MOHAMMED AZHAR ALI KHAN
Former prime minister Jean Chretien, who overcame a physical handicap and humble beginnings to reach the top, used to boast that the United Nations ranked Canada as the world’s best country in quality of life. It did so in the 1990s. Now it has slipped to eighth place.
Still, in the week of July 1, Canadians celebrate their national day with exuberance. They recognize that they are blessed, not only in their country’s huge natural resources but in the way the country has emerged, and continues to emerge: a model democracy, enjoying peace, mutual respect and the rule of law.
My wife was shocked when she came to Canada. She had expected mounds of snow and igloos, sparsely populated, with huge distances between communities. When the plane dipped below the clouds and she glimpsed the city of Montreal glittering with lights as far as the eye could see, she was ecstatic. She was just as pleased to find Canadians polite, helpful and good-humored.
You wouldn’t guess that Christians constitute 77 percent of the population – so deep is the country’s respect for people of all faiths, and those without one.
You can belong to any religion, ethnic origin or color but you’d be respected for what you are – most of the time.
This hasn’t come about easily. The Inuit and the First Nations had lived on these lands from times immemorial. Then came the European settlers with guns but few scruples. They made treaties with the Aboriginals but later grabbed their land and herded them into small reserves.
French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535 and the British followed. As in Europe, the French and the British fought bitterly and battled the Aboriginals as well. The British prevailed but showed tolerance for the French language and religion. Catholic schools receive a subsidy to this day.
In 1867 Canada was formed by four territories. Others were created or joined later. Today, it is the world’s second largest country in area. It has 10 provinces, three territories, about 33.5 million people, and the world’s ninth largest economy with a gross domestic product of about $1.74 trillion. Canada is prosperous and ranks among the world’s top ten trading nations.
Canada used to be racist toward Aboriginal people, Jews, Sikhs, Chinese, Japanese and others. It restricted the entry of Asians and imposed a head tax on the Chinese. It interned Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Women only won the right to vote in 1918 and to run for the House of Commons in 1919. By contrast, Canada’s last governor-general arrived as a refugee from Haiti when she was a child. Her predecessor was Chinese who came to Canada as a young girl seeking refuge. Canada also has had a woman prime minister.
Ontario’s lieutenant-governor a few years ago was a black, and that of British Columbia was Chinese. The country has had Asian cabinet ministers and provincial premiers. The prime ministers who pushed most for equality were John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.
Canada got into trouble with the United States in its infancy but, fortunately, it beat back an American invasion. Today the two countries are close in every field. Their citizens visit each other’s country with ease, they trade some $1.8 billion worth of goods and services every day. Canada has signed a free trade agreement with the US and Mexico, and is seeking the same with several countries.
Despite their alliance, Canada and the US sometimes differ. Canada offered refuge to American blacks escaping slavery and later to draft dodgers who refused to fight in Vietnam. Canada recognized Communist China and maintained diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba over US objections. It refused to join the US in attacking Iraq. But when American diplomats were held hostage in Iran in 1979-1981 Canada helped some of them to escape.
Canada’s Aboriginals continue to suffer but they too are advancing. Aboriginal bands number more than 600 and often bicker. They also suffer because of self-serving band leaders. In a technological society it is also difficult to maintain your culture and way of life in isolated areas that offer despair rather than hope.
The Aboriginals are growing at almost twice the national rate and will acquire more clout. Aboriginal youth are more determined to acquire their rightful place in their ancestral homeland and are pushing to reach that status.
As in the past, immigration is changing Canada fast. You see faces from all parts of the world in major Canadian cities. Canada’s birthrate is 1.67 children per woman, well below the two children needed for natural population replacement. Without large-scale immigration, Canada’s population will decline in a few years, endangering the country’s survival.
So Canada is welcoming people and, on the whole, it treats them well. That makes it a great country, despite its lingering problems.
– Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian newspaperman, civil servant and refugee judge. He has received the Order of Canada, Order of Ontario, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.