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opinion

Boluwaji Ogunyemi

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi is the chief resident of dermatology at the University of British Columbia

During a recent visit to my hometown of St. John's, I went to a busy restaurant to meet friends for lunch. The hostess asked my name. "Bolu," I started. After she refused to take my first name, I began with my last name. "O-g-u-n …" but was abruptly cut off by the visibly irritated hostess. My name was an inconvenience to her, too foreign, apparently.

Growing up with a Nigerian name in Newfoundland, it was routine to spell my name after I pronounced it. The hostess wasn't impressed. She asked for another, "easier name" – someone else in my party, perhaps.

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I informed her that the rest of my friends had names that would be of similar difficulty to pronounce; they were of Iranian and Pakistani origin. With this, she grew more irritated. Eventually my fiancée gave a shortened version of her first name to the hostess, which she accepted.

This unwillingness to accept an unfamiliar name is extremely at odds with the Canada I know. Though the behaviour of the hostess was not blatantly racist nor xenophobic, it was certainly culturally insensitive and wholly inappropriate.

Many individuals with foreign-sounding names do not, and probably should not, expect most Canadians to master the pronunciation or spelling of their names. I did expect the hostess to make the effort to call me by my name. Even in a busy restaurant, this would take a matter of seconds.

It continued to bother me throughout the meal, so afterward I asked to speak to the manager – who was, in fact, the hostess. She explained that the "Canadian culture" she grew up in did not prepare her to pronounce a name such as mine, and suggested that I should go by a pseudonym should I wish to prevent this discomfort in the future. (Later, the owner of the restaurant called to apologize. This disheartening incident is distinct from the acceptance, tolerance and understanding that my home province normally greets me with.)

Issues about race, ethnicity and culture have presented themselves in many arenas in Canada – from the niqab rhetoric in the last federal election to Conservative Party MP Kellie Leitch's proposal to screen immigrants for anti-Canadian values.

There is some evidence that Canadians are not holding on as tightly to multiculturalism as in the past. In a CBC-Angus Reid poll from last fall, 68 per cent of Canadian respondents agreed that minorities should do more to fit in with mainstream Canadian society.

There can be endless debate about just how much residents of Canada should be free to practise their religion, speak in their mother tongue or express other manifestations of their culture, compared with how much they should be expected to assimilate to the mainstream. These issues can be controversial and complicated.

But does this mean that my name – not a John or a Ken or a Frank – is not welcome here? Something that is so personal as a name needs to be changed or amended in order to be more Canadian?

But what's in a name, anyway? Some people are named after a living or deceased family member, while others are given a unique name. Names may have cultural importance and many immigrants choose a name that reflects their ancestry. My first name means to wake in the name of the Lord – I refuse to change it, because it is me. And I am Canadian.

Indeed, a name can say a lot about a person. When the hostess refused to say my name, it said a lot about her.

As our neighbours to the south head into uncharted waters this week, with a new president who used division as a campaign tool, I sincerely hope that in Canada, tolerance and acceptance continue to be a shining star of our nation.

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