The First Nations of Canada
The land where Canada is now was inhabited by First Nations (aboriginal) peoples for thousands of years before European explorers arrived in Canada in the 1500s. First Nations settlement on Turtle Island (as North America is referred to by many First Nations people) dates back to 500 BCE. There were hundreds of First Nations tribes each with their own distinct cultures. There are approximately 700, 000 First Nations people in Canada today and they have the fastest growing population due to increasing birth rates.
Here at Conestoga, you can drop by Be-Dah-Bin Gamik "Place of New Beginning" at the Doon Campus (just below Tim Hortons) to learn more about Aboriginal culture (First Nations, Inuit and Metis).
Cultural Snapshots: Looking at English-Speaking, British Background Canada
Ontario is a land of immigrants and except for our First-Nations citizens, everyone's ancestors immigrated to Canada most of them within the last 5 generations. In Toronto, every second person you meet was likely born outside of Canada but in many areas outside of Toronto such as Kitchener-Waterloo, non-European immigration is a pretty new phenomenon.
When you take Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge together, they are referred to as the tri-cities. Kitchener had a population of 219,153 in 2011 and the metropolitan area, which includes Waterloo and Cambridge, had 477,160 people and is usually ranked as Canada's tenth largest city area and Ontario's 4th largest. Kitchener and Waterloo are often referred to as K-W. K-W is now the 6th largest immigrant receiving area in Canada so we now have many established Canadians of European background experiencing their first frequent interactions with newcomers from all over the world!
Around 1800 the first buildings were built in this area by Mennonite families settling in the area and farming or setting up skilled trades. In the later 1800s many German immigrants settled in what is now K-W and Kitchener was called Berlin from 1854 until 1916. After the 1st World War, the name was changed to Kitchener. When the railroad arrived in 1856, the tri-city area became a centre for hard-working industries and prospered. The presence of three post-secondary institutions (Conestoga College, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfred Laurier University) and the development of many technology companies over the past 20 years has led the area to be called "the technology triangle." The tri-cities are now a favored destination for newcomers.
Class and Hierarchy
English-speaking Ontarians have generally worked hard to erase class lines and create flattened hierarchies in both home and work life in the name of democracy. One of the easiest ways to get someone upset is to make it seem that you are putting yourself above them. This will usually be met with resistance. Even Managers and bosses are careful to be collaborative in decision-making and may appear less directive when delegating work. This can be confusing for new immigrants who are used to getting clear directions from bosses and teachers. Even in group work settings in college, you will find a sorting out of responsibilities so that each person does equal work. It often shocks newcomers to hear that kids negotiate with parents and sometimes even tell parents what to do and yell at them! Canadians see this as skill-building in being independent and assertive yet collaborative but in many cultures this would be seen as anarchy.
The majority of people in the area who were born and raised here in the 1950s to 1990s come from Christian backgrounds but many no longer attend church services. There are individuals from many religious groups residing in the area and many places of worship. To the north of Waterloo there is a large Mennonite community which still preserves old ways of living similar to what was found in the 1800s in Europe as this is how they interpret God's instructions.
Canada has a well-established democracy and many new comers get involved in local politics helping out one of the three main parties. Personal freedoms are very well-protected but Canadians are not very politically active nor do they talk politics as often as our American neighbors top the south do.
Many long-time residents of the area speak only English, and are not even familiar with listening to other accents especially non-European accents. If you speak English with another pronunciation, you may need to give the person a chance to get used to your speech, repeat things a few times, and even write down misheard words. Gradually people's ears will become attuned to more variety in the way English can be pronounced and still understood. Many English-speaking citizens are eager to learn about other cultures and languages and volunteer at various newcomer greeting centers.
Social Interaction and Values
Gender equality is a very important value for Canadians. Just a few generations ago women and men worked together to change the old ways and we now have equality protected by law and exhibited in many areas of life. Anything that looks like it infringes on gender rights can be very upsetting to someone raised in this social understanding of what is right and who knows how hard these rights were to win. Most Canadians would argue and fight for the rights of women and can become anxious when they suspect women are being put in a secondary position.
