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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 1: Two weddings, one marriage

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2003


They never speak of his choice to convert to Roman Catholicism. Their fear, they told Par, is that their culture, the less mainstream one, will lose out. Now and then, his mother still sighs, half in jest, "I should have worked harder to marry him off to a nice Indian girl at 22."

But in this modern Canada, nice Indian boys don't always fall in love with nice Indian girls.

This country has become increasingly open to mixing in the bedrooms of the nation. In the 2001 census, about one in 20 Canadians under 30 is in a mixed pairing, but that is defined only in terms of race. The actual number of couples marrying across religious and cultural lines — the Jewish Canadian, say, who falls for an Irish Protestant — is far higher. At St. Joseph the Worker Church, Rev. Dennis Polanco considers at least 40 per cent of all the weddings he performs to be mixed.

Vancouver, mind you, holds the record for youthful intermarriage in Canada, at more than 13 per cent, the census says, followed by Toronto and Montreal. The trend is mainly in the big cities because that is where most young immigrants live, and where universities bring them together.

Canadians' openness to falling in love across lines of race and religion sets this country apart from the United States. According to a 2000 poll, 30 per cent of Americans were opposed to close family members marrying a black person — and 18 per cent were strongly opposed.

When The Globe and Mail and the Centre for Research and Information on Canada asked a similar question in a poll last month, only 11 per cent of Canadians said the same thing — and among young Canadians, even the children of recent immigrants, the opposition virtually vanishes.

In fact, when it comes to what future spouses should share, Canadians under 30 are five times more likely to answer a common sense of humour, not matching ethnic backgrounds. Most mixed unions occur between one member of a visible-minority group and a white Canadian; among those in their 20s, the groups most likely to marry out are blacks, Latin Americans and Chinese Canadians.

Young Canadians did not just wake up suddenly tolerant. The poll clearly shows a sloping trend across the generations, from the baby boomers down. Older immigrants, such as the parents of Par and Maricar, give ethnic background the most weight. But even there, less than 40 per cent say it is important (45 per cent among all those over 60) and only about 10 per cent say it is very important.

Of course, answering a survey is one thing; having your Sikh son bring home a Roman Catholic Filipina is another. When Par first introduced Maricar to his parents, his mom hugged her without reservation — but they were only 22 then, and it was dating, not courtship; the Bains' friends were still hoping to arrange something with their eligible Indian daughters.

In the eight years since, both families have had time to adjust. And, especially on Par's side, his mother had heard the stories: The rumours of a Sikh daughter who committed suicide when her family refused her choice; the wedding her daughter attended where the parents sat sobbing in the back of the church while their child married a Christian. One niece didn't speak to her mother for two years when she refused to acknowledge her white boyfriend, who is now her husband.

What it cost, Darshan Bains saw, was a strong relationship with their children. "This weighs on you," she said in Punjabi, with her daughter Tejinder Bains-Krupka translating. She decided it would not be her path. When Tej came home a few years ago with a Roman Catholic fiancÚ, they greeted him with the same hug at the door.

Rattan Singh Girn, the president of the Akali Singh Sikh Gurdwara temple, described parents' reactions to mixed marriage this way: "Internally, they don't want it, but they adjust." And some families better than others, he notes.

"The norm for us may always be that it's good to marry within your own tradition," Father Polanco said. "But that's not life any more."
The new life is here, at the Naval house on Evancio Crescent at 7:30 Friday morning, where Maricar's three closest friends lounge in sweats on wicker furniture in the living room, following a strict, printed schedule to get their hair done. They are debating, with great intensity, whether Par will cry at the wedding — Tuyen Riddell, the matron of honour, advises that if he faints, "Maricar, you'll catch him" — and teasing the bride on the complications her intricate dress may pose for the wedding.

Watching the hairdresser carefully pin Maricar's tiara, Ms. Riddell declares: "Aladdin is marrying the Filipino princess."

They know the story of Par and Maricar well, because they have been present from the beginning. It was a visiting cousin of Carol Majia-Laperle who sparked the trip to the Wild Coyote nightclub in the summer of 1994 that got them introduced. Suzanne Cabido fielded questions the next day from a smitten Par. Ms. Riddell, who is Vietnamese and the only non-Filipina in the room, met her Nova Scotian husband at the bar on the same night, and now he is one of Par's groomsmen.

"And to think," she says, "that we joked about getting married together. Boy, would that have been complicated."

She means the logistics: Where do you fit a Vietnamese tea ceremony between all those weddings and receptions? But the concept of race preventing you from marrying the one you love does not even register here. The children of new immigrants, they have all married outside their ethnic group — though minus, they admit, the complication of two strongly different religions.

"Things would just happen," Ms. Majia-Laperle says. "It's actually the last thing on your mind when you are choosing a life partner."

Ms. Majia-Laperle, who now goes to school in Arizona, fell for a Quebec exchange student, and Ms. Cabido's husband is Portuguese-Canadian. Her new relatives pronounced at first meeting that the babies would be beautiful. Ms. Majia-Laperle got used to the formal sit-down dinners, and her husband's boisterous brothers. This year, some of her family, who are moving to Canada, even lived with his parents in Montreal, and "everyone survived."

When they are asked about race and equality, the room gets serious. They are not blind to the problems, they say. They are still conscious of not being white in a predominantly white society.

Ms. Riddell, an English teacher, lived first in Moose Jaw, Sask., where a church sponsored her family from Vietnam; she recalls the odd slur when they went shopping and her father's steadfast words: "You can't let that get in the way of living."

Ms. Cabido, a registered nurse, often attends patients who automatically assume that she is only an aide coming to give them a bath. "I say, 'Actually I am here to teach you how to take your medicine.' It happens so often I don't let it bother me." Ms. Majia-Laperle chose to hyphenate her name so people would not be surprised by her race.

But none of this, they say, is the kind of oppressive racism of the past, the internment camps and education barriers that haunted previous generations. They are free, Ms. Riddell explains, however people might judge them. "We can handle stereotypes."

For their children, they are cautiously optimistic, imagining a country more fully living out the multicultural message it teaches. Their sons and daughters, they say, will think like them, only more so. They will be blessed, not hindered, Ms. Cabido says, by coming from two cultures.

"We're going to teach them the right way," she says. "To respect all cultures. 'Cause look at your mom and dad: We're happy."

The conversations of future in-laws may change too. Par and Maricar laugh now about how he had to explain to his parents that Maricar's family did not eat cats and dogs for dinner, and she had to deal with her folks' questions about turbans and whether Par carried a sword. To plan the wedding, they walked each set of parents through the different ceremonies, and divided the food and entertainment to represent both cultures evenly.

Even so, they have heard grumbling, mostly relatives telling their parents one side was being favoured over the other.

"We think we did things pretty much down the middle," Par sighed as he sat down for a diner breakfast with Maricar the day before the first wedding. "In the end, as long as we're happy and our parents are . . ."

". . . reasonably happy," Maricar said, arching an eyebrow.

"What else can we do?"

They are already dreaming of their European honeymoon, which starts in three days.

The two balance each other: Maricar, a chief accountant with the Canada Customs Revenue Agency, is the practical one, the list maker. A devout Roman Catholic, she is the one who worried most about their different faiths; it took her two years to tell her parents that they were dating.

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