I will never stop being puzzled whenever someone asks me “where are you from?” It is not that I am offended by the question, but that I am not sure how to answer. Having moved to Canada at the age of 15, I have spent almost half of my life here; and despite having gone through many milestones – high school graduation, university, internships, minimum-wage jobs, a professional career, and many friends and lovers – a satisfactory answer is still hard to find, especially when I’ve moved every four or five years. The answer becomes trickier when one considers the colonialization and displacement of generations of Indigenous people on this land we call Canada, where I have chosen to settle. Listing my previous residences in Mississauga, Ottawa, and Toronto feels like a disservice to the collective effort of decolonization that I have pledged with my work. On the other hand, an answer that gives my country of origin is also ungenuine because I now share more values in common with my friends here in Canada.

In addition to its implied xenophobia, the question itself is not sufficient to capture the complexity and the multiple layers of global migration, a movement of people that began to accelerate with imperialism and continues apace with globalism. For well-intended and curious people, there are more respectful and sensitive ways to ask, “where are you from?” without dredging up generations of trauma, discrimination, and oppressions for members of marginalized communities.[1] And for well-intended settlers like myself, a better understanding of where my experience and story fit within the making of Canadian identity might provide a point of reference for my answer. Hence, the exhibition Human Capital can be perceived as my own process of trying to understand the history and legacy of the many waves of people who have come here before me.

In 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously announced that while Canada has two official languages, “there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other.”[2] Effectively, the Prime Minister was asserting diversity and inclusivity as values core to the Canadian collective identity and initiating a period during which multiculturalism would become state policy. In contrast to the United States’ “melting-pot” approach to diversity,[3] Canadian multiculturalism implies a harmonious coexistence between different cultures, ethnicities, and languages, and an empowerment of ethnic minority groups. Economic theorists and social scientists who study and examine Canada’s economic and immigration policies suggest that Canada has had a long history of identity formation, during which it has strategically exploited ethnic labour by maintaining a moderate level of negation and sublation[4] among minority groups.

Introduced at the onset of neoliberalism and continued under accelerated globalization, multiculturalism as a liberal ideology was used by subsequent governments to negotiate trade deals, develop policies, manage immigration and the economy, as well as bolster Canada’s image on the global stage as a country of – and for – immigrants. As a social fact, multiculturalism is now a reality in Canada, with roughly 20 per cent of the Canadian population – some 6.2 million people – foreign-born as of 2015. They have come from over 200 countries and speak 94 different languages.[5] Despite its diversity, Canada, like other western nations, utilizes a strategy of erasure to refine its ideal of national identity, which is far from one of multiculturalism. Taking a position on Canadian multicultural policy and its discordant practices, political scientist and historian Randal Hansen laments, “Canada has never had anything other than a rhetorical multicultural policy.”[6]

We can see Hansen’s criticism reflected in a statement about immigration addressed the House of Commons from former Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King on May 1, 1947. He remarked, “the racial and national balance of immigration would be regulated so as not to alter the fundamental character of the Canadian population.”[7] Considering the make-up of Canadian population at the time, the Prime Minister’s statement implies the Canadian government’s desire to maintain the predominantly Euro-centric character of the country’s population. Canada’s pre-1970 immigration policy was based on three guiding principles: population growth; contribution to the standard of living by promoting domestic economic growth and enhancing economies of scale; and the responsive selection of immigrants, so long as it corresponds with the absorptive capacity of the economy and poses no change to the basic character of the Canadian population.[8]

To better understand the Prime Minister’s statement, social scientist Joseph Mensah explores the formation of the “Canadian identity” through the negation and sublation of Black experience in Canada. Employing a nation-immigration dialectic, which examines the relationship between a nation’s immigration policy and its identity imagination and construction as a framework, Mensah sets the stage with the pointed observation:

Because of Canada’s image as an essentially White, Eurocentric society, Blacks in general, and Black, continental Africans often serve as the binary opposite of the ‘true’ Canadian in many identity-related politics and discourses – especially of the ‘us vs them’ variety – with other minority groups sandwiched somewhere between these two polarities.[9]

The negation of Blackness to affirm Whiteness is not something new. It has been a policy tool widely used by colonial systems to enforce supremacy over subjugated groups. For a dialectic to work, the contradiction between the “what-is” and “what-is-not” needs to be sustained. Mensah borrows an example from German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel whose master-slave dialectic suggests that the identity of the “master” (i.e., the Canadian nation-state) requires the presence of the “servant” (i.e., racialized immigrants). Thus, in the absence of the latter, as the material reference point, the self-awareness of the former is effectively challenged; but the process of national identity formation does not finish there.

