Sex education and the dilemmas of immigrant integration

Back when I lived in Montreal, there were about a dozen women in my neighbourhood – obviously recent immigrants – who had a strange hangup about dogs. Whenever I was out walking the dog, they would take great pains to avoid us, sometimes even crossing the street to walk on the other side. Once I came around a corner and startled one of these women, who when she saw the dog, literally screamed and ran away from us. At other times, if they were walking with their children, I would notice them covering their children’s eyes, so that they would not make eye contact with the dog.

Now I know there are some cultures where the thought of living with a dog is considered rather disgusting, but this seemed to go far beyond mere disgust, entering the realm of fear bordering on terror. So I asked a friend who studies this sort of thing what was up. He told me that in the region they were from, dogs were considered to be not just unclean, but actually devils. This is what explained the covering-up-the-eyes part – they were protecting their childrens’ souls.

I must admit that, as a lifelong dog-person, I was not particularly sympathetic. Indeed, the situation may have served as the source of some rather mean-spirited amusement. (Imagine the phone calls home: “How are things going in Canada?” “Not bad, the winters are not so cold once you get used to them. There is one problem though… the people here live with demons.” That’s a pretty major oversight. Imagine setting off for a new country, to start a new life, only to discover that the streets are crawling with demons, or that the parks have off-leash zones for the pet demons, etc. It seems to me like something you would want to inquire about before arrival: “Canada sounds great, but just one thing: you people don’t happen to live with demons do you?”)

Of course, people are free to entertain whatever superstitions they like. What I found rather poignant though was the attempt to protect the children from the local demons. I thought to myself, “What are the chances that your children are going to grow up in Canada, going to the local school, hanging out with the local kids, going over to friends’ houses for sleepovers, and persist in the conviction that dogs are demons?” I mean, it’s one thing to hold the belief yourself, but to imagine that it can be preserved intergenerationally, in a society in which practically no one else holds that belief, seemed to me rather sad: not just sociologically naive, but also a recipe for disappointment.

The current protests over Ontario’s new sex education curriculum are reminding me of this episode, and of this feeling. First off, I have to say that I was very much surprised when I saw the demographics of the protest movement. When it first hit the news, I had assumed that it would be the same old evangelical Christians protesting (as it was five years ago, the last time the government tried to make changes). Turns out this time it’s being led almost entirely by new immigrants – something that the media has been rather hesitant to draw attention to, but is an extremely interesting development. (In the one major exception I’ve seen, Toronto Life magazine published an excellent, even-handed, profile of some of the leadership – by far the best thing that’s been written on the subject.)

For supporters of Canadian multiculturalism, this is mixed news. On the one hand, political engagement is an important sign of successful integration. The fact that new immigrants feel confident enough, and connected enough to Canadian society, to organize a protest movement, to contact their MPPs, and so on, is actually quite remarkable, and speaks well of the openness of both our civil society and our political system. (Much of what we’re seeing in action is the conservative “Kenney coalition” in the outer suburbs of Toronto, which Patrick Brown recently exploited to win the leadership of the Ontario PC party. Not everyone may be equally excited about immigrants joining the Conservative party, but the fact that they are joining political parties at all is a sign of successful integration.)

On the other hand, as the Toronto Life article rather gently suggests, many of these activists are harbouring deeply unrealistic expectations about what the effect of growing up in Canada is going to be on their children. Thus the protest movement also reveals some of the limits – one hesitates to say “failures” – of immigrant integration in Canada. For instance, the article includes a nice vignette of the moderator of one protest, Farina Siddiqui, running around the steps of the provincial legislature, reminding speakers to avoid homophobic remarks: “We need to show our Canadian values,” she implored. The organizers later found themselves having to grab the microphone away from speakers who violated the rule. One can see the difficult balancing act these activists are trying to pull off. How do you oppose a curriculum that, as everyone pretty much agrees, fairly reflects mainstream Canadian culture, without just coming across as an immigrant who is refusing to integrate into the society that he or she has chosen to move to? (or worse, who is trying to impose conservative religious values from his or her home country onto people in the société d’accueil?)

