While acknowledging its history of colonization, Canada has a long, rich history of multiculturalism. According to the 2016 Census, 28.3 percent of BC’s population (almost 1,293,000 people) are immigrants. The 2016 Census also tells us that more than 1 in 5 people living in Canada were born outside the country. That’s a significant segment of our population.
How does that affect peer support work? Are we choosing to create safe, welcoming spaces for people who are not from Canada? Are we aware of the barriers that immigrants may be facing? Or the challenges that are impacting their lives as they adjust to a new country, language and culture?
Many new Canadians may be living with trauma, grief and loss. They may have had to leave family behind and may be experiencing a loss of connection while battling feelings of not belonging. Language barriers can also cause feelings of disconnection and isolation. They may also be experiencing culture shock, which can impact their well-being.
Culture shock can include a range of emotions as people try to adapt. People may experience excitement, fascination, and a romanticizing of the new culture (a bit of a ‘honeymoon’ phase), homesickness, physical challenges as their body adjusts to new food or water supply, frustration, depression, or fear of the unknown as they try to adjust.
Cultural Mosaic vs. Melting Pot
A society that values a cultural mosaic sees the beauty of honouring each individual culture that makes up the whole. Imagine a beautiful mosaic art piece hanging on a wall in a museum. The mosaic features all nationalities represented in the country, and each group has a section of the mosaic to represent their culture through art. It would be beautiful!
In societies that value cultural mosaics, immigration is seen as a collective value, and people are generally encouraged to keep their own cultures when they move there. The underlying belief is that the country is stronger when we embrace cultural diversity.
However, the metaphor of a melting pot suggests that all cultures should blend together and assimilate into the dominant culture. In societies that value melting pots, unity – and uniformity – are of utmost importance and individual cultures can be lost within the dominant culture.
Cultural displacement occurs when people are separated from their cultural roots, which can happen when they immigrate into a different country.
Cultural displacement can also come from gentrification. Gentrification is when a city, developers and homebuyers decide to take an older area and fix it up. Affordable housing and shops get replaced by new, trendy homes and shops. This is happening now in most major cities. The downside is displacement, and it tends to negatively affect poorer people, and many who are immigrants.
Cultural displacement is a central tenet of colonization
Dehumanization happens when people are denied the acknowledgement of their inherent positive human value, and when they are denied recognition of their human qualities, personality, or dignity, being viewed and treated as ‘less than human’.
As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains, it also means
- “to subject (someone, such as a prisoner) to inhuman or degrading conditions or treatment”
- “to remove or reduce human involvement or interaction in (something, such as a process or place)”
“Dehumanization is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration. Jews in the eyes of Nazis and Tutsis in the eyes of Hutus (in the Rwandan genocide) are but two examples.”
~Maiese and Burgess, (2020)
Dehumanization usually starts with language and is reinforced in imagery. A common example is comparing a people group to animals or insects. This dehumanization can be absorbed deeply into culture and begin to shape the way people are viewed and even the way they view themselves.
As Brené Brown explains, “During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.”
The Power of Language in the Fight Against Dehumanization
It’s essential that we realize the power our language has on others. When we think of cultural humility, we need to reflect on our language. One of the best antidotes to dehumanization is to be mindful of our language, willing to make changes and rejecting any and all dehumanizing imagery. It’s important to remember that all dehumanizing language and imagery is harmful, even if the person being dehumanized may not be someone with whom we agree.
It’s also important to stand up and challenge others who use dehumanizing language or depictions of others.
Remaining aware of language regarding people and cultural groups is so important. Preferred terms shift and change over the years. It can sometimes feel hard to keep up with the changes, but it is important to approach this with kindness and humility. People directly affected by language choices feel the effects of language very personally.
Language can also impact systemic racism; either by adding to it, or by deconstructing it.
In our role as peer support workers, it’s important that we remain sensitive to the impact of language. We must continue to challenge our own biases and examine our own worldview and cultural lenses.