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Canada’s real strength? It’s not diversity

Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator, consultant and writer.

It's wonderful that Canada's population is made up of a diverse mix of people who mostly get along and that everyone is encouraged to be proud of their heritages. However, missing in the discussion on diversity is the idea that many have come to Canada hoping to create a life based on their own choices – and not merely replicate all of the cultural traditions that would have been most likely had they stayed in their countries of birth.

Growing up, I would often sit quietly and listen to the adult conversations. I remember one particular day when my parents and their guests were discussing some aspect of protocol. I can't recall what it was that was done differently back home in China, but I do remember the oldest of the group replying, "But we're in Canada now." It was a wise acknowledgment that the choice we had made to adopt Canada as our new home necessitated some changes on our part, too. It would be a lost opportunity to live the same life we had left in different location.

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I've recalled those words a number of times throughout the last four decades and have always considered the freedom to choose differently in Canada to be my adopted country's greatest strength.

Read more: Immigration becoming vital part of Canada's economic growth

From as young as I can remember, I knew I would acquire a university degree despite the fact (or maybe because) neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers had been afforded the opportunity to complete their educations. Although I knew not everyone in the community felt the same way about educating their girls because they would eventually marry out of the family, my parents chose not to abide by this aspect of the culture.

At one point, when I was still in high school, my mother told me she had received a phone call from the mother of an acquaintance, asking about marriage. When she told me about it, she wondered what I wanted her to tell the family. I had met my potential suitor a handful of times and she thought – incorrectly – that we might have made a connection. She seemed relieved the proposal caught me completely off guard and I told her to reply that I wasn't interested because I was intent on finishing my education. It was not (and is still not) uncommon for some immigrant families to introduce or arrange potential matches, but I knew the options available to me were much greater because I was Canadian.

Being Canadian also afforded us the opportunity to interact positively with a wide variety of people. For example, the only person who has ever called me the derogatory term "chink" was a young girl of Vietnamese descent. It was the early 1990s and I was a student teacher at a school with many recent immigrants. In the din of young children, I couldn't be positive if it was the word "dirty" that preceded the slur but "chink" came through loud and clear. It was cold that recess and a number of students had sneaked inside to warm up. She was upset that I had come to send them back outside.

Having arrived in Toronto just before turning four, I was blissfully unaware of the historic tensions between our two cultures. The fact that we both adopted Canada as home meant we could choose a different approach.

Recently, I have been puzzling over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's comments during his interview with CTV's Your Morning co-host Anne-Marie Mediwake. Ms. Mediwake described her family's journey to Canada and the Prime Minister stated that he sometimes felt "jealous" of immigrants. His reasoning was that immigrants got to choose Canada while those born here were Canadians by default.

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I don't think there is anything to be jealous about. No matter how we came to be Canadian, our role in strengthening this country is dependent on the choices we make everyday. As an immigrant who did not personally choose Canada but has gratefully lived here for more than 90 per cent of my life, my perspective is this: I don't believe the diversity of the population is our country's greatest strength. Canada's greatest strength is the diversity of the choices the population is free to make once we are here. Our future is dependent on enough people making wise ones.

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