The key to resolving this dilemma actually lies in the alliance with Christian social conservatives. This is what allows these various immigrant groups to point to someone and say “see, it’s not just us who are complaining, here are these other Canadians – born and raised – who are opposed to it as well.” Herein lies the importance of the “Kenney coalition,” which I’ll talk about in a later post. For now I just want to discuss the concern, revealed through many of these protests, that too many immigrants come to Canada without fully understanding the reality of what it means to live in a liberal, Western society, and what effects being raised in this environment will have upon their children.

Anyone who knows many immigrants is no doubt aware that there are an awful lot of parents out there who drastically overestimate how much control they will be able to maintain over their children, their daughters in particular. For example, the common view amongst certain men that they can allow their sons to run around, dating and going to parties, while they can keep their daughters at home, forbidding them from either dating or partying – and that they will be able to do all this without producing lifelong, bitter resentment – is almost entirely an illusion. The problem with patriarchy and gender inequality (and by this I mean the real deal, where fathers make all the decisions, and men and women are considered frankly unequal) is that discrimination is very difficult to maintain without a supporting social environment, even harder in a culture that is constantly sending the opposite message.

The background problem in these debates is that people greatly overestimate the power of parental control, when it comes to the socialization of children. You only have to listen to the difference in spoken accent between first-generation immigrants and their Canadian-born children to see how powerful environment influences are on social behaviour. In fact, trying to get your kids to share your values is a lot like trying to get them to share your accent – practically hopeless, unless you’re in a social environment in which a lot of other people share your values/accent. There is lots of evidence to suggest that after around age 7, the child’s peer group is the single greatest influence, when it comes to modeling behaviour. So you put a child in a mixed classroom, and what it produces is a group of plain-vanilla Canadian kids. (As an interesting aside, part of the reason that parents overestimate their own control is that children come to resemble their parents in various ways because of genetics, but that the results are often mistaken for the effects of socialization.)

This mistaken belief in the power of parental influence is actually one of the main sources of conservative anxiety and opposition to multiculturalism – they worry that “the centre cannot hold,” that there will be a crisis of social integration. The major reason they worry about this is that they overestimate the importance of family life, and don’t realize how hard it is to transmit a culture that deviates in any significant way from the mainstream. It’s not enough to have a home environment that is radically different. You need to create extensive social isolation, so that children and their peer groups are insulated from every aspect of mainstream society, including schools and the media. This is why religious sects often move to distant rural areas, and limit access to radio, television, internet, etc. This is also why progressives worry about “social exclusion” and racism – because these are some of the few forces powerful enough to create the level of isolation required to impair successful integration. Absent these forces, Canadian suburbs are like giant machines for churning out generic Canadians, and there’s very little a family can do about that.

In summary, thinking that your daughter is going to make it to age 11 without learning the word “penis” is like thinking that she will make it to middle age while still believing that dogs are demons. Most 11 year old girls I know (i.e. my daughter and her friends) use the word “motherfucker” at least a dozen times a day – one of the few swear words that I can say, with certainty, she did not learn at home. (At one point I had to sit down and explain to her precisely why and in what way it is an unusually offensive expression.) The real question, therefore (as Robyn Urback put it, in a somewhat exasperated column) is whether you want your kids getting their sex education from their teachers, or from Nicki Minaj. This is not an entirely unfair construal. Despite the claim on the part of protestors that parents should be the ones providing sex education, the Toronto Life article suggests pretty strongly that what these parents really want is to insulate their children from knowledge of sexuality and of sexual diversity.

At the same time, I have some sympathy for immigrants who feel that they may have gotten a little bit more than they bargained for, coming to Canada. For instance, I just got off the subway, where I was sitting opposite this poster:


(If you look carefully, you can see that some comedian at the TTC put an ad for Bible study courses right above the poster. This is the world we live in.)

