,” and “foreigners,” and I suddenly realize that I am listening to the fears of people facing a change they can not deal with or do not want to accept.
“Those people” are the multitude of dark skinned, English-as-a-second language workers behind the many food counters in the mall. There are no light skinned workers, no “real Canadians,” as I heard, serving food to the mall’s mostly Anglo-Saxon patrons.
The world this young family thought they understood has changed.
I live in Airdrie now, and I remember this city from my childhood as a one-horse, one-restaurant, one-gas station town of farmers and ranchers. The oil and gas boom came, and the little town grew into a city of nearly 50,000, with malls, schools, churches and temples, and all the problems that come with economic and municipal growth.
We would like to think that we control most of the aspects of our lives, but we rarely do. We grow older, we bald and we gain girth around our waists that becomes harder and harder to manage. We plan a glorious long weekend of camping and it rains. We go through a fast-food drive thru and the voice that greets us is foreign sounding, almost unintelligible, and we feel like the familiar has slipped away and been replaced without our permission.
Suddenly we are aware of a shift from what we felt was normal, acceptable, safe and familiar, to this troubling realization of “what are those people doing here?” Our hopes and dreams for our children’s future might not have included this seeming unwanted onslaught of ethnic and cultural diversity. Instead of the familiar, we now look out upon a sea of faces and culture we do not know. It can be very disconcerting.
However, I believe is incumbent, no, it is demanded of those of us who are not First Nation, who can not honestly claim to be “from here,” but who consider ourselves to be “Canadian” because we were born here, to remember that we are citizens of this great country because someone “foreign” immigrated here from elsewhere. Ultimately, even the original peoples are from elsewhere. We are all guests and caretakers of this great land. However, like the many workers in the mall, the change our immigrant fore fathers and mothers made, was to move, or in many cases, to flee from what was their home, their birthplace, to a country that is foreign, has a very confusing and muddled language, and nothing, absolutely nothing “feels” like home.
There are some things that are universal on this planet. The predominantly European faces of the Prairies has expanded over the last century to include a rainbow of ethnicities, languages and cultures. Not everyone wears Wranglers anymore, or Paris fashions, or drives a pickup, or speaks English, but a smile, a polite thank you or hello, and any act of kindness and respect is universally known and appreciated.
It just takes a conscious decision on our part to be that kind of person, to be that “immigrant” who remembers where they came from and how eventually being here, in Canada, can feel like home and can feel like we are no longer “foreign,” but neighbours, friends, “real” Canadians.