Community Life and Family and Kinship

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Pakistanis/Milton Israel

For many Pakistanis in Canada, community and religious organizations have had to take the place of the extended family and kinship networks of the homeland. While some immigrants have been able to reconstitute significant parts of the traditional system when parents and other members of the family join them in Canada, problems and needs that would once have been the concern only of the family may now require the intervention of a range of agencies, some within the community and some from outside it.

Young people who were born in Canada or brought here as children share a particular set of issues and concerns with their parents and the wider Pakistani-Canadian community. Their perspective regarding adaptation and integration is generally not informed by significant direct experience of the culture and values of the homeland, and, as a result, parents and grandparents take on a mediating role. They have to decide what aspects of their traditional lifestyle and values must be left behind and what can be transferred to and re-established in their new home. Most significantly, they generally assume the responsibility for making these choices for their children as well. The family – even in its truncated form in the diaspora – is both the base for substantial cultural transfer and the source of intergenerational conflict.

The hierarchical authority system of a Pakistani family, reflected in the tradition of respect for elders and acceptance of their decisions, is being challenged by the freedom generally available to children in Canada and by the informality of Canadian society. There is widespread concern among Pakistani Canadians, and practising Muslims generally, that North American society is morally threatening. As a result, many immigrant Pakistani parents have had to negotiate a new set of rules in the attempt to preserve the essence of Pakistani traditional values and perspective while accommodating the demands of their Canadian children. Dating and casual social relationships are a particular source of disagreement, especially for daughters. They raise concerns about marriage choices in which the family does not participate, premarital sexual relations that appear to be legitimized by Canadian society, and a potential loss of status within their communities as a result of such behaviour. The special concern of Pakistani parents for their daughters reflects, as well, a range of traditional attitudes regarding the role of women, their place in the family, and the significance of their marriage arrangements.

Generally, Pakistani parents in Canada appear to have successfully transported to their new home a stable family structure and the value system that supports it. While there are many cases of marriage and family breakdown, most Pakistani-Canadian children and young adults appear to respect their parents’ traditional values. Most marriages are apparently still arranged by families, although the prospective brides as well as the grooms usually participate in the decision. It is still common for the parents of a young Pakistani-Canadian man to seek a bride for him in Pakistan. It is often assumed that a bride from Pakistan will ensure that the marriage is informed by traditional values nurtured in the homeland.

Some Pakistani-Canadian men have married women in Pakistan by proxy. In these cases, the bride is chosen by the groom’s family and friends, and he makes a written commitment. An increasing number of marriages are arranged between Pakistani-Canadian women and men. One indication that the community recognizes that the North American environment must be accommodated is found in the conventions of young men and women that have been organized by the Islamic Centre of Quebec in Montreal. Nevertheless, intermarriage with people of European descent is not uncommon; some have suggested that the figure may be as high as 20 percent.

Pakistani-Canadian women, like women, generally, and non-white and immigrant women in particular, have had to organize themselves and participate in broader women’s groups in order to deal with critical problems and attract community support. In the Pakistani-Canadian community, issues such as family violence or simply the profound culture shock experienced by a young bride unprepared for life in a new country are generally not considered appropriate matters for public discussion. Because Pakistanis as Muslims and as South Asians have such a powerful religious and cultural tradition centred on the family and its hierarchical structure, it has been particularly difficult for them to cope with the threat to old values and traditional norms in this new society. The displacement of roles within the family, the challenge to the status of husbands and fathers, the particular burdens carried by women both inside and outside the family, the confusion and rebelliousness of children – these are problems that tend to involve everyone in attempts to balance private and public lives that are increasingly incongruent. Further, in Canada most Pakistanis must struggle to cope with loss and change and the resulting problems in the absence of the traditional problem-solving mechanisms provided by the extended family.

The experience of Pakistani women in Canada ranges from that of the well-educated and totally integrated participant in the general society and economy to those whose lives are determined by the more orthodox pattern of keeping women apart, inside the community and the family. The situation at the traditional end of the spectrum is changing, but there is tension, accompanied by ambiguity, among both women and men, about what should be given up and what is worth fighting to preserve. The prevalence, however, of later marriages, greater participation by women in the workforce, greater economic independence, more flexibility in dress, new courtship patterns, all appear to reflect a developing consensus among most Pakistanis about the new role of women. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women was established in 1984 to confront some of these challenges, and Pakistani women have been active participants. In Toronto, they have also joined a range of women’s self-help organizations, such as the South Asian Women’s Group (founded 1977) and the Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre (founded 1982), to deal directly with the lived problems of working-class women in particular.

Like all immigrant communities, Pakistani Canadians have constructed a range of organizations to provide needed services to members of the community, create opportunities for fellowship, and allow for effective advocacy in the larger society. There are more than twenty such organizations in Ontario, and Pakistan-Canada Associations are found in most large urban centres across the country. Pakistani Canadians have also recognized the need to unite in provincial and national organizations in order to find a place at the new Canadian table, to defend their community interests, lobby for change, and assert a religious identity that in the past was taken for granted. The National Federation of Pakistani Canadians (NFPC) was established in 1982 to coordinate the activities of Pakistani-Canadian organizations, and in particular to represent the community before the various levels of government.

Pakistani community building began in Canada with only a few individuals and families. In Montreal, the establishment of the Pakistan Student Association at McGill University and the Pakistan-Canada Association, both in 1955, are examples of this early effort. These associations had connections with other Muslim community activities in the city, and eventually an Islamic centre and a mosque were established in the 1960s, and the Pakistani Association of Quebec in 1973. In British Columbia, a Pakistan-Canada Association was established in 1963. A Pakistani community centre in Vancouver coordinated a range of activities, including the publication of an annual magazine that included a directory of all Pakistani-Canadians in the province. In addition, student awards were established as part of the general effort to make it possible for the community to maintain its cohesiveness and values and provide a useful context for dealing with the larger society.

The idea of a national federation was first proposed by members of the Canada-Pakistan Association of the National Capital Region (Ottawa-Hull), which organized the first national convention of Pakistani-Canadians in 1977. Forty delegates representing local and provincial community organizations from across the country gathered in Ottawa. A number of conflicts arose, however, and some accommodation was necessary to avoid the establishment of parallel groups. Subsequently, the Ottawa-Hull and Vancouver associations engaged in a joint effort that led to a second convention in 1982, and the establishment of the NFPC in 1982. An Urdu-English newsletter was initiated in 1984, as part of the general policy to share information and gain support for issues that were broadly shared. The NFPC became actively involved in lobbying the federal government.

Although Pakistani Canadians have been engaged with the Canadian government at all levels through a range of organizations and individual community activists, the community has generally not been involved in electoral politics. Pakistani-Canadian candidates have sought office, but none has as yet been elected. The various Pakistani-Canadian communities across the country are too small to elect one of their own without broad-based coalition building, and there have been some efforts to reach out to other South Asians. There are no members of the community who are widely accepted as representatives of Pakistani interests. Many Pakistanis in Canada have retained their interest in politics in the old country, and representatives of the two major parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muslim League, come to Canada from time to time to speak to supporters and stimulate debate.