Journal: News & Comment

Wednesday, December 08, 2004
# 10:59:00 AM:


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Yesterday's CBC national TV news feature on Vancouver included a major item on the ethnic and cultural blending in this part of the country. It was followed up by today's CBC radio feature "Marketing Diversity," on the national morning current-events program Sounds Like Canada:

Department stores across Canada are target marketing to diverse audiences this holiday season. Shelagh Rogers speaks to the marketing manager of Ikea in Canada and to two experts who say this trend reflects the increasingly diverse population of our country. Nandini Venkatesh is the marketing manager for Ikea Canada. She was in Burlington. Debi Andrus is an assistant professor of marketing at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. David Baxter is executive director of the Urban Futures Institute in Vancouver.

The panel on that show talked about this sort of "diversity selling" as both a reflection of reality and a leading-edge phenomenon. Around here, it's more like playing catch-up. (And it's certainly not just a Vancouver, or Canadian, phenomenon, though it is perhaps more obvious here.)

We live in Burnaby, just east of the City of Vancouver itself. As the region's population has grown, Burnaby has turned from farming outskirt to commuter suburb to urban adjunct. It's neither urbanely hip nor parochial, and demonstrates how blending cultures are changing—and especially, will change—what it means to be Vancouverite, or Canadian.

My daughter attends the same elementary school I did 30 years ago. Then, it was still mainly an enclave of white middle-class families, although with a significant proportion of families of Chinese and Indian descent. My white classmates were, like me, largely first- or second-generation Canadians, whose parents or grandparents had immigrated recently, certainly not more than a few decades earlier.

My non-white classmates were overwhelmingly either first-generation (parents as immigrants) or new Canadians themselves. We were all still heavily influenced, and circumscribed, by the traditions of our ancestors. I still recall, with embarrassment, how my friends taunted a newly-arrived student from Punjab with the name "Paki," and I'm glad I didn't join in.

Today's children, like all kids in history, can be just as cruel, but they wouldn't use a slur like that—because it would make no sense. Certainly, there remain some families at the school where both parents are of white European ancestry (like ours—although the Scottish-Polish on my wife's side and the German-Finnish on mine could hardly be called common cultures, especially during the last century), but a glance across the playground shows far more parents who look Indian or Chinese.

More importantly, the parents' backgrounds are often Indian and Chinese. Or European and Japanese, black-white, Indian-English, native-Filipino, Korean-Latino, Italian-Caribbean, Slav-Australian. Those parents are the grown-ups my classmates turned into. Look at their kids—my daughters' friends—and labels like "white" or "Oriental" or "black" or old standbys like "coloured" or "mulatto" are meaningless.

And that's just one generation. Go one or two further into the future, and you're talking about children with native-Slav-black-Korean on their mothers' sides and Caribbean-French-Japanese-Scottish on their fathers'. My blonde and brunette, blue- and green-eyed daughters will be far from the majority: they'll be just another part of the mix, and a bit more prone to sunburn than most.

How will their generation's offspring interact? Not on the basis of race or ancestry, but probably on values instead. As the CBC guests put it, "it doesn't matter if he's a 54-year-old white baby boomer—is he a vegan or not?" More academically, that Washington Post article said of "post-ethnic" Americans:

Post-ethnicity reflects not only a growing willingness—and ability—to cross cultures, but also the evolution of a nation in which personal identity is shaped more by cultural preferences than by skin color or ethnic heritage.

Of course, defining yourself by pop culture or diet rather than by skin colour or ancestral homeland has its own hazards. I doubt Canada will ever see a civil war based on people's preferences for brands of running shoes, but people are tribal, and it will be interesting to see how, and how strongly, we define our tribes now that, increasingly, the old dichotomies no longer apply.


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