May is Asian Heritage Month and Jewish Heritage Month. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on what we mean by “heritage” regarding the history of these two communities in “multicultural” Canada, and what this means for creating cultural safety in birth work.
I’ve lived in the GTA my whole life. Here, a “heritage festival” typically amounts to a street party with food, live music and dance, and other culture-specific entertainment. I am actually a great lover of a good street fair. The food and performances are usually lit. I have also learned a lot about Jewish and Asian history and culture at events like the Ashkenaz Music Festival and Taste of Asia. I also understand that many communities are not fortunate enough to have this level of exposure to culture and diversity. But these cultural displays are not only far from telling the whole story of the “heritage” of Asian and Jewish people in Canada, but they also contribute to “false peace” – the illusion that multiculturalism is working out, that we are all getting along, and that we are all equal.
In truth, there is anti-Asian racism and anti-Semitism at the core of Canada’s heritage. Those of us who remember “Heritage Minutes” from the 1980s and 90s may know about the lethal exploitation of Chinese migrant workers that occurred in the 19th century to support the construction of the trans-Canada railroad. There are many other examples, including the head tax, and internment camps during WWII.
Anti-Semitism is equally a part of the fabric of Canada’s history. Wide-spread belief in a Jewish conspiracy to achieve global economic domination that originated in Europe and spread to North America made Jewish Canadians an easy scapegoat during the great depression. Additionally, to limit the economic advancement of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, Canadian universities implemented quotas that restricted the number of Jewish applicants who could be admitted to the school.
It’s easy to hear these stories and think “this has nothing to do with me”, “this is ancient history”, “I didn’t do these things”, and “let’s focus on the positive and how far we’ve come”. While these sentiments are understandable, the reality is that the present arises from the past. These uglier parts of our heritage are directly related to more recent attacks on synagogues and the hate crimes experienced by Asian Canadians during the pandemic.
Moreover, this heritage underpins the modern assumptions that manifest more subtly as microaggressions that affect the day-to-day navigation of society and impact the long-term mental and physical health of equity-seeking people. Some of these stereotypes may seem harmless or even positive. But in reality, they fuel the construction of whiteness as the social norm, put people in boxes, and create false impressions regarding people’s realities.
As birth workers, we can create cultural safety regarding the beautiful and the traumatic aspects of each client’s heritage. We can create space for them to share whether they have any cultural or religious traditions that they would like to honour. And we can also be mindful of things like how common stereotypes about Asian women may influence provider perceptions of client autonomy. Or how the intergenerational trauma of Holocaust survivors may impact pain management. There are a number of ways that our identities can impact our pregnancy and parenting journey. Shining a light on the good, the bad, and the ugly of our heritage sets us up to ask the right questions and facilitate the needed conversations with all of our clients.