Intermarriage enriches family life

In Canada today, intermarriage is more common. That’s understandable when you realize that 18 million Canadians claim at least part of their heritage outside the British Isles or France, and one in nine is a member of a visible minority. 

Love can overcome all kinds of external differences, as you’ll see in these stories of four Canadian families whose ideals of multiculturalism are being tested every day.

Here’s how they make it work.

Story #1: Blending Sikh, British traditions:
Gurdip Saluja and his son, Inderpal, couldn’t quite see eye to eye at first on the way Inderpal should become engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Jennifer. In Sikh culture, the tradition is to get engaged at a large party for family and friends.

However, Inderpal wanted a more traditional North American engagement, where he would whisk Jennifer off to a romantic restaurant to pop the question.

In the end, the engagement reflected both traditions. The Salujas held a large party and, then, Inderpal proposed to Jennifer privately.

And the wedding itself was an all-day event combining elements of both cultures. It began in the morning with a Sh ceremony at a gurdwara (temple) in Brampton, Ontario. Then, everyone changed from traditional Sikh garments to tuxedos and bridal wear, and headed off to a church for a Christian wedding.

“It was very busy,” says Gurdip, 56, chuckling. “Once we were done with it, we thought, ‘We should have spread it out over two days!'”

Discussing differences
But Gurdip is happy about his son and daughter-in-law’s marriage, although he admits he was worried at first about the challenges they would face.

“Right now, you are young and you are just thinking of romance,” he remembers thinking.

“[But] when the kids come, what religion are they going to follow and what languages are they going to learn?”

Jennifer and Inderpal, both 27, assured their parents that they had discussed such matters.

Communicating is key
In fact, throughout the preparations for the wedding — which involved 400 guests, an Indian drummer, a Scottish bagpiper, and traditional Canadian and Indian foods — they made sure that everyone in both families knew what was being planned and agreed with it.

“Communication is so important,” says Inderpal.

Each family was eager to ensure the other enjoyed the day. For instance, when Jennifer’s parents suggested having a Sikh wedding only, the Salujas urged them to reconsider, thinking that they might later regret skipping the Christian service.

“Both ceremonies should be there so you both feel committed,” says Gurdip.

Inderpal believes the months of co-operation and discussion strengthened the bond between the families.

“In the end, it brought our families closer together,” he says. “We understand our views much better.”

Story #2: French Canadian Catholic marries Buddhist:
Norma Lacroix comes from a long line of French-Canadian Catholics in Manitoba, but she was happy to welcome Buddhist Vonne Bannavong into her family. Vonne and Norma’s son Robert were married in 1999 in an interfaith ceremony at a Regina art gallery.

“We just get along very well,” says Norma, 63, simply.

Part of the reason Norma and Vonne get along so well is that they share a number of interests and activities

And they both love good food, so Norma shares the bounty of her kitchen garden and Vonne has introduced her new family to Vietnamese cuisine.

“We expect different food at the table now,” Norma explains with a laugh. “We love her soup!”

Respecting faiths
But aside from such everyday family bonding, there’s a deep commitment to faith on all sides– and just as deep a commitment to respecting all perspectives.

“We honour each other’s traditions,” says Vonne, 41.

She celebrates Christmas with her in-laws and sometimes attends Mass with her husband–just as he sometimes celebrates Buddhist holidays with her.

She has also agreed that any children they may have will be raised in the Catholic faith, with the understanding that she may share her faith with them and that they are allowed to choose their own path.
Not converting

From the beginning, Vonne was clear that she did not intend to convert to Catholicism, but she worried that her new in-laws wouldn’t be happy with that stance. Yet she resolved that, whatever their opinion, her relationship with Robert was key.

“It wasn’t really important how they reacted. It was important how we reacted to each [other],” she says. Fortunately, Vonne’s fears were groundless.

“Vonne is quite strong in her beliefs,” Norma explains.  “I wouldn’t have wanted her to become Catholic just to please us or to please Robert. And that’s okay.”

Story #3: Jewish and Muslim intermarriage
When Bernice Katz shared the news that she was marrying outside her Jewish faith, her mom, Alice, wasn’t shocked. After all, Alice had done the same thing a generation before when she, as a Catholic, married a Jewish man.

“It doesn’t really matter what the religion is or what the colour is or what the nationality is,” says Alice, 62. “When two people meet and make each other happy, I’m all for it.”

In October 2001, Bernice, a 32-year-old administrative assistant at a Winnipeg college, married Sory Sacko, 32, a computer-programming student originally from Mali, Africa. The two met the previous year through mutual friends and hit it off right away. The fact that Bernice was white and Jewish, and Sory black and Muslim, didn’t bother either of them for long.

