As election day grows near – possibly the most important election in the last decade – I find myself growing increasingly disheartened. I came back to Canada a year ago after completing my masters degree in Ireland, to find that the Canada which I grew up in, once knew and was so proud of, has been changed under the reign of Stephen Harper – and not for the better. As I watch this election campaign unfold, I am increasing more concerned that if Stephen Harper is allowed to continue as our leader, the Canada our forefathers and previous prime ministers have worked so hard to build and which prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau put on the world map, may no longer exist. Canada’s coming of age under prime minister Trudeau was as a mature land, reserved but steady and strong enough to be open to the peoples of the world. Canada became a land which preserved the rights, responsibilities and dignity of all who came and made it their home and all were welcome.
In centennial year, 1967 when Canada was celebrating its diversity, multiculturalism and coming of age, my grandparents decided to make it their home. My grandfather had been a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan and was invited to immigrate to Canada to work as an editor at the Ottawa Citizen. My grandfather, Khalifa Muhammed Ihsanullah, had grown up as part of the Indian Muslim elite in Calcutta before the partition. His father K.M. Asadullah, was the first Indian to become the head of the Imperial Library in Calcutta when the British quit India. My grandfather was an inspired youth as the end of the Second World War resulted in the creation of a new land for Muslims, Pakistan. He wanted to do his part in nation building and believed journalism was the vehicle through which he could inspire people and contribute. However, as the fledgling nation floundered under military rule, censorship, fear mongering and freedom of the press was blocked, my grandfather decided to accept a second invitation to work in Canada from the Ottawa Citizen.
My grandmother reluctantly agreed to a five year plan in Canada, a plan that would take her away from everything she had previously known. My grandparents with their three young daughters, the youngest just ten months old, left their large established families, friends, and upper middle class life in Karachi to move across the world to an unknown. Another young country working to establish its individual character, values and ideals in the global arena.
I am a first generation Canadian. I spent my childhood listening to the stories my grandmother told of her life as a civil engineer’s daughter in British India. I now realize that my 81 year old grandmother is a feminist whose individualism was nurtured by a father who insisted on taking his wife and nine children with him wherever he travelled for engineering projects in India. She created a life and a home in Ottawa for her husband and daughters – Renaissance woman that she is – cooking, sewing, knitting, gardening, snow shoveling, finishing the basement by reading self help books. It was my grandmother who made the decision to stay in Canada permanently. She insisted that her young daughters would have the education and freedoms to be who ever they chose to be in this new country that had become her home – the country my grandfather always declared was “the best country in the world.” All I knew as a child growing up close to them, and even more so now that I am an adult, is that my grandparents were two of the bravest people I’ve known in my life. It is their experience of a Canada which welcomed them and which they adopted as their own which has shaped my view of the country of my birth.
We take for granted what it means to be Canadian. The privilege and opportunity we are all afforded just by being born on Canadian soil. Canada has been recognized the world over as a peacekeeper, mediator and generous contributor in times of need in the world community – a country that accepts the differences in people, in fact, a country that has built itself on the foundation of multiculturalism and human rights. We are a nation known for our universal health care system and our public school system which are the true evidence of democracy and equal opportunity for all our citizens. We have been recognized as a nation of tolerance and acceptance and our thoughtful, reflective response in times of crisis.
In the late 1960s, when my grandparents first moved to Canada, the country was only just finding its feet in its multicultural identity; Canada was only just making the moves towards unity and overcoming divisions. And as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, under PM Trudeau’s leadership, Canada was being recognized as a country of opportunity and acceptance, a country where ones culture and religion was respected and upheld, where one did not have to sacrifice ones beliefs or identity for the sake of ‘becoming Canadian,’ no matter ones skin color, race, creed, culture or religious beliefs.
My nani and nana immigrated to Ottawa and became Canadian. They held Canadian passports and admired and loved the country they lived in. My grandfather was always so excited to show off his city to visiting relatives and looked forward to sharing the country he loved with the people he loved. My grandmother was a pioneer woman. Her strength of character and will saw her family through the massive transition of living in a completely unknown land. When my grandparents came to Ottawa they were one of the few Muslim families at that time. I took for granted all that my grandparents built here when I was young. They made friends with neighbours and built a community for themselves from scratch – I don’t know that that kind of bravery exists nowadays, with a new generation of people glued to their cell phones and laptops, desensitized, with communication whittled down to strokes on a keypad.