The Ontario Human Rights Code also protects other groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged or at risk. Sexual freedom is highly prized and protected as are the rights of children, the elderly, and minority groups. Many newcomers come to Canada to enjoy these freedoms.
Men and women intermingle freely in Ontario and it is not uncommon to see affection displayed between romantic partners both heterosexual and homosexual. Many couples live together without marrying. In comparison to many parts of Europe though, people in the tri-cities are quite prudish and modest. There is a wide range of fashion from quite revealing to very modest. People are quite used to seeing Mennonite women in bonnets and long dresses but seeing Muslim women in burqas is a new experience in the area.
It is considered rude to contradict or correct anyone outright. Instead, speakers usually say, "Actually ..." to indicate that they mean no disrespect in the adjustment of the other's statement. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for a student to correct or question a teacher or an employee a manager, so you can see that democracy rules!
Perhaps because early immigration was composed mostly of individuals who had to leave their homeland and came with little to Ontario working hard and alone to make a start, people have traditionally been somewhat reserved. Many newcomers feel that Canadian are friendly but not warm, are talkative but not argumentative, are social but not inviting. It is true that English-speaking Canadians usually try to keep meetings and social gatherings and classrooms peaceful. This is quite surprising to newcomers from areas where a good debate or having loud fun is prized.
Most people eat dinner at around 5:30 or 6 and breakfast and lunch are quire rushed except on weekends. People got into the habit of eating out a lot over the past few decades but home-gardening and cooking are becoming popular again. People are often watching what they eat and trying to get in shape. It's not uncommon for someone to be a vegetarian or vegan by choice rather than by religious conviction. An increasing number of people have food sensitivities so people will often ask if there is anything you can't eat.
Newcomers are often surprised at how quickly Canadians have coffee and eat dinner. If someone says, "Let's get a coffee." the whole thing may be over in under a half hour (or even 15 minutes!). Even a sit down dinner may only last 45 minutes and then coffee or tea. People will usually only offer a food item twice so don't keep refusing out of politeness or you may go hungry. Of course this varies by family background as well. Traditionally food eaten in the area was quite plain but recently people have discovered the ethnic foods of many cultures and spiciness is entering the food chain. Fifty years ago only salt and pepper were used by many cooks.
The birth rate has been falling in Ontario for a long time and many families had only one or two children when the mother was in her late 20s or in her 30s or even 40s. In 2011, we saw the first increase in births in a long time. People often express surprise when they hear people have large families of 5 or more children and dozens of cousins. Since Canadian culture has tended to be relatively individualistic, sacrificing one's own education and work life for family seems surprising. You may even hear children criticizing their parents and vice versa. This is shocking to cultures where family is everything but when individuals are seen as separate it makes more sense.
Traditionally, children moved out of the family house around 18 to study or work but in the last decade economics and changing values have led to many young people living at homes into their 20s.
Sports and music are highly regarded and those two topics plus the weather are often conversation starters. Unlike in many countries where the weather is stable, the variability of the weather in Canada makes it a frequent topic of safe discussion. People are not usually asked directly about their political or religious beliefs. People do talk about weight a lot but if someone asks you if it looks like they have gained weight, the answer is always no! Unlike in many countries, Canadians do not mention people's weight or weight gains or other issues of appearance. We try to keep the valance (tone) of the conservation positive whereas in some countries it is quite polite and supportive to express concern about weight gain or greying hair or pimples etc. We don't usually ask directly about income or costs either but get to the information sideways by asking where someone is living, what kind of car they are driving, have they been on any good vacations etc.
Canada has one of the highest rates of post-secondary education and literacy in the world. School is free till the end of high school and the government subsidizes post-secondary. More women enter university and college than men these days. Life-long education is a high value and it is possible to find people of all ages in various programs.