Why I’ll never let go of my foreign origins

Graphic by Thom Bell

Learning to embrace my unique cultural roots within Canada

I was four years old when my family moved from Bejaia, Algeria to Canada. I don’t remember much of the move, to be honest. I do remember the snowy evening in March when we arrived, and I have vague memories of the small apartment we shared with one of my parents’ friends for a few months before we found a place of our own.

According to my parents, I didn’t speak a word of French—or English—back then. I apparently learned French in the streets, with the help of the other kids in the apartment complex we rented in the St-Michel borough of Montreal. I don’t remember any of that. I do remember fitting in surprisingly well at first, though.

There’s one aspect about myself that was strikingly important to me back then—and still remains today. I have always identified as Algerian, first and foremost. It took me quite a while to realize and understand I was Canadian, too—even after getting all the paperwork out of the way.

My origins, my beliefs and my culture have always been a part of me I have tried to make as obvious and as clear as possible to whomever I spoke with. Call it patriotism, or whatever. I’ve seen it as a way to establish my identity, even when I was confused as to what exactly that entailed.

When proudly announcing that I was Algerian, especially as a child, I noticed a pattern. People would put me in a box—Muslim, Arab, probably loves soccer and makes a fuss about calling it “football.” Basically, they would assume things about me that were often wrong.

One thing most people often get wrong about me, to this day, is my ethnicity. Ever since I can remember, my parents have always been incredibly proud of being Amazigh, or Berber—in simple terms, indigenous people of North Africa. Despite the erasure of the culture strongly pushed forward by the Algerian government, there has been progress, like the officialization of Tamazight, the Amazigh language, in February 2016, but the discrimination is still prevalent. Yet, the Amazigh people of Algeria still have a strong influence in the country and within their diaspora, especially here in Montreal.

Out of the approximately 26,000 people in Canada who identify as Berbers, over 21,000 of them reside in Montreal, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada survey. That’s a massive community—and yet very few Montrealers, let alone Canadians, know about Berbers or the Berber culture.

And so I spent a lot of time, as a child and still today, explaining that yes, I am Algerian, but no, my native language isn’t Arabic (it’s Tamazight), and my culture involves more than my Muslim faith. In fact, I spent my life putting so much emphasis on this part of my identity that it took me quite a long time to realize I was Canadian, too.

It was in high school, as I grew older, somewhat wiser and more confused about the person I was, that it hit me—I wasn’t only Algerian. My identity and sense of belonging wasn’t limited to my country of origin, but most certainly extended to the country I have lived in for as long as I can remember.

As long as I live as a Canadian citizen, I am undoubtedly part of its political, social and cultural life. As a citizen, I can bring forth ideas, values and change, and express my views when voting, when protesting, when celebrating—even more so considering my cultural background. These differences don’t make me any less Canadian. If anything, they only add something to my Canadian identity that other citizens might not possess.

In high school, it dawned on me that it was important to pay attention to what is going on around me, in my country—the one I live in, not the one I absentmindedly long for from time to time, the one I only visit once every two years. What happens here, the feats and the downfalls, will affect me directly while whatever might be going on in Algeria will not. What I can bring to this country, Canada, will consequently be much more significant.

I still pride myself immensely on my Algerian heritage. It’s something nobody can take away from me, despite the racism and the constantly growing Islamophobia. However, I have come to pride myself on being Canadian, too. I love this country like my home—because that’s exactly what it is to me.

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