In addition to being a gifted poet and a practicing psychiatrist, Des Rosiers is a courageous and open-minded gentleman for whom I have great respect. This, as we all know, has nothing much to do with literary merit, most of the time. I mention it because it gives me even more reason to rejoice that Quebec has chosen to celebrate Joël des Rosiers and his work with its highest literary honour.
A practical guide for new Canadians - Step Five, by Felicia Mihali
It’s a mistake for new immigrants to stay in close touch with the country they left. The time they waste on old friends would go a long way all on its own to allowing them to make their fortune here. During their first years in Canada, they spend hours reading on-line newspapers about the political and social turmoil in their home country. Their bodies may live on this side of the world, but not their minds. They argue with old friends and close neighbours over by-elections, referendums, and presidential campaigns as if they had never left home. They try to solve insoluble national disputes, regional conflicts, and local skirmishes from their immigrant neighbourhoods, even more engaged than they ever were before in criticizing the undemocratic system, endemic corruption, and electoral fraud that prompted them to pack their bags and leave. From denying their old identity when they first arrived, within months they have turned into its biggest defender.
Immigrants are anxious to share their wisdom with anyone and everyone willing to listen, and that wisdom covers all kinds of religious, philosophical, and moral questions. Newcomers from tough dictatorial regimes expound on whatever happens to be on their mind, even things they do not quite understand about their new homeland. They’re vocal in their criticisms of the neighbourhood, the noisy building, the government, the Queen. Everything they experience and everything they learn makes them discontented. They always knew about being poor, but being poor over here is twice as bad and much more humiliating.
When immigrants are not busy with online disputes, they waste even more precious time writing novel-length letters to the people they used to work with describing their day-to-day experiences, feelings, and resentments. They know how pleased their old friends will be to hear how disgruntled they are.
If they cannot live the Canadian dream, which is pretty much the same as the American dream, they can at least criticize it. If they cannot afford a car, they can praise the environmental benefits of public transportation, not to mention the poems you can read on electronic readers inside the bus. When they do buy their first car here, you can be sure it will be a good big car. Some of them came in Canada because they could not eat their fill at home; now they are critical of tasteless genetically-modified food, frozen foods, and skyrocketing obesity rates. The harsher their criticisms, the further they feel they have come. If they can be dismissive about things here, they must surely have turned into someone else, someone different, someone better. The proof of the progress they have made is that they now use greetings they once despised, saying “Bye bye” and “Stay in touch” even to their own parents.
The lower their new social status, the greater the contempt they will demonstrate, especially for their fellow immigrants with their bad accents, their ill-fitting clothes, and their stinky food. The immigrant waiting tables, washing dishes, or mopping floors in some ethnic restaurant casts a cold eye on other newcomers to this country.
This to-ing and fro-ing between past and present, between the old country and the new one, is a mistake the immigrant must avoid at all costs. The truth is that no one at home, other than your close relatives, is interested in your news unless it’s bad news. Your detailed reports on everything that is wrong here are just irritating. The people you left behind hate you for defecting. They will never forgive you. No matter how bad or cruel the system you left, the people you knew there now represent the system you betrayed by leaving. They are no longer your friends.
Not to mention, everyone has better things to do than read your complaints about the Indian immigrant listening to weird music and cooking smelly food upstairs from you. Back home, Canada means the Statue of Liberty welcoming ships jammed with cheerful immigrants exclaiming, America! America! Why spoil their dreams by sending home images of fearful newcomers lined up at the Immigration Office at Pearson Airport.
So stop lecturing your old friends about their lack of political maturity and their leaders’ stupidity. You may have had passionate debates on these topics over a beer in the old days, but times have changed, and there’s no beer on the table between you now to wash down your arguments. Your metabolism has changed. You don’t sleep in fear, you don’t go to bed hungry, and you’re not being persecuted. You have a comfortable life. This is why your old friends don’t want your advice. You have nothing to offer them. You have lost contact with their lives. They don’t need your wisdom, pal.
If you really feel like talking about your new experiences, do so briefly and in a group email instead of individual messages. That way, you’ll anger your correspondents. You will know this because they will soon stop replying to your messages. This will restrain your confessional impulses, which is a very good thing, and it will teach you to mind your own business.
Better by far to start learning about the political situation in your new country. Watch the television news and read newspapers every day. Reading the news online is a lazy habit you will soon find reason to avoid, but you’re obsessed with consuming everything you pay for, so you will feel obliged to read the newspaper from cover to cover if you pay for subscription. So start your day by reading the paper thoroughly, including the ads and the obituaries. This will be very good reading practice and will improve your language skills. Vocabulary you pick up in the newspaper will be useful in conversation. A well-informed immigrant is much more trustworthy than an ignorant one.
Watch documentaries about Canada, its history, and its current problems. Strange as it may seem, Canadians have problems too. You will soon be better informed than Canadians themselves are; in their school curriculum history is less important than arts and crafts. Count yourself lucky not to have moved to China with its three thousand years of strife, murder, and machinations. In Canada, you have only two centuries of skirmishes among fur traders to contend with.
Once you have a good historical grounding, it’s time to start reading about by-elections, polls, members of Parliament, party leaders, Premiers, and the Prime Minister. You will be happy to see that the most of the seats in Parliament are democratically filled with other Caucasian immigrants.
Don’t be too quick to dismiss Canadian politics as boring. I know you think that political debates here are way too polite and civil. If humans are political animals, as Aristotle put it, then immigrants are the most ferocious political animals. You may come from a country where being well-informed is a prerequisite for survival. Your safety, your fortune, your very life may have depended on a new leader and his entourage. In Canada, immigrants do not have to fear for their lives, but it is every bit as important here to know who the new leader is here as it is in any Third World country. Keep a close eye on him, even if he seems to be a good guy. As you can see, I don’t hesitate to say “he” and “him,” for the boss is sure to be a man. At the drop of a hat he could dispense with your right to welfare, your unemployment income, your school loan, and your health insurance. Immigrants do not figure importantly in his political platform. So do stay awake. No matter how generous his program may seem, this is a man who believes that immigrants are a burden on society. Despite the promises he made during the election campaign, the first in the firing line will be the poor. That means you.
You have to stop making comparisons between this political system and the one you left behind. The one back home may have been funnier to watch, but don’t forget how ineffective it was. So ineffective, in fact, that you decided to leave the country despite the good laugh you had over the political debates. Politics will be less funny in Canada, mostly because a lot of the elected representatives are missing or napping during question period.
The thing is, you yourself could even get elected here, especially if you are a Caucasian male. And if you think everything is perfect here, you are wrong. Much remains to be done in a country in which a government minister leaves top-secret files in his mistress’s apartment. The day you understand that your opinion matters here is the day you will stop writing those irritating letters home.
Now that you’re settled, you speak the language well enough, you have your Canadian diploma, your kids are going to a good private school, and you’re taking Canadian politics seriously – you’re ready for the next step.
© Felicia Mihali, 2013
Born in Romania, Felicia Mihali has lived in Montreal since 2000. After completing studies in French, Mandarin, and Dutch, she specialized in postcolonial literature at the Université de Montréal, where she has also studied art history and English literature. She has published seven novels in French with XYZ Éditeur since 2002 and recently published her first novel in English, The Darling of Kandahar (Linda Leith Publishing, 2012), which was nominated for Canada Reads 2013.