“I was a little leery when I first met him when I first found out that he was Muslim and that he was from West Africa,” Bernice concedes. “I knew our customs were different. But I had friends from different parts of the world, so once we learned a little bit about each other, it was fine.”

Teaching tolerance 
Part of that easy acceptance may stem from the fact that Bernice grew up in a very tolerant home.

“I used to date a guy from Africa myself. So like mother, like daughter!” adds Alice.

Growing up, Bernice celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Christmas and Easter, and she says that background has contributed to her open-mindedness today. These days, she and Sory sometimes attend services with each other.

“The Koran recognizes every religion,” Sory says, pointing out that Jesus and Abraham are both mentioned in the Muslim holy book.

Not only do they understand each other’s background; they also respect the strengths of each culture.

 “Sory does celebrate Ramadan. I found that a little difficult last year,” Bernice says candidly, noting all the dietary restrictions required during the religious observance.

“But, I mean, I really admired him, because it takes a lot of willpower. It takes a lot of self control and a lot of devotion.”

Story #4: Dealing with racist prejudice
Lynn Wilson* went into her marriage with her eyes wide open. Lynn, who is black, had been dating Rick since they met at a Montreal high school. But Rick’s mother, Maria, who is Portuguese-Canadian, had never approved. (*Names have been changed.)

Once, Maria had told Lynn, “I think it’s okay for black people to be your friends, but where I come from, you don’t marry a black person… You certainly don’t have children with them.” 

Nonetheless, everyone else — including Rick’s British father, who was not opposed to the marriage — tried to get past this hurdle. In the end, Rick’s father attended the wedding, but Maria did not.

Present united front
From the beginning, Rick and Lynn presented a united front to Maria. They agreed that they weren’t going to let her unreasonableness come between them.

“[Rick] felt that she didn’t respect the decisions he had made … and he found that offensive,” says Lynn, 38.

As time went on, Maria seemed to bend. A few years after the wedding, Rick and Lynn were welcomed to Maria’s Christmas dinner. But although they went, Lynn remained guarded. Even when she later became pregnant, she disagreed with friends who said the new grandchild would bring Maria around.

“My friends don’t understand that once you express that you don’t want somebody black in your family…the fact that a child comes along does not change your notion. It just makes you love half that child,” Lynn says.

Impact on children
Her fears were well founded. When Lynn and Rick told his parents about the coming child, Maria asked Rick jokingly, “Are you sure it’s yours?” 

Lynn says, “It was everything I could take to just leave and not say anything back to her.”

Lynn and Rick now have two young children. And although she often brings them to her mother-in-law’s home to visit, Lynn is reluctant to leave them alone with Maria, 66.

“I need to hear what things she’s saying to them, so I can counteract them,” she says.

Recently, after Rick’s father passed away, Maria started trying to rebuild bridges with her son and daughter-in-law. She calls about once a week to chat. Lynn accepts this new contact.

“I respect her as a human being. I’ve been able to appreciate whatever good qualities she does have,” she says.
Essentially, though, Lynn is still wary, since Maria has never apologized for past hurts.

“Quite often,” Lynn says, “I’m holding the phone, looking at it, thinking, ‘Do you remember who I am?'”

What a therapist says:
Lorraine Melvin, a registered clinical counsellor with Dr. David Chan and Associates in Vancouver, says Lynn and Rick have made the best of a difficult — but not uncommon –situation.

“I think they did everything they could,” says Melvin.

Lynn and Rick have come to terms with their situation, but in more stressful cases, Melvin advocates “the 300-mile cure”–moving to another city so that the tension is less of a daily drain.

If couples maintain contact with the resentful parent, the child of that parent has to be careful not to lash out at him or her, Melvin says. She admits that can be difficult.

“You really don’t want the person you love and care about to be hurt.”

Melvin agrees with Lynn’s decision not to leave her young children alone with Maria. As well as hearing something racist from their grandmother, they might pick up on her tension and become irritable themselves. When the children are older, Lynn could explain the situation clearly to them.

Does counselling help?
Could counselling help families like the Wilsons?
“Counselling only helps if you’re willing to let it help,” says Melvin. “And if you’re willing to let it help, you’re already halfway there.”

Counselling can help parents understand that their child’s decision to marry someone of another race or faith is not an act of defiance–it’s just one way adult children assert their rights.

And while counselling may not be able to stamp out deep-seated prejudices, it can show people the possible consequences of their actions. For instance, parents might realize that hurtful words could drive their children away.

Resisting counselling
If family members resist counseling, but are devout members of a faith, another option is to enlist the help of their minister or other religious leader in the effort to build a more open relationship.

But in the end, Melvin warns, a couple may just have to accept the fact that a family member won’t change.

“It’s hard to let go of prejudices,” she says. “Bad habits take no effort at all to maintain.”