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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 11: One long billboard to tolerance

By KEN WIWA
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2003

Part 2

After listening to him manoeuvre his way around the congested and contested side streets of his identity — like his anglicised name and his views on interethnic marriage ("I'm actually very open-minded about it but my parents would kill me"), I decided to test his loyalty: Which country would he support if Korea went head to head with Canada in his favourite sport?

"I would, er, I would cheer for Korea," he offered hesitantly, "but I will still be cheering if any of those teams lose." He added, laughing: "We won't be seeing anything like that because we're not very good at hockey."

And if the two countries went to war, I asked tactlessly? "Oh man, that's not good," he said, grimacing at the prospect. "In that case I think I would go back to my Korean culture. There's a difference between the government and the actual land of the country. I think the Canadian government is doing a great job but if they go to war against Korea I might change my perspective on the whole war. It depends on the circumstance. If I think Korea deserved it in some way, I'd just say 'Yeah, we deserved it'."

I left Ryan Cha to ponder a dilemma that may be unthinkable for second-generation Canadians raised on the national mythology of peacekeeping and safe havens. I headed east, crossing Landsdowne into the stretch of Bloor leading to Ossington. This is Canada's waterfront, the place where many new immigrants land and literally set up shop in anticipation of fast-tracking the next generation into the mainstream Canada.

I passed a variety store run by a former Burmese liberation soldier, Bangladeshi curry houses, Somali roti shops and Portuguese chiaroscuros until I came across a sign featuring a shield in the red and white check of Croatia's national colours. The Croatian Credit Union is open but the atmosphere inside gives off a sense it has seen busier days.

Joe Vinski, the general manager of the credit union, gives me a brief tour around 30 years of Croatian immigration that confirms my initial impression. "There used to be a Croatian restaurant on Bloor but the owner died and it was taken over by Somalis," he said. I gathered that the Croatian community around Bloor has largely dispersed to Mississauga and the church behind the credit union had been up for sale.

Further east, between Ossington and Christie, is a strip that confirms Toronto's reputation as a space where peoples from countries in conflict can live side by side. It was here that I ran into Daniel Michael, a sociology student at York University, his long limbs casually draped over a stool in Sawa, an Eritrean restaurant. An Ethiopian restaurant is next door.

What is it like living side by side with Ethiopians in Toronto when there had been a war on back home? "We know that the war is basically politics," Mr. Michael shrugged. "It's the politicians in Eritrea who have a problem with the politicians in Ethiopia, we don't let that get between us. We feel that we are one people regardless of whether we are from Ethiopia or Eritrea."

I couldn't decide whether this was youthful optimism talking, or whether he was toeing the Canadian party line of tolerance. It was not as if distance had lent him a sanitised perspective of the war, because he had almost been caught up in it in 1998, when he was 17.

Mr. Michael, now 21, was born in California and spent most of his life divided between Windsor and Las Vegas. He had just finished a year of high school in the land of his parents.

"The war started the day I left Eritrea," he recalled. "I was on a plane going from Frankfurt to Toronto and there was a CNN newsbreak saying the war had just started, and my mom and dad went crazy and they just wanted to know if my plane got off right."

It was his first — and so far only — experience of the place he insists is home.

"My identity as in my nationality is Eritrean, I have citizenship there and that's what I tell everybody."

But as ever, it is Canada that has afforded him the space to be Eritrean. "Because of the multicultural population here, I just feel like another Canadian," he explained. "Being Canadian ultimately just means you're from somewhere else and you've made Canada your home and that's the case for most people here."

Can a country continue to happily accommodate citizens who also see themselves as foreigners? And isn't Mr. Michael's retention of his Eritrean identity a rejection of Canada's aspirations to build a colour-blind society?

"Even if we did lose our identity there would still be racial barriers because in their eyes we're different," Mr. Michael insisted. "If you look at America where they denounce where they're from and they still have racism there, then it's not going to change. I think it's going to be there no matter what. The idea is to celebrate the differences, work together."

I imagine that Mr. Michael's split identity could be bound up in the communal experiences of the 10,000 Eritreans living in Canada. Although they are part of one of the earliest diasporas from Africa, they are dispersed around Toronto and have not had the economic impact or concentration of the Korean community.

"The community had been suspended between Canada and Eritrea," Amanuel Melles, a leader in the community, later told me. Much of Eritreans' capital was sent back to Africa to support first the 30-year liberation struggle against Ethiopia and then independence, he said.

"The community does not have a lot of social asset," Mr. Melles explained, "but the children are growing and there is a growing interest in taking part in civic life in Toronto."

But even as young Eritreans embrace Canada, the old country still makes demands on them. A group of 120 Eritrean professionals around Canada were instrumental, Mr. Melles said, in getting the Canadian International Development Agency to approve a $3-million aid package in April to help alleviate the drought in Eritrea.

Back at Sawa, Mr. Michael outlined his vision of the future for young Eritreans in Canada. "We're going to play a big part in the development of our countries," both Eritrea and Canada, he said. "We've had more opportunities than our parents did, that will be the focus for it in the near future."

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