In Toronto they wear black. In the Maritimes it’s camo. What does that say about us?


This is a story about colonization. Pearson International Airport is the crossroads of Canada. If you want to see who we are, it’s worth observing the people waiting for their flights. Like I did yesterday, making my connections to get back home.

We don’t seem to be a homogenized nation, if we ever were. You’ll see people of every ethnic background, from every corner of the world, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, South and Central America, Africa, China, India and North America, from the Arctic to the Mississippi delta.

So one would expect to see a wide variety of colourful and interesting clothing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As I was travelling I read an online piece about colonization and the need for decolonization. I scanned the article superficially. Most of the information was historical, how great waves of colonization took place over the past two millennia, from Africa to Europe, from Europe to China, and then from Europe to Central and South America and just about everywhere, and now from America to the Middle East. The author’s answer was decolonization, which, I suppose, is a good cause. But given the deep and long historical pattern, one has to wonder if such a thing is possible in the slightest.

I also read something about Australia’s immigration policies that now require prospective immigrants to be fluent in English. This seems to have reduced the numbers of Asians entering the country, and increased the number of Brits, which can be interpreted as an extension of British colonization.

Australians, today, are conflicted about immigration. An article in the Guardian last year identifies a growing hostility towards immigrants down under. Apparently, “6 million Australians hold somewhat or very negative views about Muslims.” In one survey, conducted by Kevin Dunn from Western Sydney University, 36.4 percent of respondents feel that the level of immigration is too high, while 55 percent of non-English speaking immigrants say they’ve directly experienced racism in the workplace and in the educational system. And almost half (48.6 percent) “believe people from racial, ethnic, cultural and religious minorities groups should behave more like mainstream Australians.”

The whole topic is filled with irony, given that Australia, like the Americas, was colonized by immigrants who displaced the indigenous populations. Who are these “mainstream Australians”? I picture them in colourful beachwear or in Crocodile Dundee bush-wear. I don’t know, I haven’t been. But clearly, while Australians like distinctive clothing, they prefer a more homogeneous culture. For immigrants, that means assimilation.

Back here in Canada we’re on the opposite end of the weather spectrum, instead of heatwaves we get Arctic polar vortexes. Perma-beachwear is definitely not our thing. What is our thing is bland clothing. And ironically: multiculturalism, the celebration of our differences.

But what I see in the airports across the country is not the distinctiveness of cultures mingling, but the great assimilation of us all into black and navy and grey coats, blue jeans and black or brown shoes. Colourful clothing seems to be reserved for kids under 6 only.

What does this say about us? Have we been somehow assimilated into something we don’t recognize? If so, what is it?

Let’s take an anthropologist’s trip to the mall. All those dark, drab and pre-worn, pre-torn clothing comes to us right off the shelf. So does the all the camouflage hunting gear, and the dark, bland, conservative dress-up clothes for men. That includes most of the casual and business wear for women. The only bright spots are the party dresses for women and the candy-coloured clothing for kids.

So all of us, First Nations people and Muslims, Inuit and Asians end up dressing almost identically. While some of us may consciously think in terms of decolonization, especially our Indigenous populations, we end up being remarkably assimilated into a common mode of dress and behaviour. We are, in fact, colonized by our own corporately-driven economic system.

A system that got it’s start here in Canada with one of the world’s first global corporations: the Hudson’s Bay Company, the original engine used to colonize the so-called New World. Obviously, it’s commerce that colonizes, and until we fully recognize that we can never begin to decolonize ourselves from its devastating, all-consuming force.

So let’s not forget a word from our corporate sponsor: Merry Christmas everyone!

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