Canada Day is coming up on July 1, and together with some 38 million fellow citizens I will be celebrating my country’s birthday and feeling grateful that I am Canadian. Yet, in recent years, this day has never gone by without causing me to ponder just what exactly that means.
Being a Canadian is an important part of my identity, yet it would be foolish to assume that it even comes close to defining me as an individual. It is true that having been raised for most of my life within Canadian society, that I have acquired certain traits, beliefs and values that are shared by most Canadians. And yet, one’s identity is a complex thing that cannot be encompassed by a singular label.
I also happen to be Ukrainian. Both of my parents were Ukrainian immigrants, and much of what they passed on to me during my upbringing had its origins not in Canada, but in Ukraine where they were born and raised. Ukrainian traditions, arts, culture, music, and cuisine became imbedded in my character and personality. However, there they had to share space with the other significant influencers of what I was to become.
In my youth, I grew up in a small mining town in northern Quebec, where I was constantly exposed to French Canadian or Quebecois language and culture. In my teen years, I lived on a farm in a small rural community in the Niagara Peninsula. That experience shaped a lot of my values and outlook on life. I went on to acquire a university education, and the five years I spent in the rarified air of the academic world added their own overlay to what I am.
The development of my self identity continued on into my adulthood. My career in technology and business taught me valuable lessons and also helped shape who I am. During this time, I had the good fortune to travel extensively throughout the world and see many countries and cultures quite different from Canada. Part of that experience involved living and working for some five years in Ukraine, where I discovered that though I was also ethnically Ukrainian, the contemporary Ukrainians of my parents’ homeland were more than a little different from the second and third generation Canadian born Ukrainians that I was mostly familiar with.
Eventually the whole issue comes down to a question of self-identity. Who exactly am I? Am I a Canadian or a Ukrainian, or perhaps a Ukrainian-Canadian or Canadian-Ukrainian, depending on where you want to put the emphasis? Even the term Canadian can be quite imprecise and misleading. Do the aboriginals or first nations that have lived on this land since long before European colonizers imposed themselves on it consider themselves Canadian? Do the 8.5 million primarily French Quebecers consider themselves Canadians first?
We need to come to terms with the fact that nationality in our day and age has changed drastically from what it used to be throughout most of history. Pluralistic, multi-ethnic countries such as the U.S. or Canada are a relatively recent phenomena in the evolutionary history of civilizations. The era of homogenous, ethnically uniform nation states is quickly passing. Easy, widespread access to communications and travel, an increasingly integrated world economy, and the continuing expansion of democracy and human rights, are all rapidly changing the definition of what a nation state is. And this is not only true of North America but is increasingly spreading throughout the world. The Europe of today with its progressively more open borders and mobile populations is far different from the highly nationalistic and rigidly defined borders of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe.
All this is leading me towards a more realistic approach as to how I see and define myself. It is not enough to just say that I am a Canadian, or I am a Ukrainian, or even Ukrainian-Canadian. I am all of those things and more. I am as comfortable and at home with my German-Canadian friend from my high school years, Uta, as I am with my stepfather-in-law’s Acadian French family in Tracadie, New Brunswick, as I am with my Ukrainian cousin Slava in Lviv, as I am with my daughter’s thoroughly American in-laws, in Indiana.
In the end, what life has taught me is to respect diversity, to accept that people may speak other languages, have different cultures, traditions and values, but bottom line, they are not superior or inferior to what I am. Circumstances lead us to have different life experiences, and it is important that we cherish what is worthwhile and positive from the legacies our ancestors bequeathed us, while at the same time respecting other people’s right to do the same.
On July 1st, I will be a proud Canadian. On August 24th, I will be a proud Ukrainian. On June 24th, St. Jean Baptiste Day, I will be a proud Quebecois. On all other days, I will try and be a decent, enlightened human being that appreciates the vast mosaic of cultures, traditions and nations that grace this planet.