Mono-Ethnic Religious Groups Can Promote Divisions

Mono-ethnic religious groups can promote divisions

Douhglas Todd
The Vancouver Sun
June 6, 2006

(Although he was raised in a family of staunch atheists, Douglas Todd has gone on to become one of the most decorated spirituality and ethics writers in North America. He has received more than 60 journalistic and educational honours, many of them international. With this blog, readers are invited to adventure with Todd in exploring the ideas and movements shaking up the world of spirituality and philosophy.)

I'm glad a small band of academics is focusing on arguably the biggest development to hit British Columbia in the past 35 years — mass immigration from Asia.

This group of underfunded scholars is not afraid to focus on a touchy topic — how Asian immigrants are being influenced by religion, which may be enabling some to retreat into ethno-religious enclaves.

Specialists on Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity presented their findings at the giant Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of B.C.

Their book manuscript, titled Asian Religions in B.C., offers a unique and valuable look at how the roughly 40 per cent of Metro Vancouverites with East Asian and South Asian origins are handling religion in their new land.

In an age when Canadians are expected to politely avoid difficult questions about immigration, these scholars take a fascinating and respectful stab at assessing the impact of roughly 30,000 Asians a year moving to B.C., almost all to Metro Vancouver.

While generally celebrating the new face of the province, the contributors to Asian Religions in B.C. also provide evidence many Asian immigrants are segregating based on religion, as well as language and ethnicity.

Such trends need monitoring. Greater Vancouver is already “one of the most Asian metropolitan areas in continental North America,” says the manuscript, edited by UBC's Don Baker and Dan Overmyer and Langara College's Larry DeVries.

In fact, Richmond, where more than half of residents have Asian ancestry (mostly Chinese), wins the prize as the most Asian mid-sized municipality in North America. That's saying something.

I'm concerned that many immigrants are leaning on religion to strengthen their threatened Asian identities, leading to less creative interaction with broad Canadian culture and values.

Religion and food are the two features of immigrants' customs that are most resistant to change, says Asian Religions in B.C., which UBC Press is considering for publication.

For instance, while the media give the impression that Buddhism is being enjoyed by a range of North Americans, in B.C. it is actually one of the most stubbornly ethnically defined religions.

Outside of Tibetan Buddhism and Soka Gakkai, most Buddhist temples in B.C. are radically mono-ethnic and mono-language — with little interaction among isolated camps of Chinese, Laotian, Thai, Japanese, Sri Lankan or Burmese Buddhists.

Much the same is true among Asian immigrants who are Christian, including 26 per cent of Chinese newcomers. With only a few exceptions, most Asian Christians choose their churches in B.C. along ethnic lines. There are 110 B.C. Christian congregations exclusively serving Chinese people (providing services in Mandarin and Cantonese and sometimes English). Many more churches are dominated by Koreans and Filipinos.

Langara College's Li Yu says B.C.'s Chinese churches began as a way to assimilate Chinese immigrants to Canada, but their new function has increasingly become “solidifying the Chinese identity.” Is this an entirely good thing?

To those who view Islam as monolithic, it may be surprising to learn B.C. Muslims are among the least likely to rely on religion to strengthen their ties to their homeland.

Virtually no mosques in B.C. are defined by ethnicity, embracing people from scores of countries. Simon Fraser University's Derryl MacLean suggests B.C.'s roughly 120,000 Muslims, half of whom have Asian roots, worship along sectarian lines — attending Shia, Sunni and Ismaili temples.

They largely reject Muslim ghettoization, and they're open to contributing to the wider Canadian culture.

Intriguingly, many Asian Muslims in B.C. are “double-diaspora,” says MacLean. In other words, many have roots in Asia, but came to B.C. after living in Africa or Fiji.

“The double-diaspora Muslims have no myth of return, no nostalgia of place, and, in consequence, no divided loyalty between the host country (Canada) and the homeland. This differs significantly from many Sikh, Hindu and Tibetan groups.”

The contributors to Asian Religions in B.C. go to pains to highlight ways that religion is not necessarily fragmenting the province.

Valuing “healthy diversity” rather than passive ghettoization, they provide notable instances of good neighbourliness involving Asian-rooted religions.

One example came several years ago when Mormon and Jehovah's Witness congregations in Abbotsford volunteered their places of worship to the Fraser Valley Buddhist Temple (Jodo Shinshu) congregation, after their temple burned down.

Another promising move occurred in 2004 when the (largely Caucasian) Hindu-rooted Yasodhara community in the Kootenays opened the Radha Yoga & Eatery in Vancouver's poverty-dense Downtown Eastside.

A third nice inter-cultural moment arrived in 2005 when the Vietnamese Avatamsaka Monastery in Mission sold its temple to donate the proceeds to the Red Cross for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

The contributors to Asian Religions in B.C. deserve more support for their research, which captures the amazing diversity of the west coast of Canada.

Perhaps more importantly in this province, which is in danger of ethno-religious fragmentation, they also draw attention to what we can share in common.

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Go here to read the insightful thoughts of UBC Asian studies specialist Donald Baker about how mono-ethnic religions have pros and cons in Canada.