Adrienne Clarkson’s Room for All of Us is a compilation of 10 discrete stories about a unique category of new Canadians for whom she was a trailblazer. Immigrants of this kind do not abide by the old model, which was far more gradual, more about second than first generation. Nor do such newcomers, whose lives Clarkson lovingly traces, keep their heads down.
On the contrary. Most of Clarkson’s subjects – including Tanzania-born Ismaili Nadir Mohamed, now president and chief executive officer of Rogers Communications, Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary (born in Toronto to Ismaili Muslim immigrants from Tanzania) and Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the first Tamil member of Parliament – are wildly successful.
The main theme skillfully braided through the book has to with Canada’s relation to new immigrants. What sacrifices, if any, does our country demand? Clarkson sometimes seems quite astounded by how few compromises her subjects have made. Nadir Mohamed not only keeps up with the Ismaili community, but is nurtured by his culture, language and faith. Tamara Toledo, a Chilean artist in her late 30s, translates Chile’s invidious past into the language of her art.
Time and again Clarkson emphasizes just how immigrant-friendly Canada has become. Canadians “do not tell immigrants how much they love them,” but they accept them and grant them all the freedom in the world.
With few exceptions, new immigrants come and go as they please. Unlike European countries, to which Clarkson attributes an “ exclusionary ethos,” and the United States, which grinds differences into a great melting pot, Canada proffers a tradition of benign neglect that allows a Calgary-based Serbian writer named David Albahari to carve out the space he needs in order to see his past whole and with the clarity only a free and equal human being can conjure.
Clarkson’s question concerning Canada takes on a different hue when she writes about herself.
As our 26th governor-general and commander-in-chief, Clarkson, born in Hong Kong , was undoubtedly one of the greatest beneficiaries of Canada’s generosity. Except that, in her case, what she gained she also paid for in a big way.
Indeed, to this very day, Clarkson, now in her 70s, remains cut off from her origins. Unable to speak, write or read Chinese, she has been forced to ignore that aspect of her personality locked up in the language of her parents. In a particular touching conversation with her aging father, she writes: “For us, our adaptation to Canada was so important and overpowering that I wasn’t even able to frame the question (about the alternate fate that may have befallen the family had they stayed put) until about twenty years ago.”
And yet Clarkson never blames Canada for the inward fragmentation, pain and regret she still experiences. And this despite the fact that the country to which her family arrived in 1942 was replete with quotas, segregations, closed to any more than a trickle of new immigrants, pure laine all the way down.
That Canada undoubtedly demanded extraordinary sacrifices from new immigrants, especially from those as ambitious as the young Adrienne Clarkson. It is, in fact, quite impossible to imagine any senior Canadian diplomat back then responding to a mean-spirited quip the way she reacts to a leader of one of France’s centrist parties.
“Of course you can afford to take any amount of immigrants,” the French politician tells her. “Canada is already a mongrelized country.” Clarkson’s retort is awesome. “I think he is right,” she says. “And I don’t take it as an insult. We should not be ashamed of this.” But when Clarkson decides to learn a foreign language, she chooses French and, for a reason that she does not explain, never gets around to learning Chinese.
Over the past many decades, Canada, especially in its largest cities, has become almost entirely race- and colour-blind, far less a “settler nation,” which is what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called to the United States, and far more the world’s most advanced “immigrant nation.” And yet it is not at all clear that the current government wishes to continue on this path. It is unfortunate that the otherwise stalwart and outspoken Adrienne Clarkson passes over this most urgent matter in silence.
David Berlin is working toward the launch of an investigative magazine focusing on immigrant communities, to appear in English, French and several other languages. His The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State was published recently.