Wednesday, August 5

A walk about Canada


“CANADIANS don’t jaywalk,” I exclaimed with disappointment in Vancouver. As a pedestrian in London for six years, I found it inefficient, overcautious, and a source of guilt as I funnelled through waiting crowds to trail-blaze to the other side, drawing stares of condemnation and disbelief.

However, I was wrong in my generalisation.

As I travelled further east, Canadians did jaywalk: just one aspect that shifted along a spectrum across the world’s second biggest country.

Last week I wrote about the centrality of reconciliation with indigenous communities as a prominent political and social mission in British Columbia. But as I arrived in Toronto, Canadian identity seem to focus on modern multiculturalism. Indeed, skin tones, attire, and cuisine from every corner of the world were highly visible, and conversations with locals suggested a strong self-awareness of being in a nation of immigrants.

Accordingly, it is strongly felt that newer citizens should have the same rights as “those who were here earlier” – a remarkable mirroring of the reconciliation narrative in which “those who were here first” should have the same rights as “those who came later”. Still, there was a marked difference in attitude towards those who are “genuine refugees” and skilled (according to a point system), versus those who aren’t, leading to some Trump-style rhetoric about foreigners. But, as the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims told me, Canadian Muslims are still on average far better educated compared to Canadian non-Muslims.

Sport is a major unifier. Hockey (‘ice’ is always assumed) matches commence with patriotic gushings and continue with fervent displays of fanaticism accompanied by adrenaline-pumped commentary punctuated by organ cadences used in American ‘football’.

Everyone is expected to support a team and every child seemingly plays hockey, lacrosse, or ‘soccer’.

Speaking of nomenclature, although another driver of Canadian identity is to differentiate themselves from Americans, their vocabulary and accents are much closer to the US than the UK (one exception is the diphthong ‘ou’, as in ‘about’).

Physically, the gridded streets and architecture resemble those in US cities, except for the ubiquitous presence of Tim Hortons, a doughnut-and-coffee chain named for a famous hockey player.

In Ottawa, I received a different perspective from civil servants: including appreciating the tensions of Canadian federalism. Compared to Malaysian states, the executive and legislative functions of Canada’s provinces are massive.

I was amazed that there is no federal minister of education, and one ongoing tussle about a federally-imposed carbon reduction policy has resulted in several provinces taking the federal government to court, adding pressure to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, already under pressure for alleged judicial interference to protect a major engineering company based in his electorally important province of Quebec ahead of federal elections in October.

I ended my Canada tour in Montreal, where I witnessed the culmination of the nation’s founding myth of English-speaking and Francophone communities coming together. Conversations swapped fluently between the languages, a polar opposite to complaints in British Columbia where official bilingualism is enforced even though “no one here speaks French, but loads of people speak Cantonese”.

Here, legacies of empires intersect in different ways: with Francophone Algerians, Cameroonians, and Vietnamese living alongside statues of British magnates and administrators that have become a target of those who want to remove visual vestiges of the oppressors of indigenous communities.

At the outset, Canada and Malaysia have many things in common.

Both are parliamentary democracies with bicameral legislatures in which the lower house is elected according to single member constituencies by simple plurality, and where the upper house has two types of senator. Both are federations: Canada with 13 states and territories, Malaysia with 13 states plus territories.

Both are constitutional monarchies with both federal and subnational royal institutions: in Canada represented by the offices of Governor General and Lieutenant Governors, in Malaysia comprised of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the State Rulers or Governors. Both are mostly common law jurisdictions but with exceptions: in Quebec there is civil law, while Malaysian states enact their own syariah laws. Our total population sizes are not hugely different, either.

These facts in themselves provide opportunities for exchanging best practices, but the most profound lesson of Canada is how different sources of identity – a foundation myth, reconciliation with indigenous history, and efforts towards modern multiculturalism – are nonetheless weaved together to create a unique sense of nationhood.

Like the Canadians Oscar Peterson – the son of immigrants who became a wizard of jazz piano, and William Shatner – who played the starship captain who went where no one had gone before, it is these experiences and inspirations that should enhance the bilateral relationship well beyond trade, investment, or geopolitical security.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.