I myself was a bit relieved that my children were not with me on the subway today. Otherwise there would inevitably have been questions. They’re cool with the whole gay thing, it’s the more specific questions that I didn’t want to have to answer, like “why is it called squirt?” or “why are there three men, and not just two?” In any case, since children ride the subway, this one poster alone pretty much explains why the sex education curriculum in Ontario needs to be updated.

As far as immigrant integration is concerned, I myself have always been sympathetic to the “Dutch solution,” where the government produced a video that tries to give immigrants something of a taste of what life in the Netherlands is like (discussion here). Basically, they have a long video that includes, albeit briefly, a woman sunbathing topless, and two gay men kissing, with a voice-over that says, roughly, “here are some examples of behaviour considered normal in this country.” Except the Dutch give the video to people to watch in preparation for their citizenship exam, which seems to me a bit late. It would make more sense to send it out much further in advance, perhaps with the first application form for immigration. Also, there are other ways you could do the video. I would love for someone to produce a “how will immigration affect my family?” video. It could feature interviews, of adult children of immigrants, talking about their relationship with their parents. Maybe there could be some footage as well, shot at Toronto City Hall, of the long line of mixed-race couples waiting to get married. And maybe some photos of the posters that adorn our subways.


Sex education and the dilemmas of immigrant integration — 6 Comments

  1. It seems to me like this analysis suggests that multiculturalism doesn’t really exist, and can’t exist in any modern Western country. I think that might be right.

    That being said, I have to wonder if the plight of the immigrant parents is really THAT hopeless. In general, their kids will “secularize”, certainly. But there is a still this question: in a culture where you can be directed to “” for “non-stop cruising” in public spaces (or where Nicki Minaj is celebrated), is it possible to have countervailing forces that support people who don’t want to go all the way with that culture (so to speak), even if they don’t want to be old-country traditionalists either? In fact, there are alternatives. For instance, well-established Canadians might bog their kids down in extracurricular activities and load on academic expectations to keep them “busy” (their kids will still listen to Nicki Minaj, but not take her music very seriously). So if you’re a UofT prof and you want your kids to be gay-friendly but don’t want them to think that is a good norm for sexual activity, you have options available to you – and you probably see school sex-ed as an ally (you’re part of the “establishment” that produces that curriculum, after all). But immigrant parents often don’t have the same social networks and cultural norms; the best that they can do to counteract the dominant culture is to insist on loyalty to “traditional” values. Will that work? Well, it won’t really preserve their culture (that’s why multiculturalism doesn’t exist); and it may be counter-productive with some kids (making them resent their parents and rebel); but for others, it might still provide them with a meaningful sense of an alternative to the dominant culture.

  2. How does this relate to emergency immigration? Refugees are unlikely to have fully prepared for the cultural shocks of moving to Canada.

  3. In terms of the religion of immigrants, I was surprised to learn that 16% of Indo Canadians are Christians (7% Protestant/Evangelical, 9% Catholic). This is interesting, because I find most coverage frames the debate in terms of a clash between Islamic beliefs and the modern secular West, or the Christian west.

    I learned this because my suburban landlord is a South Asian Catholic, and yes, they support the Conservative candidate.

  4. Dear Mr. Heath: have been reading your books lately – enlightenment 2:00 this week – wonderful! I am now 81 but they take me back to my college philosophy courses when I was in my 30’s where I first discovered rational thought. I am still very active and take part in many discussions, and as you say, thinking rationally does not come easily!! Thanks so much. j.m.

  5. “What are the chances that your children are going to grow up in Canada, going to the local school, hanging out with the local kids, going over to friends’ houses for sleepovers, and persist in the conviction that dogs are demons?”

    A few summers ago I walked through a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn with a friend and his very friendly and well-behaved white Lab. The children shrieked and ran up onto their stoops. The adult women clutched their little ones to them and lifted the toddlers into their arms.

    These are people who have lived in the US for generations.

    Don’t be so sure that you can strip people’s culture out of them in the course of a decade or two.