Identity Politics in Canada

In this post, let’s listen to the story of Annette Kassaye MacDonald who was raised in Canada, in Quebec, and had to deal with lots of identity politics in Canada. “It may seem strange, but I feel a bit confused every time someone refers to me as Canadian or Ethiopian-Canadian. Yes, I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Canada, but I’m from Québec—Canada’s only majority-speaking French province.”

Québec has its own separate identity apart from Canada, one that it is very proud of! Québec’s culture, language, and legal systems reflect its colonial ties to France; the other provinces reflect their British origins. Québec also has a different relationship with Canada and the federal system compared to its counterparts.

Most French-speaking Québécois, who make up the majority, do not consider themselves Canadian. In fact, the people of Québec refer to themselves as Québécois or Québécoise, not Canadian, a distinction that is almost an insult! English-speaking Québécois, who are a minority, tend to relate more to being Canadian than only Québécois.

Québec’s nationalist pride took root in the 1960s during the Quiet Revolution. Having previously been oppressed by the Catholic church and English-speaking minority elites, Québec society underwent rapid social, political, economic changes. In the 1970s, strict language laws made French the only official language (meaning that other languages can be used but cannot replace the use of French for all forms of public communication). On a side note, we actually have “language police” who intervene.

They monitor the use of the French language (usually in private businesses when businesses omit French in their storefronts, product descriptions, or even menus), as well as periodically address their concerns over the use of (or lack of) French in Montréal, which is very multicultural and bilingual. To say the least, Québec is an interesting place to live in.

While identity is a contentious issue in Québec, so is immigration and accepting cultural diversity. Canada prides itself on being a multicultural country, one that accepts and welcomes other cultures (even if this is not entirely true). Canada is not a melting pot. If you were born somewhere else, it is likely that your family has kept their culture, language, and ethnic or national pride; your identity is almost always hyphenated, even if you are a second or third-generation Canadian.

Québec, on the other hand, does not have a multicultural policy. Like in the rest of Canada, most immigrants will keep their cultural traditions intact, but they are expected to learn French and are obligated by law to send their children to French schools.

They are expected to integrate into Québec society and adopt at least some Québécois norms and values. So does this make them Québécois? This depends on who you speak to. My view is that in theory, yes, but in reality, no. You see, those considered to be real Québécois are the descendants of the French and First Nations Peoples, who probably care less about this issue since they continue to be colonized and marginalized.

Europeans or people of European descendants (meaning white, without exotic hair or facial features, and who speak with a Québécois French accent) who can pass as a real Québécois, may feel more or very Québécois, maybe because they are treated as insiders. Of course, I am speaking from my own experience, as a non-white or exotic other, having had an Anglophone (or English-speaking) Québécois upbringing.

I find it interesting how, even though I have had a more “authentic” Québécois experience than some of my white immigrant friends, I still get treated like an outsider until my white, non-immigrant experience is validated. Then I get treated like an insider, someone who is not that different and easily relatable. Although this does not happen all the time, this experience is enough of a routine occurrence that it is completely normalized in my life.

My parents sent me to a French-speaking, religious elementary school in Sherbrooke, a small city near my house that happened to be multicultural. So, I grew up speaking French at school and English at home. At school, my classmates were mostly white, but there were immigrants from Central America, Romania, Haiti, and Congo. At home and in my rural surrounding, people were white and unilingual in English.

Perhaps because I grew up in two small and very different communities (rural, anglophone, religious; urban, francophone, religious, multicultural) where everyone knew each other in each community, people rarely questioned my difference. They were mainly preoccupied with touching my hair and occasionally making fun of my last name, associating it with McDonald’s (which I found stupid and so unworldly, I mean isn’t MacDonald a super common last name?!).

Interestingly, I only started “becoming” Ethiopian due to an accumulation of pressure and othering that started in my late teens when I moved to Montréal. I had never thought about being Ethiopian until people kept asking me questions incessantly. They were just not satisfied to learn that I “came” from rural Québec (or should I say, the middle of nowhere). They always wanted more details. Where are you really from? What’s your background? Are you mixed? You look different. You’re light-skinned and your features are less Negroid.  

Despite the use of outdated and possibly offensive terms, Montréalers are known to be open-minded and the city is incredibly diverse. Everyone seems to come from somewhere else or has lived somewhere else; it is somewhat normal to be asked where you are from only 5 seconds after having met someone. I suppose I could have just lied all the time, but I felt like I was not doing justice to myself and to my adoptee experience. So, I would cut to the chase and be honest. “I’m from Ethiopia, but I was adopted”, I would say.

However, after having felt humiliated once due to my lack of knowledge on Ethiopia, I started researching the politics and recent history of Ethiopia, so that I would not feel like an idiot when someone asked me questions I could not answer. (It is not that I did not care about being Ethiopian; I grew up without knowing other Ethiopians or knowing anything about the culture).

In the end, this humiliation had a positive impact on me as it sparked my interest in wanting to learn more about my Ethiopian background and to seek out Ethiopians. Luckily, I have also outgrown any angst about where I fit in: I am a cultural and national mix of Ethiopian-Québécois-Canadian.

Of course, there is something inherently unfair about having to answer personal questions and explain myself to others so often. But I like to take revenge by flipping the conversation to broader issues around identity, nationality, and family in order to make people reflect on their own ideas and feelings regarding these issues—which usually works! It often produces interesting, positive, and thought-provoking conversations with all kinds of people. I highly recommend it.