Qais Ghanem, a Muslim originally from Yemen, found love as a university student in the 1970s.
His bride? A Christian woman from England. His parents? Not impressed. “There was disappointment on my side of the family,” Ghanem says. “You know, birds of a feather flock together? That’s how people often feel.”
Fast forward 40 years and he and his wife, Valerie Ghanem are no longer an out-of-the-ordinary pairing. The Ottawa husband and wife are one of 289,400 mixed-race Canadian couples–a number that a new Statistics Canada report suggests is a third higher than it was less than a decade ago.
The report, which comes from 2006 census data, indicates most of today’s mixed unions are between couples who are young, from urban areas and represent a higher than average socio-economic class.
The number of intermarriages increased 33.1 per cent since 2001, according to the report and mixed couples now account for 3.9 per cent of all unions.
That kind of growth may look like a surge, but a professor at Queen’s University and expert in multiculturalism says the number of mixed marriages in Canada is low considering our multicultural make-up.
Audrey Kobayashi says it’s difficult to compare rates of mixed marriages globally because many countries factor religious background into the mixed union equation. Statistics Canada does not and Kobayashi sees this as problematic.
“There is a large picture and we’re not seeing all of the picture here.”
The picture the study does show is that second, third and fourth generation Canadians are more likely to marry outside of their race. Kobayashi says this has a lot to do with changes in personal identity.
“People meet at university, for example, and their identity has more to do with what they’re studying or with what their subsequent occupations are, perhaps, than with their ethno-cultural history.”
She says setting is a big factor. In places like university campuses intermarriage is more acceptable than it might be in places where mixed pairings are not as common.
The number of mixed couples who live in rural areas, for example is small at 1.4 per cent compared with 5.1 per cent of Canadians living in metropolitan areas.
A disturbing example of violence against a mixed race couple is playing out in rural Nova Scotia. Early one morning in February, a family in the community of Poplar Grove woke to find a two-metre-high burning cross with a noose draped around it aflame on their front lawn. When they stepped outside they heard someone shout a racial slur in their direction. The couple’s five children were at home at the time.
Shayne Howe, who is black, and Michelle Lyon, who his white, had lived in the community for six years without incident.
Two men were charged in connection with the cross-burning and the couple received an outpouring of support from the community. But just this past weekend the situation intensified when Lyon discovered her car had been gutted by fire.
“That’s an extreme example, but it’s also an indication that mixed couples still have a very difficult time in our society,” Kobayashi says.
“Most people are not going to burn a cross on your lawn, but they’ll give sidelong looks and that sort of thing.”
Many mixed couples live in rural communities without incident.
Isabelle Blanchard, who was born in Ottawa to Chinese parents, married a man from Embrun, Ontario last September. She now lives with her husband next door to his family’s dairy farm in Embrun, a town 40 kilometres outside of Ottawa with a population of about 8,000 people.
Blanchard says their parents had no concerns about race and the couple hasn’t had a problem in the community.
“Everybody I’ve met has really been welcoming,” she says.
Ghanem, who has lived in Ottawa for nearly 20 years, says his family has had the same experience. His eldest daughter married a man from New Zealand a few years ago and Ghanem says he was thrilled.
Ghanem, now a physician who is director of the Sleep Centre at the Ottawa Hospital, considers it his passion to break down cultural barriers. Several years ago he began hosting a radio show called Dialogue with Diversity, which airs on CHIN Radio. After discovering that many of the people he interviewed for the show were in mixed marriages, he decided to start a club.
In 2009 Ghanem founded Ottawa’s Mixed Couples Club. The first meeting was held at an Iranian restaurant–a good location, he says, because the food isn’t too spicy for the better halves who can’t handle heat. About 20 couples attended the first gathering and each one shared the story of how they met.
“The more mixing we have, the more we realize we’re all equal,” Ghanem says.
“If you sleep with the enemy, then how can that person be your enemy?”
More Canadians are in inter-racial relationships, according to a new Statistics Canada report.
Canada had 289,400 mixed couples in 2006, up one-third from 2001. However, inter-racial partnerships still account for a small number of overall unions, at 3.9 per cent of couples in 2006, up from 3.1 per cent in 2001 and 2.6 per cent in 1991.
“The impact of mixed unions could be far-reaching in changing the dynamic and nature of Canada’s ethnocultural diversity in future generations,” Statscan said in a report released Tuesday.
As the country becomes increasingly diverse, the number of inter-racial marriages and common-law unions will continue to climb. Many believe the growing trend is evidence that multiculturalism is working in Canada because mixed unions–and biracial children–break down barriers on perhaps the most personal of levels.
Intermarriage is more far common among visible minorities born in Canada than those born elsewhere. Fifty-one per cent of second-generation Canadians (the children of immigrants) who identified as visible minorities were in a mixed union, compared to 12 per cent of immigrants. The rate was even higher among third-generation visible minorities, of whom 69 per cent were in racially mixed relationships.
Statistics Canada defines mixed unions as a couple comprised of either one visible minority and one non-minority or two members of different visible minority groups. Eighty-five per cent of mixed relationships were comprised of a visible minority and a non-minority.
Statscan said people in mixed unions were more likely to live in urban areas. In 2006, 5.1 per cent of all couples in cities were in inter-racial relationships, compared with 1.4 per cent of couples elsewhere. Vancouver had the highest proportion among metropolitan areas, with 8.5 per cent of couples in mixed relationships.
Mixed couples tend to be younger and have children living at home. As well, they are more likely to be highly educated–more than one in three people in mixed partnerships had a university degree, compared to one in five people in non-mixed couples.
The national statistics agency said Japanese were most likely to form relationships outside their ethnic group. About 75 per cent of the 29,700 couples in which at least one person was Japanese involved a pairing with a non-Japanese person, Statscan said. They were followed by Latin Americans and blacks.