Ethiopians in Canada face racism and social and economic exclusion

October 19th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

Globe and Mail October 20, 2006

Five new studies of immigrants of visible-minority background reveal cracks in Canada’s ability to integrate newcomers, undermining the long-held consensus that multiculturalism has been an overwhelming success. The studies, released yesterday at an international conference in Toronto on the role of diasporas, illuminated the many challenges that Afghan, Colombian, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Jamaican diasporas in Toronto face, from racism, social and economic exclusion, to a continued identification with their homeland, instead of with Canada.

“Multiculturalism is a good model . . . but with the changing face of Canada, it needs to be looked at carefully. It would be wise to identify the gaps and shortcomings,” said Digafie Debalke of the United Nations University for Peace, which organized the conference and recently opened a centre in Toronto. “Canada needs to better utilize the positive potential of its diaspora communities.”
In the study of 176 Ethiopian youths living in Toronto, two-thirds identified themselves as Ethiopians first, raising questions about dual identity and the meaning of being a Canadian, and the exclusion felt by some newcomers. Only 27 per cent identified themselves as Canadians, even though most were born in Canada or immigrated here when they were very young.
“It makes you wonder if multiculturalism is really working for more recent immigrants,” said Maraki Fikre Merid, who co-authored the study with several other Ethiopian-Canadians from a group called Young Diplomats. “We talk about Toronto being a mega melting pot, but it is really a lot of segregated communities. Is there something more Canada can do to give people a sense of what it means to be Canadian?”
The research was undertaken to explore how diaspora communities can contribute to peace building and development in Canada and in their countries of origin, and how Canada can better harness their creativity and resources. Some findings were positive, with the study on the Jamaican and Afghan diasporas both concluding that Canada’s democratic tradition and commitment to human rights have helped to contribute to peace-building efforts in their homelands.
The studies also revealed the extent to which newcomer groups from visible-minority backgrounds are struggling with unemployment and discrimination.
When asked what challenges they faced, 25.5 per cent in the Ethiopian study said being stereotyped was a problem, while 15.3 per cent cited cultural differences.
“Youth who migrated to Canada had a hard time internalizing ready-made labels such as ‘African,’ ‘black,’ or ‘minority’. . . some felt they were lumped into a group that did not recognize their history or uniqueness as Ethiopians,” the study found.
Respondents said they didn’t necessarily relate to rap music and gangsta culture but felt forced to fit into this stereotype. Alpha Adebe, a co-author of the study, said Canada needs to debate the meaning of multiculturalism.
The papers, funded by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, were presented at yesterday’s conference, which featured Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, president of the UN General Assembly, as well as Omar Samad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada. Mr. Samad called on Canada’s Afghan diaspora of 100,000 to get more involved in peace and development issues in their homeland.
The study of the diaspora from Eritrea found that community doesn’t deal well with conflict, with a staggering 100 per cent of female respondents saying they have no trust in their community and would not reach out to their own community to resolve conflicts of a personal, family or social nature.
The survey respondents described the diaspora as fragmented, and divided along religious and political lines. (Eritrea was involved in a war against Ethiopia in the 1990s and suffers from poverty and the ravages of AIDS, as does Ethiopia.)
Conducted by the Selam Peacebuilding Network, the study interviewed 52 Eritrean-Canadians. They identified as challenges a lack of understanding of Canadian social values, as well as a gap between the “two worlds.” Some of the youth respondents wanted their parents to make an effort to understand Canadian values.
A third study on Toronto’s Afghan community was conducted by the Afghan Women’s Organization. One-third of the 261 Afghan-Canadian respondents said they had contributed to peace and development work in their homeland. With Canada heavily involved in Afghanistan, and 2,300 troops stationed there with the NATO operation, there is potential for the diaspora to have greater involvement.
About one-quarter of respondents said the best way to achieve peace there is to promote ethno-linguistic, religious and political unity, while 19 per cent said economic development was paramount. They cited Canada’s multicultural values and democratic freedoms as helping to foster peace and development in Afghanistan. In contrast, some respondents found that stereotyping of Muslims in the Canadian news media “frightens Afghans and impedes their activities.”
The study of Colombian-Canadians found many of the 40 respondents were unemployed or on social assistance, and cited learning English as a central challenge. However, they maintained faith in Canadian institutions, citing them as “responsive” to their issues.

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