My parents arrived in Canada from Pakistan in the 1970s. They were part of the “please-and-thank-you” generation, swallowing their pride when getting paid less at work, or when being bullied in a mall food court. To them, it was clear that this treatment was the price of admission — the cost of choosing Canada not just for themselves but for their children as well.
There would have been many advantages to staying in Pakistan — it would have benefited my father’s career, we’d be closer to my extended family, my Urdu would be way better, and the humidity would have put year-round bounce in my curly hair. But those were weighed against massive challenges: raising me and my sister in a very conservative society where our gender alone would determine what opportunities were available to us, perpetual political instability, our family’s lack of connections and financial access. Yes, they would have to restart their lives in another country, but they saw the possibilities for their daughters: access to healthcare, better schools, and a more predictable career trajectory. After all, Canada appeared to be a meritocracy in a way that Pakistan was not.
Raising us in Canada provided us with certain stamps of approval: the ability to speak English without an accent, a fluency in Western culture, a deep appreciation for Celine Dion. In their eyes, I’m a “full Canadian,” an assertion that used to bother me, especially when I saw all the big and small ways it wasn’t true. But now, I can see that their staunch belief in my status as an equal citizen is what ultimately made me demand that equality. My parents knew everything wasn't in their reach, but raised me to believe it was in mine, which has made it so much more obvious when I wasn't being treated fairly. Ironically, it’s their insistence in my status as an equal citizen that drives me to demand that equality for myself and others.
My parents knew everything wasn't in their reach, but raised me to believe it was in mine, which has made it so much more obvious when I wasn't being treated fairly.
I have experienced my fair share of microaggressions growing up in Toronto — repeatedly told with surprise how articulate I am, for instance — but one particular example comes to mind as a reminder that I’m not fully equal. A few summers ago, out on a patio downtown with three friends, who all happen to be brown and Black, I was asked for a credit card after we ordered. I wondered if it was a policy, so we asked all the tables around us, and none had been asked to provide one.
So I spoke up. The manager listened, comped our bills, and seemed genuinely apologetic. But the incident put a damper on the evening. I could have ignored it — I had already handed over my card, and let’s be real, I wasn’t going to change shit by calling it out. But thanks to my parents. I’m wired in a way that I just can’t let those kinds of things go. And I’m happy that others are too, because this was a pretty mild expression of what happens more often that people would like to think.
But this insistence on equity extends far beyond insulting slights and petty comments. As a journalist, my parents' insistence that I’m a “full Canadian” has framed how I cover race and immigration. It means I question how immigrants and their descendants have to overachieve to be seen as valuable members of society, and why they can still be continually insulted based on their identity even after reaching the heights of running for prime minister, and why essential workers who grow our food are denied full citizenship.
But there are others who are more comfortable ignoring inequity. At a party many moons ago, a white woman assured me discrimination in media was no longer a thing because BIPOC journalists were “getting all the jobs.” I retreated to the kitchen fuming, and totally inappropriately confided to the only other non-white person there. She touched my arm lightly, saying she too used to be obsessed with finding ways to be offended, but has since cleared herself of that negative energy. “Call me if you want yours cleared,” she offered.
It seemed so light and carefree to be her. But I realised it’s not my energy that needs to be cleansed. While this drive to uncover inequity can be the source of a lot of sadness and anger, it isn’t inherently negative — it’s actually driven by a belief I should be treated with dignity and respect. I don’t want to be numb to that desire. And I have my parents to thank for that. Their lives made them long for a different one for their own children. And while they shouldn’t have had to deal with depressed wages or casual racism either, their sacrifices paved the way for my generation to stand a little bit taller, and ask for more.
Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.