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A citizenship ceremony at Toronto’s Harbour Front Centre on Canada Day, July 1, 2013. (Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail)
A citizenship ceremony at Toronto’s Harbour Front Centre on Canada Day, July 1, 2013. (Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail)

Berns-McGown, Morden and Monahan

Do new Canadians leave old conflicts behind? Add to ...

With the world watching as tragic events unfold in Ukraine, no one is more transfixed than those Canadians of Ukrainian background – and understandably so. People’s sense of attachment to places from which they or their forebears came often remains alive and strong even generations after they and their loved ones have chosen to make Canada home.

This is one of the defining features of the Canadian approach to multiculturalism: our ability to retain strong connections to other identities even as we celebrate what unites us as Canadians. Unlike many societies around the world that are perplexed or even torn apart by diversity, we celebrate and derive strength from it.

But how does living in Canada actually affect our view of the conflicts that we left behind? How do the memories or the historical residue of those conflicts influence our sense of attachment to Canada and to other Canadians, including those who might have been on the other side of those same disputes? Is the Canadian mosaic actually as cohesive as we imagine it to be, or are we just too polite to say otherwise?

These are among the questions that the Mosaic Institute examined for a study funded by the Government of Canada’s Kanishka Project. We surveyed almost 4,500 Canadians, and then did in-depth interviews with 220 individuals and focus groups with another 80 with community connections to eight regional conflicts including: Afghanistan; Armenia-Turkey; the Balkans; the Horn of Africa; India-Pakistan; Israel-Palestine; Sri Lanka; and The Sudans. This week, we are releasing our report, entitled “The Perception & Reality of ‘Imported Conflict’ in Canada”.

One of our findings is that, without exception, all the communities from all the conflicts we studied wholeheartedly repudiated the use of violence in Canada as a response to those conflicts.

Not surprisingly, we confirmed that people remain invested in the conflicts they left behind, sometimes for generations.

But living in Canada clearly changes the way people come to see those conflicts. Over time, we reframe them through a Canadian lens. We learn different ways of dealing with people with whom we disagree and come to understand that we can live and work alongside them. We learn more about other positions and perspectives.

Social inclusion is the single biggest factor in encouraging that change to happen; respondents spoke over and over about the importance of meeting, speaking with, living and working alongside people who are different from them in affecting that change of perspective. That is Canadian multiculturalism living up to its full potential.

Conversely, racism and exclusion can undermine that process of reframing conflict, and can impede new Canadians’ attachment to Canada. Sadly, all across the country, the darker our skin and the more we are visibly identifiable as a member of a racialized community, the more likely we are to experience racism and other forms of social exclusion at school, at work, and on the street.

While we don’t import violent conflict, we do import trauma from conflict zones – and we do a poor job of helping its victims recover from it.

Untreated, the after-effects of war-related trauma not only damage the well-being of sufferers but can obstruct their ability to integrate, to succeed, to parent, and to reframe their perspectives of overseas conflicts. When combined with racism and exclusion, such effects are magnified.

Finally, we learned that many people turn to faith after their move to Canada, but that, in doing so, they often redefine their understanding of their faith as a way of upholding Canadian values – including respect for the human rights of those with whom they disagree.

These and our other findings carry implications for public policy at every level. Keeping Canada safe involves more than enhanced policing and thickening borders: it also includes treating trauma properly and ridding ourselves of systemic racism and the undue stigmatization of certain ethnic or religious communities.

We can’t afford to get this wrong.

Rima Berns-McGown is the Sr. Project Advisor and Michael Morden is the Project Associate for the Mosaic Institute’s study on “The Perception & Reality of ‘Imported Conflict in Canada”; John Monahan is the executive director of The Mosaic Institute.

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