Family: Mixing it UP

By Sandra Fletcher

Mixing it up

On his first day of grade three my son came home from school and told me that there were no “white people” in his class. I thought that it was an odd thing for an eight year old to notice – and very likely, not true.

But, sure enough, he was right. There were 25 kids of all colours and cultures in his class that year. Twenty five kids of all shades of beiges and browns, many of whom were just like him, a mix of Mom and Dad’s colours, ethnicity and culture.

The beauty of Canada is that we try to blend the elements and celebrate all.

Families in a blender

In my family, we are a multi-faceted mix: I am from Canada (born and raised in rural Southwestern Ontario) and my husband was born in Jamaica and raised in Toronto. My children are a mix of both our personalities, colours, values, upbringing and heritage.

On our street in the suburban GTA there are many mixed families. The multicultural mix is one of the things that helped to attract us to the neighbourhood where we live.

According to Statistics Canada, the majority (85 percent) of mixed couples counted in the 2006 census involve a white person and a visible minority. But in a country where immigration and the visible minority population are on the increase, so are marriages among people from two different visible minority groups.

Mixing races means many things. It means mixing cultures, languages, religions, values, traditions and even foods. Once children are thrown in the mix it can be even more complicated to sort through the challenges within the family and the pressures from outside of it.

All families face challenges. A mixed family can face big ones.

Take, for example, Chinese dad and Caucasian Canadian mom – Dave and Colleen Chan. Their two little girls are wonderful examples of bringing both cultures together. This year on Chinese New Year, the girls presented red packets to their classmates containing gold (chocolate) coins and explained that they are giving luck for the New Year and about their celebration. The Chan family have integrated both Mom and Dad’s traditions and let their children share them with their friends. It’s different sometimes when there is no visible difference between Mom and Dad. When Audrey and Thierry married it was an interesting wedding.

Audrey is French Canadian and her family is originally from Jamaica. Her new husband is from Burundi in Africa. To the naked eye they look the same. But culturally they are worlds apart and their families do not get along.

“I worry that when we have children it will be difficult to explain to them that they have two very different backgrounds,” said Audrey. While it’s never simple to integrate cultures, theirs may be especially difficult as Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world and Thierry had struggled with poverty and civil unrest before immigrating to Canada six years ago.

One area that they don’t differ on is language. Both Thierry and Audrey speak French and English and plan on educating their children equally in both languages. Other couples aren’t quite as lucky.

When Mary and Scott first started dating, Scott had a terrible time communicating with Mary’s mother. Her mother, who spoke only Italian, had lived and worked in Canada for well over 20 years. For years Scott and his mother-in-law used Mary as an interpreter. This was a problem for Scott. But now that they have children, the couple uses “Nonna” as their child minder. Not only does this provide an inexpensive day care option for their family, it lets the kids learn about their Italian heritage and learn to speak a second language.

There were other difficulties in Scott and Mary’s relationship right from the beginning. Scott is Anglican and Mary is Catholic. Scott converted to Catholicism after a series of classes with Mary’s priest. For the Catholic Church, the marriage is a sacrament, only when both parties are baptized [The Catholic Church not only recognizes marriages if only one of the parties is Catholic, it also recognizes civil marriages and those contracted under different faiths.]

For many other couples of different religions, sometimes mixing religions means an excommunication from their religious community. In other families, the blending of faith and celebration is as easy as celebrating the best of both worlds. Nathaniel, who is Jewish, and his wife Denise celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas every year. Their kids enjoy the eight days of Chanukah gifts just as much as they enjoy those they receive from Santa Claus.

Their family also celebrates the Jewish high holidays in September as well as St. Patrick’s Day in March and Good Friday and Easter Sunday in the spring. While under the Jewish faith the children are considered to be Jewish, as a family they have made the decision to integrate both religions into their lives.

Diversity at school

There are definite challenges in teaching kids about different cultures. In 2008 the Durham Region schools in Ajax participated in a project that introduced something called “Diversity Dolls”. Each child in the school was provided with a cut-out doll made of plain brown paper. The project? To create a doll that reflects your own culture.

Some of the dolls were done up in elaborate costumes with fabric and yarn hair and some of them were simply coloured with pencils or crayons. Most of the dolls reflected a wide variety of backgrounds.

Jamaican flag shorts with a Canadian flag t-shirt on a beige little girl. British, Irish and Italian flag polka dots covered another little cut out doll. Most of the dolls were a mixture of many influences.

The schools undertook this project as part of their continuous effort to involve the community in the school and to educate the children about the diversity that exists within Canada.

As difficult as it is for families to integrate two cultures, it can be more difficult for a school to integrate the cultures of all its students. That year, my son’s class held many celebrations from Eid to Kwanza to Valentine’s Day. It’s all about inclusion!

There is no hard and fast rule, instruction book or manual for how to be culturally diverse. Just like there is no manual on how to raise children.
Giving your family a solid foundation in any and all cultures, religions, languages and traditions you have to share builds a strong family! And those families create a better Canada.