The last stage of a dialectic ­– specifically a Hegel’s dialectic – is sublation, wherein a synthesis will embrace the antithesis by ways of its own negation. It is here the rhetoric of multiculturalism starts doing its work. In the nation-immigration dialectic, this appears in the material contribution that immigrants bring to the national economy by taking up labour-intensive jobs and exploitative tasks that would be considered unfit for white Canadians. Canada – and similar countries like the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom – can continue to build national wealth by benefitting from material contributions from the labour of Black people and other people of colour, while simultaneously denying them the status of and the sympathy and rights reserved for white Canadians. The manifestation of negation-and-sublation can be observed not only in economics, but also in the common classification of identities, such as “African-American,” “Black-Canadian,” or “Asian-American/Canadian,” which exist without a corresponding category of “White-American/Canadian” in mainstream society. It is then this claim to whiteness that is synonymous with the right to be Canadian, a right denied to Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century,[10] Italians in early twentieth century, Japanese-Canadians from 1942 to 1949,[11] and Indigenous people since contact until today.

Canada’s current points-based immigration system, in place since 1967, attempts to provide a non-discriminatory framework for assessing individuals and collectives, and directing them to strategic economic and geographic sectors as opposed to maintaining the “Canadian characters” as seen in the 1947 statement above. However, starting in the second half of 1990s, immigration under multiculturalism became more individualistic and neoliberal. Under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien from 1993 to 2003, multiculturalism was viewed as Canada’s competitive advantage on the global stage. As Michel Dupuy, Chrétien’s first Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, expressed in 1994, “Today, for more and more Canadians, multiculturalism means business. … In facing the challenges of globalization, Canada must make the most of its internal globalization – the competitive advantage of a multicultural population.”[12] Hence, coming to Canada is viewed as a “contract” between the hopeful immigrant and the State. Not only does an immigration petition require a tremendous amount of personal resources and investment, but the immigrant also needs to prove to the immigration officer that their migration would bring enough human capital to eventually yield an economic return to the state. In exchange, qualified immigrants will be granted a permanent residence in the country, and later a right to citizenship. However, not all immigrants share this same experience.[13] Immigrants face more barriers and longer wait times the further their experience is from the benchmark of a Canadian experience; in other words, this process discourages immigrants from non-English speaking “developing” countries.

The neoliberal attitude embedded in Canada’s migration management affects not only those immigrating, but also those who are already living here. Recalling the process of sublation described in Mensah’s “nation-immigration” dialectic, the government’s ranking and assessment of incoming migrants results in two opposing categories of labour: complementary and substitute. Each has an economic impact on the local economy where the migrant chooses to settle. In their 2018 study of the impact of immigration on economic growth in Canada and smaller provinces, economics professor Ather H. Akbari and researcher Azad Haider observe that, if the immigrant’s skills are complementary, the overall productivity of the locale will improve, resulting in enhanced output; on the other hand, if the immigrant’s skills are substitute and displace existing workers, wages for “native-born labour” will fall despite the overall expansion and growth to the local economy.[14] It is in smaller population provincial areas that the local economic objectives come into conflict with the federal idealism of multiculturalism as a competitive advantage. It is also here the distance between “us” and “them” become further exaggerated, resulting in the alarming surge of nationalist movements in rural Canada.

The University of Ottawa sociology professor Elke Winter proposes in her 2015 analysis of Canada’s multiculturalism that ethnocultural diversity is rarely an obstacle to strong national identity and solidarity. However, this ethnocultural diversity is not to be confused with multiculturalism, which in its operation maintains an arbitrary social fragmentation where different groups of people are assigned to certain social categories “characterized by unequal resources, opportunities, and life chances.” [15] The process encourages the valorization of cultural diversity as well as equity and integration, wherein the dominant group appears benevolent in extending their hospitality, their values, and their resources to others. The multicultural “we” within which certain immigrants are integrated exists only in relation to multiple third categories of “other” against which the former group is held up as a model minority. We can see manifestations of model minorities within diasporic Asian communities in the United States and Canada, whose proximity to whiteness can only be maintained if they also participate in anti-Black racism[16] and, to a certain extent, disregard the welfare of Indigenous communities on Turtle Island.

For all these reasons above, this project comprising a group exhibition of seven artists at the MacKenzie Art Gallery and this online Briarpatch publication, poses a question to the visitors and readers, “what else is lost when human potential is measured as units of capital?” The severity of the effects of this neoliberal outlook on human potential varies depending on one’s proximity to whiteness. The further away you are from the thesis of a Euro-centric Canada, the more you are disenfranchised by the state’s system. For members of racialized communities, the triangulation of thesis-antithesis-sublation creates intra-community conflict as a means to reinforce the idealized Canadian identity that is perpetuated by the country’s imperial history, while also preserving its “good guy,” inclusive, tolerant, peaceful image globally. It is also important to reiterate that this project is more than just a critique of the legacy of Canadian immigration. It would show a lack of diligence to single out Canada when the issue is a global epidemic that encompasses not only the social domain, but also humanitarian, environmental, and economic ones as well. Therefore, the project Human Capital is here to recognize, confront, and uncover the system that has been enabled, the stories that have transcended it, and the people that lived and survived under it.


