Defining culture in Canada

What does it mean to be Canadian? Does it mean you wear a toque, speak French and play hockey?

Most Canadians don’t relate to this stereotypical image of our culture.
The truth is, Canada has dozens of cultures dominating its major cities, which many people relate to on a daily basis. And the definition of a Canadian varies from person to person.

Henna tattoos, commonly used in Indian weddings, are one form of cultural art which is becoming mainstream and leaving its cultural origins behind.

“I guess for me, my identity as a Canadian is hugely shaped by the country-city divide,” said Julie Witt, who grew up in the rural town of Fenelon Falls, Ontario.

Witt is the Events Coordinator for the University of Toronto’s Arts and Events Programming Office, formerly the Department of Cultural Affairs. Her family is mainly European-Canadian and she says the maternal side of her family has been rooted to the Hudson surname in Canada.

“The broad and difficult idea of Canadian is something that I feel proud of and something which I defend when people say there is no Canadian identity,” said Witt.
“I think there is [a Canadian identity], and part of what it means to be Canadian is to accept that everyone has a different experience and that’s OK.”

Witt also feels the Canadian culture can be rooted in its history of Aboriginal peoples, European settlers, and more recently, immigrants from non-European countries.

With this mixture of several ethnicities in Canada, cultures blend together, allowing several people to form their personal, modern culture, and relate to other cultures they weren’t born into.

But with this personal culture, comes the loss of traditional rituals and ancestral pasts of the largely immigrant population in Toronto.

Staying true to your roots

While living in a multicultural society does have its benefits, it can also cause younger generations to leave their culture behind. Eventually, forms of cultural expression like dance can become extinct if they are taken over by modernity and popular culture.

“I think I’m a lot more cultural and I’ve really embraced my culture [through Indian dance],” said Miranda Rohoman, a University of Toronto student who has practised classical Indian dance.

“For me, it’s important to keep your culture alive, because we’re a nation of immigrants – we’re immigrants ourselves – and I think it’s a part of who we are, what Canada is and what it will be in the future.”

Rohoman, who is half Trinidadian and half Guyanese, enjoys watching Bollywood movies and partaking in other cultural activities. While Rohoman originally found dance to be a form of exercise, she now feels it has a deeper meaning and defines her personal culture.

“Once you hear the dance and where it came from, you can be like, oh cool, my ancestors maybe learnt this dance and it’s classical and it’s a part of our heritage,” said Rohoman. “I think the possibility of [people] relating is there, and it’s important to keep our culture [alive].”

Indian dance is constantly being changed and influenced by more western dance forms, causing the costumes and dance steps to be more modern and less classical.

Another form of culture that is loosing its historical lure is henna tattoos. Henna can be used as a temporary tattoo created from a natural herb, which is applied to the hands and feet of Hindu brides a few nights before they are married.

“People have westernized the concept and usage of henna to apply to more people, and in that sense it’s good because more people are exposed to something that’s Indian,” said Janene Singh, a West Indian University of Toronto student, “But at the same time, it’s changed the more cultural views from back home, because now it’s just as widely used for whatever reasons.”

Henna tattoos are frequently used by people in North America who want to test out a tattoo design before making it permanent.

To Singh, henna used to have a deeper, cultural meaning which symbolized feminine bonding before a wedding.

“I kind of don’t like what they’ve done with it, because to me, growing up it had more meaning to it than just temporary tattoos,” Singh said.

Living in cultural harmony

While cultures can lose their history by becoming mainstream, they can also create harmony and understanding among people of different ethnicities.

Witt says Canadian culture can’t be defined the same way as in many other countries. If a person wants to understand what Canadian culture is, she feels they should visit Toronto’s many cultural pockets, like Chinatown and little Italy.

“Rather than trying to define and put a box around what our culture is, I think the fact that that’s a difficult thing to [define] influences what our culture is,” said Witt. “I think our culture is a matter of being OK with things being less defined.”