Why People of Color Are Looking for Places like Canada to Settle in
Updated: Jan 29
Since I moved to Canada, my workplace has been the number one spot where I get to experience Canadian culture. I first got an almost intimate look into the lives of my students while a French teacher in Ottawa. That time was highly informative for me, although I quickly realized I was getting a biased sample of the Canadian population. My students were all successful public servants. They had big detached houses, a couple of children and lived comfortable lives. Many were progressive but conservative at the same time, interested in bettering the world as long as they did not lose the comfort that came with their social status.
I discovered many aspects of Canadianness during that time. How much they care about nature and conservation efforts. The divide between francophones and anglophones, yes, but also between Westerners and Easterners. How polite and tolerant they appear, but also how you are never quite sure how honest they actually are. How much they value hard work and merit regardless of where you’re from, or who you love, or how you dress. How much Canadian culture is defined in opposition to the worst aspects of American culture, how they have come to view themselves as unpretentious and kind people.
However, many of my colleagues were immigrants, particularly among the younger generation. I was still surrounded by Europeanness and familiarity. I had to wait to move to Toronto to really start to socialize with Canadians my age. I quickly realized I was out of touch with most of their culture. I would often miss cultural references, or wouldn’t understand what was talked about. Fortunately for me, my colleagues are adorable, and they never miss a chance to explain to me what’s worth knowing in this country. I view this crowd of young professionals as a good representation of what my generation is like here.
Young professionals are motivated and ambitious. They care deeply about many important issues and they like to talk about it. They pay attention to the news and form opinions on things. They live with trends and pop culture. They can be bold and are confident that they matter.
Culturally diverse workplaces have become the ideal and are actively sought. There are policies in place to encourage the participation of women and minorities in the workforce. Nobody (well, except for Quebec, but they tend to think Europe is a model to emulate) would dare to tell others how to dress, or what to believe in, or who to love as long as it does not impede on someone else’s liberties.
Canada is not a perfect country. They still have to deal with many challenges and issues, including indigenous rights and a Prime Minister that thought blackface was cool back in the days. However, it feels good to be here. There is little judgement. There are opportunities for even the most eccentric of us.
I am painfully aware that Belgium, and Europe in general, is quite different. In contrast, my experience of workplaces in Europe was laughable. I don’t mean that the work was any less of a challenge, or that I didn’t appreciate my colleagues. However, the work culture is rigid, conservative and somewhat outdated. The European political elite is so white you would think there is not one PoC living in the old continent. Cultural diversity is rarely seen as profitable, but rather as a requirement to appear inclusive. It takes time for things to change. Old tradition is highly valued. Sometimes it is what will make the difference. Other times, it just seems like Europe is lagging behind.
This contrast between Canadian and Belgian work cultures is a reflection of what I have witnessed in other parts of both societies. Canadians take risks. Europeans trust tradition. The big problem with tradition, it’s that it does not make enough space for progress. It does not reward risks or innovation, at least not right away.
In this context, it does not seem as a surprise that people that don’t fit in would want to leave. People that have ambition, that seek change, that live for risks. Europe is an amazing place for those that belong. People on the fringes will be drawn to something else.
I’d argue People of Color are always on the fringes. It is difficult to fit in, to find one’s place. Sometimes there are laws preventing you from being who you are. Sometimes even politicians will think it’s okay to humiliate you because of your differences. Yes, I am looking at you, Julien Odoul, French far-right deputy that picked on a mother wearing a hijab in front of her child’s class.
Another recent example? The decision of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to step back from their royal roles to spend more time in Canada. Of course Meghan Markle wants out. She never fitted in with the rest of the Royal Family. Even if she was not mixed race, she would still stand out as the American.
None of us can escape it. As the NY Times stated, “her treatment has proved what many of us have always known: No matter how beautiful you are, whom you marry, what palaces you occupy, charities you support, how faithful you are, how much money you accumulate or what good deeds you perform, in this society racism will still follow you”. The point that the NY Times is missing, is that it can happen to everyone that is too different from the idea of what is European.
Europe is the losing party of this attitude, and that’s unfortunate. Europe is losing brilliant people because it cannot find the courage to redefine its identity as something other than white Christianity. That’s the difference with places like Canada. Canadians were able to develop an identity where diversity is seen as a strength. Where being different can be an advantage and not something to hide. An example to follow, at least in my opinion.