Tak Pham 



[1] Tanvi Misra, “What You’re Really Asking When You Ask ‘Where Are You From?’” Bloomberg CityLab. October 26, 2015. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-26/how-the-question-where-are-you-from-comes-with-cultural-baggage-for-immigrants-and-people-of-color

[2] House of Commons. (1971). Debates. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Queen’s Printer. Retrieved from http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/documents/Primeministers/trudeau/ docs-onmulticulturalism.htm

[3] A melting-pot policy is an approach to multiculturalism that seeks to attain social unity through a process of homogenizing diverse population.

[4] “Negation” and “sublation” are parts of German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel’s dialectics which is an argument process between two opposing thoughts, believes, or ideas. The logic seeks to reinforce the main thesis of the argument by exposing it to a contradictory idea (negation), which latter helps to synthesize the differences through another process called sublation. In this stage, the anti­-thesis is negated in order to affirm the thesis.

[5] Elke Winter, “A Canadian Anomaly?” Revisiting Multiculturalism in Canada: Theories, Policies and Debates, ed. by Shibao Guo and Lloyd Wong. (Rotherham: Sense Publisher, 2015) 51—68

[6] Randal Hansen. 2017. “Why Both the Left and the Right Are Wrong: Immigration and Multiculturalism in Canada.” Politics Symposium (July). 712

[7] Gerald E. Dirks, Controversy and Complexity: Canadian Immigration Policy during the 1980s (Montreal: McGill-Queen University Press, 1995), 10.

[8] Alan G. Green and David A. Green. 1999 “The Economic Goals of Canada’s Immigration Policy: Past and Present.” Canadian Public Policy/ Analyse de Politiques 20, No. 4: 430

[9] Joseph Mensah. 2014. “The Black, continental African presence, and the nation-immigration dialectic in Canada.” Social Identities 20, no. 4-5: 287

[10], [11]  See Tings Chak, “Absent histories of Chinese-Indigenous Solidarities,” and Mona Oikawa, “Cartographies of Violience” in Model Minority, edited by Chris Lee and Maiko Tanaka. (Guelph, Ontario: Gendai, 2015).

[12] Yasmeen Abu-Laban and Christina Gabriel. Selling diversity: Immigration, multiculturalism, employment equity, and globalization. 2002 (Peterborough, England: Broadview Press) 116.

[13] Elke Winter, “Rethinking Multiculturalism After its “Retreat”: Lessons from Canada. 640

[14] Ather H. Akbari, Azad Haider. 2018 “Impact of Immigration on Economic Growth in Canada and in its Smaller Provinces,” International Migrations & Integration (19), 134

[15] Elke Winter, “Rethinking Multiculturalism After its “Retreat”: Lessons from Canada. 641

[16] Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All.” TIME. July 06, 2020. https://time.com/5859206/anti-asian-racism-america/

A modern art gallery features three large photographs of figures in elaborate attire on a white wall, with a fourth black-and-white image displayed on a monitor to the right. The room has grey carpeting and soft overhead lighting.

Human Capital, 2020 - 2021. MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina. Photo by Don Hall.

An art installation in a dimly lit room features projections of historic railroad scenes on two adjacent walls. A rectangular pedestal with small sculptures is centered between floor lights. Images include workers by train tracks and expansive open landscapes.

Jeannie Mah, Train: Les Arrivées, 2013 Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall.

A historical black and white photo showing a line of men wearing hats and military-style clothing walking along a railway track. The men appear to be moving in a somber manner, suggesting they could be prisoners or soldiers. The image is slightly blurry.

MIKAN No. 3402772, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

A white garment bag hangs on a wall with a white scarf inside. The text on the garment bag reads,

Florence Yee, Whitewashed , 2018. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall.

A gallery wall features five framed abstract paintings evenly spaced in a horizontal line. Each artwork showcases a colorful, intricate design with varying patterns and textures, all set against a plain, light-gray background. The floor is carpeted in gray.

Installation view of Brian Jungen, Untitled (detail),  2017. Photo by Don Hall.

A dense, intricate line drawing composed of various abstract and identifiable figures intertwined. Elements include human-like figures, animals, trees, and objects, all drawn in blue ink. The composition is chaotic yet captivating, with no clear focal point.

Brian Jungen, Untitled (detail),  2017, felt marker on paper, 53.3 x 76.2 cm. Courtesy of Denis Walz. Photo by Don Hall.

Tak Pham (he/him) is a Vietnamese art curator and critic based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, Treaty 4 territory, the original lands of the Cree, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Dakota, Nakota, Lakota, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation, where he works as Assistant Curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Pham is the curator of the exhibition Human Capital.