Where are you from?: The Hyphenated Question – Tiffany Lee, Canada

“Where are you from?”

This is a question that any non-Caucasian Canadian will receive numerous times in their lifetime, no matter how much they dread answering.

“Well, I was born in Vancouver…”

If you’re asking me where I was born, I was born in Canada.

“No, but like, where are you from?”

Okay, okay, I get it. You’re not actually trying to ask me where I’m from, you’re asking me where my family roots lie.

Canadians love to talk about multiculturalism. And why shouldn’t they? Canada’s cultural diversity has benefitted its citizens greatly and has defined who they are and what they stand for as a country. However, in understanding and appreciating each other’s differences, some citizens grapple with what their identity is. In Canada, being a hyphenated Canadian is very common. This means that a person belongs to another nationality or ethnicity, but also identifies as a Canadian. For example, there are Chinese-Canadians, Somali-Canadians, and Japanese-Canadians; the list goes on. The way one identifies in Canada can be a tricky issue because others are sometimes unable to look past ethnic appearances. Balancing two equally-important cultures in one’s life can be a challenge.


Oscar Morales holds up his daughter Oriana to get a better look at Parliament Hill as people flock to Parliament Hill and the downtown core to enjoy Canada’s 147th birthday. Photo taken at 11:42 on July 1, 2014. (Photo by Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

In 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was one of the first to passionately make hyphenation an issue. He expressed that by identifying himself as “Ukrainian-Canadian,” it made him less of a Canadian. While some shared the same sentiment, others saw it as an endeavour towards assimilation in the country. However, there are substantial arguments for both sides. The hyphen can be segregating. A person is not fully Canadian, yet not entirely their other nationality. They lie in the grey area: the hyphenated area.

This also means that the criteria for being considered a “true” Canadian is often whether or not one is Caucasian. If a citizen cannot pass as Caucasian, they are quickly labeled a hyphenated Canadian – hence the question earlier in this article. The hyphen can be disempowering for Canadians who don’t identify with another culture but have relatives who immigrated to Canada from another country. Alternately, the hyphen can be incredibly empowering for those who do identify with another culture. It adds to the cultural mosaic that Canadians believe to be the hallmark of their nation.

One might argue that all Canadians are hyphenated. After all, Canada is a nation of immigrants, from a Syrian refugee who has just arrived to travelers settling in Quebec in the 1700s. Even the original inhabitants of this land are often hyphenated, as they are Aboriginal Canadians. Those that claim that they are “very” Canadian and that their great-great-great grandparents came from England raise some interesting questions.  While these people are not racist and generally do not endorse Canadian white supremacy, one might wonder what their intentions are (and what they even mean) when they claim to be “very” Canadian.


Former Governor General Michaelle Jean at the 60th Anniversary of Canadian Citizenship. (Source: The Governor General of Canada Archives)

Does being “very Canadian” have to be limited to those who descend from the first British colonists settling in Canada? Absolutely not. Speaking personally, I would argue that those who share the same understandings and appreciations for diversity, democracy and the beautiful nation that is Canada can all identify as Canadian. I once met a girl who was from Hong Kong who identified as Canadian. She only lived in Canada for a year or two, but when we were introducing ourselves at this international seminar, she said she identified as Canadian. Despite currently living in Hong Kong, she was so moved by her experience living here that she identifies as Canadian.

I certainly do not believe that anyone and everyone can identify as Canadian if they wish to. However, many believe that one does not need to have had five generations of their family live in Canada to be Canadian. One could be a new immigrant and still feel a strong connection to Canada. Whether or not they identify as a hyphenated Canadian should be up to them.

I personally identify as Canadian, even when others identify me as Chinese-Canadian. My Canadian identity is what comes first and foremost. While I appreciate Chinese culture and having Chinese influences in my life, it does not mean that my nationality is Chinese. With that being said, if Chinese-Canadian is a person’s identity, that is completely up to them. If one is a hyphenated Canadian, I encourage them to be a proud hyphenated Canadian. Let’s not define others based on their appearances – let’s define ourselves based on our experiences.

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