Tolerance and Acceptance – subtle differences with a BIG impact

painted handprints

There is something that Canada excels in. Something that could be learned from Canada and emulated in other countries. If we could study it, understand it and replicate it, it could make the world an easier place. Obviously, it’s nothing to do with committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Canada has a long way to go there…  I’m talking about racial harmony and acceptance.

What is it that makes Canada more accepting of other cultures? Perhaps it’s to do with the sheer size of the country. Second only to China, Canada feels like a blank canvas, able to absorb people into itself without being intrinsically changed. It’s definitely got a lot to do with the fact that many have arrived here from elsewhere. Canada’s birth-rate is falling and immigration is necessary to maintain the country’s population at its current level.

Racism, unfortunately, exists everywhere. Because I have white skin and my husband has brown skin, we get to experience people’s views on race and skin colour – from both sides of the fence! When I wore traditional Asian clothing in Britain, people were, largely, complimentary. Women would remark on the beauty of the colours and the femininity of the style, Asians would be pleased to see a white person enjoying something of their cultural heritage, they would shout their appreciation from across roads, “Shabash Didi, you look lovely!”
But not everyone shared this view. Not those who stared, open and hostile in their disapproval, as we passed them on the street. Certainly not the girl railing at me through the window of a restaurant, as I ate, or the man who suggested finding someone from our own culture, as we passed, (we never knew if his remark was addressed to one or both of us). Those incidents involved white people, but other races could be just as unfriendly and suspicious, including Asians. It became clear that, once you step outside of your culture, you can find yourself no longer accepted by the other members; and it will be unlikely that you are accepted by the culture you are exploring. You exist in a cultural “no-man’s land”.

Incidents with a racial undertone were commonplace in Britain and were behind our strenuous efforts to get our eldest daughter into a school with a good ethnic mix. We didn’t want her to be the only mixed-race child in a small village school. We wanted what she saw as normal life – eating a mix of Asian and Western food, wearing a mix of Asian and Western clothing, enjoying a mix of Asian and Western culture – to be what her peers understood as part of normal life too. The sad truth, however, is that many people share the view of the woman in the video clip below – they are just less vocal in their expression of it.

This is what I don’t miss about the UK. We have lived in Canada for sixteen months now and have yet to experience any discomfort as a result of racially discriminating views, never mind open aggression like this. Mixed race families are a normal part of society here, not just a few, but in large numbers. People I speak to, with non-white skin, don’t have the same air of guarded defensiveness that they do back home. They are not expecting hostility and come across more open and confident. To be culturally different here, does not make you feel like the major attraction at the Big Top. More like a crew member of the Enterprise in the TV show Voyager.

I’m not saying that Canada doesn’t have its own race problems. The treatment of it’s indigenous people is abysmal, (more on that in a later post). But it does seem able to allow different cultures to exist side by side in a much more accepting way than Britain, whose barely disguised resentment constantly simmers just below the surface. It even seems to top Australia, a country alike in many ways: both are independent former colonies of Britain, cover huge and sparsely populated territories, share a language and a Queen and similarities in areas of economy, healthcare, immigration and government. The difference being that Australia demonstrates tolerance, while Canada shows acceptance. For more on this, please have a look at this post by a British friend of mine with experience of life in both countries.

When you don’t feel culturally “under siege” in a country, you don’t feel the need to shield yourself with your perceived cultural identity. It’s easier to walk out and immerse yourself in what’s around you and feel more part of it all. Canada might be the fossil at the Climate Change talks in Durban, but it’s ahead of the game when it comes to cultural acceptance. Streets ahead.

Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I just returned from 5 years in London, and while I never saw that kind of confrontation, I saw plenty of smaller offenses. The one that stands out clearly for me involved my Italian nanny and myself (white) and a few friends with kids playing in our communal garden. A little old lady popped her head out of her 3rd floor window to complain that this was an ornamental garden, not one for children. When we told her that this garden was for children (others on the estate had no kids rules posted) she informed my nanny that as a foreigner (she has Italian coloring) and didn’t belong in the garden anyway. She then came down to confront me to see if I had an actual key, and didn’t just jump the fence. My American accent did not sit well with her either. I’m pretty sure she called the office to try and get my key revoked.
    Definitely something I don’t miss about London.

    1. Hi, thank you for your comment. It seems that the feelings that led to these “smaller offenses” have always been bubbling away beneath the veneer of civilised society. Years of poorly managed immigration policies have left a legacy of resentment, colonialism has left a superiority complex. Maybe it’s the defensive “Island mentality”, but in a country battling a recession, I have a feeling these traits will worsen before they pass.

  2. Hey Aisha – thanks for linking to my earlier post. Definitely agree with you that Canadians are the most accepting of people I’ve had the pleasure to live with (and that includes me as a half-Canadian myself!). Although I knew it occasionally happened, I never once in my 3 years saw an open act of racism. In fact, my Canadian uncle would be appalled when I told him of race-related fighting during my uni days in Coventry or some of the things I witnessed during my school and college years in and around London. Here, Oz is certainly much more welcoming to all cultures, but there is an underlying sense that incoming folk must assimilate into the Australian way – as opposed to Canada where the variety and multitude of cultures and colours are embraced and considered as adding to the Canadian rainbow (or is that mosaic?) of diversity. And that is something I miss very much.

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