When Nathalie Lozano and her parents arrived as refugees from Colombia, she was 14 years old, it was the middle of a Vancouver school year, she spoke no English, and money was tight. “I had a really tough time,” she says. Vancouver itself was a huge adjustment. Among other things, she was surprised by its multiculturalism, its liberal ways and the open, recreational use of marijuana. “I didn’t even know what weed was,” she says, laughing. “The perception was, if you come from Colombia you must know your drugs, but I really had no idea.” As scant as her English was, it fell to her as the only child to ease the way for her parents—a reversal of roles. “I was the one going to the banks, doing all the billing stuff, dealing with the manager and the landlord—at 14,” says Lozano, now a poised and articulate 22-year-old youth worker with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. “It kind of forced me to grow up.”
Christable Sarkar and her family arrived in Vancouver from Bangladesh four years ago when she was 15. Although she was educated in English and raised as a Catholic, life in Canada was a big adjustment for her too. Now a 19-year-old college student, she says, “It’s been a mixed feeling to leave everything behind and come here. No one prepares you for it.” Ironically, the mysteries of Canadian society were best explained to her by fellow immigrants. She enrolled in Lozano’s My Circle program, where immigrant youth share their hard-earned experiences. “The culture is different here. It changed me. It changed my parents. It changed our thinking,” she says. “For example, we are way more tolerant of others’ differences.”
These experiences are typical of immigrant teens—an increasingly dominant and influential part of the Canadian mosaic. In 2008, Project Teen Canada set out to find, among other things, how the evolution we’ve seen in Canada’s cultural makeup is affecting the behaviour and values of teens. It found that the shift has indeed been huge—in 1987, some 89 per cent of our teens were born in Canada, compared to just 56 per cent in 2008—and offered some fascinating clues as to how immigration will shape our future.
THE YOUTH SURVEY AT MACLEANS.CA: 1. Generation Tame 2. City vs. Country Kids 3. Teens lose faith in droves 4. The surprising optimism of Aboriginal teens 5. When it comes to sex, teen girls are acting more like boys 6. Immigrant teens find that tolerance goes both ways in Canada
In broad strokes, the survey shows immigrant teens to be more polite, honest and hard-working than Canadian-born teens. But they are more conservative and religious, too, which raises an interesting paradox. While they may see themselves as targets of discrimination, many foreign teens, especially those with roots in India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Asia, are less tolerant than long-established Canadian teens when it comes to issues such as gay marriage, abortion, or raising children out of wedlock.
The survey found that foreign-born teens were more likely to say they would return $10 if a store clerk gave them too much change, and more likely to object to giving someone “the finger.” But between 40 and 45 per cent of the teens with roots in the Middle East, India and Pakistan disapprove of unmarried couples having children, while nationally, just 15 per cent of teens do. Similarly, between 40 and 50 per cent of blacks, Latin Americans, East Indians, Pakistanis and those with Middle Eastern roots “disapprove and do not accept” gay marriage—compared to just one in four Canadian teens.
Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist who heads up Project Teen, expects such divergent opinions to dilute over time. “They’re following in their parents’ footsteps to some extent. Those expressions of religion—Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam—there is no question they are coming across as much less tolerant. My sense there—for better or worse—is that will take care of itself,” he says. “They’ll pick up on the dominant Canadian norms.” The numbers appear to back him up. While 42 per cent of foreign-born immigrants oppose gay marriage, for instance, that falls to just 28 per cent for the Canadian-born children of immigrants. That next generation is also more likely to support raising kids outside of marriage and the availability of abortion. Sarkar says she isn’t surprised that some immigrants feel discrimination and yet disapprove of others. “Maybe that’s a defence mechanism,” she says, “because you’re not approving of me.” Meanwhile, her own opposition to gay marriage has changed “completely,” she says.
Sarkar also isn’t surprised by the dominant thrust of Bibby’s research: that teens across the spectrum see Canada as a place to meet their shared aspirations for a good home, a marriage that lasts, and a better life than their parents. “Happiness has different meanings to different people,” she says. “But somehow having somebody with you, having a family, having a roof over your head, is what we all basically want. I don’t think it has anything to do with culture, race or religion. It’s just a human thing.”