My grandparents helped build a Mosque – the very first one in Ottawa – donating their time, what money they could spare, and fundraising with dinners, bake sales and an ever popular multicultural Muslim Cookery book (now in its twentieth printing) with recipes contributed by Canadian Muslim ladies from around the world to raise money for construction. My grandparents were born in Pakistan and yet they are proudly Canadian.
My mother grew up in Canada. She went to elementary, and middle school and high school in Ottawa (at all the same schools I attended as a child). She received her Bachelors degree from Ottawa U and went to teacher’s college in Kingston. She spent her thirty year teaching career at her alma mater Colonel By Secondary School and Sir Wilfred Laurier Secondary school in Orleans and devoted those thirty years to being the a best teacher she could be, the best role model for her students. One of the classes my mother taught was World Religions. She gave her students an understanding of the common values taught in all religions and how important it is to live those values and become a fully mature human being. My mother was born in Pakistan and has in no way sacrificed her cultural or religious beliefs in order to be Canadian.
It is abhorrent to me that the Prime Minister of this country I have so admired, is making it his mission to disable the foundations this country’s reputation has been built upon. Stephen Harper is intolerant. He is the opposite of what a Canadian Prime Minister should model and be – closed off, secretive, disrespectful to this country’s citizens and hell bent on instilling unjust fears and prejudices through out the nation. His recent decent into fear mongering and allowing politics to have a place in ones right to choose personal religious beliefs is unjust. He is making it possible for society to be prejudice and intolerant under the veil of governmental law. No Muslim or Pakistani woman in my family has ever worn a hijab or a niqab. The choice to wear these items is a cultural choice made by some Muslim woman; it is not a requirement of the religion. It is a woman’s choice.
The fact that Stephen Harper feels it is his right to dictate what a woman should or should not wear is frankly sexist and inappropriate for a leader. The fact that he is even bringing this debate into the election discussions points at a last ditch effort to disable important discussions and distract from the real issues that concern our nation. When he talks about denying people their citizenship it smacks of a fundamental disrespect for human rights. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” as Justin Trudeau eloquently put it. When a Prime Minister, the representative of our country, talks about revoking an immigrants citizenship if they commit a crime, he immediately devalues any person who chooses to immigrate to this country. He relegates them to second class citizen status and makes it immediately clear that he has no respect for the generations of Canadians who moved to this country and helped to build Canada and make it the nation it is today! I find Stephen Harper’s politics offensive as the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants. Under his current view, my grandparents and my mother, who have devoted so much to this country would be considered second class citizens. After over 50 years in Canada, their contributions and devotion to this nation would mean nothing, their rights and privileges up for the taking.
He is trying to create a problem where there is none and throws our country back to a time of intolerance and ignorance. We have dark blots in our nation’s history, times of prejudice and intolerance for our neighbours. Canada interned Japanese people during the Second World War based solely on their race and heritage, regardless of their citizenship, regardless whether they had been born in this country. This nation has denied our Native peoples their basic rights in their own homeland and in some cases continue to do so. With his words and intent, Stephen Harper seems determined to continue that tradition of fear mongering and prejudice which goes against everything that Canada has stood for. The fear mongering and censorship of freedoms my grandfather left behind in Pakistan so many years ago is what Canada is now moving towards under Stephen Harper’s leadership. Is this what we want for Canada? A divisive, intolerant nation built on fear? With current anti-Muslim views built on fear and ignorance of the culture and beliefs, that is the tradition we as a nation are building if we allow Stephen Harper another term in government.
From the moment this election was called, I knew where my vote would go. Justin Trudeau has a strength of conviction and the vision to carry Canada forward and repair damages done by Stephen Harper’s conservative government. Canada is now at a crossroads; one I did not feel until I returned to the country of my birth after living abroad for several years. We can continue down our current path of division and intolerance of our own people, or we can move forward together to become a more mature, seasoned example of peace, stability and a diverse and inclusive society. We must remember that on the global map, Canada has always been recognized as a multicultural nation, a cultural mosaic that includes rather than excludes. We were built by those who chose to make Canada their home. It is our duty to stand up for their rights, for the rights of every Canadian and say – we do not want to lose our identity.