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The Role of Cultural Heritage in Shaping Canadian Identity

Photo by Loozrboy

Like everyone in this country, I consider myself Canadian. However, like many people here, my immediate roots are elsewhere. Specifically, my ancestors were from Italy and the Caribbean.

I'm not the only one with far-flung roots. Canadians are incredibly diverse. In the 2021 census, 35.5% of people claimed to have a multicultural background. In other words, one-third of Canadians use one or more hyphens to explain their identity.

Why do we feel the need to define ourselves by ethnicity and our culture? On one hand, it could be seen as an explanation of why we don't look like the majority population. On the other hand, multiculturalism has become part of the Canadian identity, and adding our roots to our nationality celebrates Canadian multiculturalism and brings more meaning to our identities.

Growing Up as a Caribbean Italian Canadian

Growing up, I identified as Canadian and Caribbean Italian. I am not alone in these identities. Caribbean and Italian people are well-represented in Canada, with their stories dating back several centuries.

Caribbean people first came to Canada in the late 18th century to escape persecution in the former British colonies. Immigration from throughout the Caribbean to Canada increased during the 20th century, with immigrants from island nations like Barbados, Jamaica, and Haiti coming north for economic opportunities. Most of these opportunities were in urban areas like Toronto, now home to 346,000 people of Caribbean descent (roughly 9% of the city's population).

Italians were among the earliest immigrants to Canada. Like settlers from the Caribbean, most came seeking economic opportunity, which they were unable to find in rural Italy. The latest census showed 1.5 million Canadians claiming Italian heritage.

Photo by R.D. Barry

Those who identify as Caribbean Canadian or Italian Canadian have a shared history and culture. Placing Caribbean or Italian before Canadian highlights the identity we might share with other Caribbean or Italian Canadians. Even within these cultural groups, there is diversity. For instance, Caribbean people have indigenous, South Asian, African, East Asian, and European roots, giving us Caribbean Canadians a melting pot within a melting pot.

These hyphenated identities allow us to connect with other people with similar backgrounds, whether that is shared Caribbean Canadian culture and experiences as first-generation immigrants or experiences from growing up in an Italian Canadian household.

Building Relationships Through Shared Identity

These shared backgrounds provide a common ground that instantly connects people from different places, economic statuses, or professions. Cultural similarities can give us something to bond over and lay the groundwork for a deeper relationship.

Such bonding is possible in Canada, but the cultural connection effect is much more obvious when travelling abroad. For me, in these situations, the relationship with someone with a shared background is based on a very unique connection that includes both being Canadian and being a Canadian with an Italian or Caribbean background. Of course, there is even a connection when two Canadians of different cultural backgrounds meet abroad.

Photo by Vincent Albos

Comparison: Canadian vs. American Cultural Identity

Growing up in Canada vs. America exposes you to different mindsets about cultural identity. As the 2021 census shows, Canadians are more willing to retain a connection to their roots, while Americans, in general, value assimilation and erasing cultural differences.

The difference between cultural roots in Canada vs. the USA goes beyond this general mindset. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act is a framework for making laws that promote diversity, equality, and inclusion of people from different cultural backgrounds. The goal is to encourage people to retain their heritage and also share it with other Canadians.

While the USA is also a cultural and ethnic melting pot, there are some important differences. For instance, Black Canadians are not as far removed from their Caribbean or African descent, and actively identify by their roots and share their culture through events like the huge Toronto Caribbean Carnival. Majority of African Americans on the other hand, have a much different experience since they are several generations American, and much farther removed from their cultural heritage due to not being able to trace their roots back to a specific family name or country. Though most North American Blacks can trace their ancestors back to slavery, African American history is rooted in deep racist systems like segregation, and active suppression of culture and opportunity that many people argue still exist in the country to this day.

What Is Being Canadian?

The multiculturalism policy in Canada and the general mindset of embracing your roots make Canada a unique mosaic of the world. In many ways, multicultural Canadians are able to actively retain, share, and express their culture in a way that doesn't happen as frequently in the US. This is especially true when you compare the culture and identity of Caribbean Canadians with that of African Americans.

This multiculturalism is evident on the macro level, but it is also very important for Canadians as they build connections with others to leverage their similar or dissimilar backgrounds, and capitalize on their common immigrant experiences to diversify their network and include people from many different backgrounds. 

My personal Caribbean and Italian Canadian experiences and my exposure to multiculturalism in Toronto, were the foundation for my deep interest and appreciation of other cultures. In retrospect, I was blessed to have a united nations childhood, and host UN parties at my house with a friend pool that represented the world: First Nations, Jamaican, Polish, Greek, Trinidadian, Estonian, Indonesian, Filipino, Portuguese, and the list goes on.  Whatever your cultural background, consider how you present your cultural identity to the world and how it influences your relationships and connections with others.

Share with us here in the comments your cultural background and your favourite stories of how it influenced your identity as a Canadian or American.


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