COLUMN SIX: By any other name

Polish immigrants aboard a train, ca. 1911, location unknown. William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada photo

Special to the VOICE

Canada’s strength as a nation lies in its diversity. So we keep hearing from our Prime Minister.

If he means we’re a strong nation because many of us come from different cultures, backgrounds and traditions, then surely, only the most parochially blinkered could disagree.

But if he means that our nation is stronger because our citizens adhere uncompromisingly to those cultures, backgrounds and traditions, then with all respect I must reconsider.

Like many, I came to this country from somewhere else, with a name that was difficult to pronounce. Brzezicki came not trippingly off the tongue for waspish Torontonians in the ‘50s. In primary school it provided my classmates with a source of amusement. They came up with all kinds of permutations. Brass Dicky. Bra Stinky. Brew Whiskey. Breast Icky. And yeah, they hurt.

I was nine when I had enough and deleted that first Z.

Brezicki looked less like a barbed wire fence and was easier to pronounce.

My mother, a Campbell before she married her Polish husband, was okay with my unilateral and un-notarized decision; but when I told my father, I was surprised at how readily he accepted my move to assimilate. He liked the idea so much, he dropped that first zed out of his own signature as well.

It wasn’t the last time he surprised me with his ameliorative stand on integration. When I asked him to teach me Polish, he point-blank refused. “We live in Canada now. We speak Canadian,” he said, in an accent like molasses.

He took very seriously the business of learning the new language. He bought a Polish-English dictionary and studied it every night to learn new words. Eventually, he had assembled a wider vocabulary than my teacher.

He read The Globe and Mail and Newsweek. He could use words like nugatory, coalesce and garrulous in a sentence—okay, three different sentences—and mispronounced them all because he never heard them spoken. His range of vocabulary, and his accent, meant that people had trouble understanding him. But he persevered. Becoming Canadian mattered to him.

Not that he was ashamed of his heritage—his diversity mattered too. He cooked Polish dishes, played Chopin, and read Polish writers. He introduced me to Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienckiewicz’s novel celebrating the Polish spirit under oppression. But my father accepted the reality, ‘50s provincialism notwithstanding, of Canada as our country. We weren’t in Poland anymore.

Assimilation wasn’t easy back then, not for anyone with a “foreign” accent or a “funny” name.

As a boy I was conflicted, and I look back now a little ashamed of how I handled my predicament. I was half-Polish at a time when being anything other than a WASP presented challenges. Polish jokes, for example, were in their heyday.

I remember Johnny Carson hosting a Chicago Bears player on his show—Bob Wotoska or Mike Ditka maybe—and then introducing a comedian who announced to Johnny that he had a Polish joke to tell. The Bears player reminded him that he was Polish. After a pause, the comedian quipped, “Okay, but don’t worry, I’ll tell it really slowly.” Those were the days.

I told some Polish jokes myself. I suppose it was like saying Uncle, and acknowledging my cultural inferiority as a way of ingratiating myself to my peers. On parents’ evenings, I remember being very aware of my father’s thick accent and appearance. He would wear a fedora and his only suit, while other fathers came more casually dressed and spoke confidently to the teachers. I wanted to be somewhere else, and I wonder now if he was aware of my discomfiture—a good word, and one he likely knew.

I was reluctant to invite school friends to my house when my father was home because he wasn’t cool, though the term wasn’t current then; he knew nothing of our sports or our music or the girls we had crushes on, and instead of just leaving us alone, he tried to be friendly and asked my friends awkward questions. Compounding my embarrassment, the smell of last night’s ribs and sauerkraut—kapusta—or stuffed cabbage rolls—golabki—or beet soup—borscht—permeated the carpets and wallpaper. At a time when most adolescents don’t want their parents around anyway, I was nothing less than mortified when my father entered the room. My friends would look at each other in that certain way, and of course I should have had the confidence to challenge them, but I didn’t. I just didn’t bring them home anymore.

I can only imagine what it was like back then for people of colour, and Jewish people, and indigenous peopled whom we referred to as Indians, who were removed from their families to attend residential schools, and who were here before any of us.

Assimilation was harder for all of them than for me, to the point where the word itself is now tainted by its past. I get that, and the issue becomes even more complicated when I remember that my father along with many other immigrants came with their own ingrained bigotries and stereotypes.

Times appear to have changed. Names, origins, skin colour and sexual orientation are no longer a joke, as we’ve been taught to understand that our traditional notion of nationhood was neither inclusive nor fair. Our very nation-builders, the fathers of confederation, are under fire for their benighted attitudes towards minorities.

But if the past is another country, how are we meant to understand the present?

What are we to make of our diversity as the new normal?

All my official documents carry the original spelling of my name, but I still use my Nexus alternative in everyday dealings with the world. Some might read that as an attempt to make myself a round peg so I can fit into a round hole. But is there a future for a country made up of independent square pegs?

Like many, I see the mosaic as a metaphor for today’s Canada—the idea of individually shaped pieces making up a shared big picture. We retain our individuality, but adhere to an inclusive nationhood. With immigration quotas about to increase dramatically, our concept of nationhood will be put to an even sterner test. Predictably perhaps, the “old guard,” now a minority themselves, believe the country is already coming apart at the seams.

I don’t.

I believe that being part of a larger and more diverse mosaic than ever is something to celebrate, so long as we recognize that even more stress will be put on the adhesive that keeps it together. That adhesive is now everyone’s business, whatever the sins and omissions of our more homogenous past.

And so I’m out of step with those who insist that our nation’s strength lies in its diversity. I believe it’s our tolerance and acceptance of diversity, our civility to each other, and our mutual respect, that keeps a nation together in spite of its differences.

You can legislate these civic virtues, of course, but they only work if they’re voluntarily engaged, by citizens of all persuasions.

My name is Brzezicki because I’m my father’s son.

My name is Brezicki, too, and yes, I am Canadian.

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