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Thinking Canada Guest Blog

Introduction

For the second year in a row the CCA is playing host to EU students taking part in the Thinking Canada program. During the program, students spend three and a half weeks touring Canada and learning about our various institutions before participating in a two month internship. We asked this year’s students, Eszter Szenczi from Hungary and Sandra Siewert from Germany, to share some of their initial impressions and some of what they have learned so far in their study tour.

Pour la deuxième année de suite, la CCA accueille des étudiants de l’Union européenne dans le cadre du programme Thinking Canada. Lors de ce stage, les étudiants voyagent 3 ½ semaines au Canada et acquiert des connaissances sur les diverses institutions canadiennes. Plusieurs participent après à un stage dans des organismes. Nous avons demandé à nos étudiantes de cette année, Eszter Szenczi  de la Hongrie et Sandra Siewert  de l’Allemagne, de partager avec nous leurs impressions ainsi que ce qu’elles ont appris lors de leur voyage. Les blogues sont en anglais seulement.

Canada, the Land of Surprises

As a would-be “Canadianist” spending two months on internship with the CCA, I have been asked to share my first impressions and the newsworthy experiences I have had in Canada so far. I thought that writing about the “Thinking Canada” Study Tour I ventured on this September would be the perfect source of inspiration for this blog.

Eszter Szenczi in Québec during the Thinking Canada study tour.

I have been a PhD student doing research on one of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, the Métis, for three years. After compiling a huge amount of information on my target group, it was high time to compare it to reality, so I started angling for upcoming opportunities to visit Canada, the land of beavers, hockey, and maple syrup. The “Thinking Canada” Study Tour has been organized for the third time this year and is designated to delegate a group of graduate students from EU member countries to Canada, to provide them with a better understanding of its complex diversity. I quickly made up my mind, applied, and fortunately, was selected.

Although last year’s experiences promised a smooth schedule, hardly had we landed at Montréal-Trudeau Airport, with enthusiasm and excitement in our hearts, when an unexpected incident came about that left a bad taste in our mouths. All our interns were required to appear at the airport’s immigration office and give details about our tour, internship, and even more surprisingly, our private lives as well. After spending four hours at the airport, we became aware that since 9/11, Canada’s policy on immigration has changed so dramatically that this strict border control has become a regular procedure for visitors to Canada. In the end, two of our interns were not allowed to undertake their internships.

Despite these initial difficulties, we set out for a four-week tour of the country, travelling to six Canadian cities (Ottawa, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver) in three different provinces. We visited government and non-government organizations and were given insight into some of the current issues in Canada, such as multiculturalism, immigration, English/French relations, environment, and Aboriginal issues. The program was exhausting, but energizing.

…as a foreigner to Canada, I continually have the confusing feeling of being in a multicultural group of people temporarily brought together for an event or festival.

As a Hungarian, coming from a more or less culturally and ethnically homogenous country, one of the most striking experiences for me, evident right upon entering Canada, has been the country’s cultural diversity. Margaret Atwood said, ‘We are all immigrants to this place;’ and how true! Strolling in the streets of Toronto or Vancouver, you constantly bump into people of the most diverse origins, from Asia, Africa, Europe, or Latin America. The number of visible minorities in Canada is rapidly growing and a massive demographic shift is taking place. Canada has the highest immigration rate per capita in the world, and as a foreigner to Canada, I continually have the confusing feeling of being in a multicultural group of people temporarily brought together for an event or festival. This Canadian “mosaic” can be perceived throughout the whole country. It is wonderful to witness children growing up seeing all kinds of cultural differences, learning to tolerate them and perceive them as a natural human characteristic. In the house where I am currently accommodated, the owners are Venezuelans, the tenants are of Mexican, Inuit and Hungarian origin, and everyone gets on perfectly well.

However, a portion of Canada’s population does not identify themselves as immigrants; they belong to one of the three Aboriginal groups (Inuit, First Nations, Métis) that have been treated fairly controversially throughout Canadian history. In Hungary I have access to a great amount of library material about their lives and challenges, but I have seen in-person here that what I learned during my studies is history, and I need to learn a great deal more about the current state of being of Canada’s Métis people. For instance, back in Hungary, I have a long list of the possible uses of the term “Métis,” but I have discovered here that children from mixed marriages do not necessarily consider themselves Métis anymore. Today only individuals with several generations of Métis ancestry identify themselves as Métis. Many of them thrive, and for them, their long story of struggle is not an active issue anymore. I spend hours talking to my Inuit fellow tenant and I find myself stunned by how little I knew and how much I have already learned from her. I think I will need to rebuild my pre-constructed image of Canada’s Native peoples.

Another remarkable aspect of the Canadian population is its division between Quebec and English-speaking Canada. As a student of literature, from descriptions like Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, I gleaned some hints about the different beliefs that have caused French-Canadians and English-Canadians to resist amalgamation into a homogenous nation, but in Hungary we do not know much about the barriers that make it difficult to reconcile the dissimilarities between English and French identities in Canada. When we were in Quebec City, we conducted a little survey about the origin of the Quebeckers, and all of them confirmed that they were from Quebec, not Canada, while outside Quebec, people tended to identify themselves as Canadians. But in the meantime, almost everybody in Ottawa speaks English and French and mixes them in a wonderfully harmonious way. In everyday conversations, people have no difficulty in switching back and forth between English and French.

Encouraged by this charming way of exchanging thoughts, I made up my mind to train myself into a temporary Canadian resident by reading Will and Ian Ferguson’s How to Be a Canadian. First and foremost, I was instructed to start my days with a big mug of coffee from Tim Hortons. I had no difficulty detecting one, since there are several locations of the coffee store nearby. First, I was thinking about having an espresso, which I always do in the mornings at home, but then I realized that A) it would not be very “Canadian” of me, and B) they do not sell anything in a smaller size than a three-deciliter cup! I finally opted for a big coffee latte that lasted the whole day.

During my lunch break, following my new book’s instructions, I ambled a little in Ottawa’s Chinatown, the fifth one I have encountered during my study trip. It was a unique experience, as in Hungary we do not have districts occupied by one particular ethnic group. The Chinese arrived in Canada during the construction of the Pacific Railway in the 1880s and have built and decorated their residential areas in their own distinct way: boundaries are marked with special ornate gates, they are packed with hundreds of neon lights along with distinctive Chinese posts, and the air is full of fragrant smells wafting from Asian food stalls and restaurants. While visiting, I had the feeling I was in China, a member of a tiny, local white minority group.

After satisfying my oriental interests, I visited a Chapters bookstore to search for the truly Canadian cook book I have been looking for for years. Two long shelves were entirely packed with books and journals on international cuisines, but I could not point out one specifically about my target theme. I am starting to lose faith in ever broadening my knowledge about Canadian food beyond la crêpe au sirop d’érable and la poutine!

Having said that, halfway through my tour, I am very optimistic and my positive image of this remote country has not changed, but been enriched. I wish to discover many of Canada’s other curiosities and to contribute to and benefit from this internship. Although some drastic financial cuts have been introduced by the Canadian government to previously existing exchange programs, I hope that many other students from Europe can grasp the advantages of the exceptional Canadian multicultural policy, which, sadly, has already been rejected by a number of European political leaders. But it is without question that studying and learning from the similarities and differences between Europe and Canada have will open our eyes to new perspectives.

-Eszter