In her novel, Lily in the Snow, Chinese Canadian author Madame Yan Li portrays a mélange of women immigrants from ethnic minorities in Canada, observed by the narrator of the story, Lily. While these immigrant and visible minority women, who struggle near the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy, voice concerns about the hardship in the new land and express depression about exclusion from mainstream society, none is depicted as politically engaged. Such lack of engagement seems to coincide with the concerns of political scientists that such newcomers have neglected “an important element in their overall integration into society” (O’Neill, Gidengil and Young, 2012, 185). Through describing the choices of her female immigrant characters, Li offers one possible explanation for the democratic gap that has been affirmed by Statistics Canada, which reported in 2004 that visible minorities comprised only 7.1% of all MPs but an estimated 14.9% of all Canadians. Notably, however, Li devotes little or no attention to the economic and social restraints on such newcomers. Immigrant women in particular are likely to face additional challenges (more overt racism, lower wages, more family responsibilities, greater vulnerability to violence, etc.) making their integration all the more difficult.
Characters in Lily in the Snow complain about disadvantage but are not depicted as turning to mainstream politics. In the novel, Lily works as a porter at a Canadian warehouse where the employees’ human rights are constantly violated. They are not only working under multiple surveillance cameras, but have to wait in line to have all their bags inspected after work. When Lily questions the security guards about employees’ dignity, an East Indian co-worker warns her about the camera above her. Lily refuses to have her bag checked and chooses to quit the job. Yan Li depicts that decision as unique and as a demonstration of her protagonist’s courage. Other characters in contrast lack Lily’s own history of resistance to authority (in China) and may not have her other resources (of education, lack of children to support, etc) but such reality goes unmentioned.
The failure of Lily and other characters in the novel to organize politically is not directly discussed in the text and indeed political remedies are nowhere suggested as a possible option. Li’s characters all came to Canada in part at least for greater human rights, and yet, when theirs are violated, they ignore the political system. This is understandable. The pursuit of a human rights case easily exhausts complainants. For many of them, the need to survive far exceeds the need to fight for human rights. In marked contrast and in a marked reproof to the PRC’s determined official atheism, some of Li’s women turn to religion for redemption. Among them is Camellia, a former Chinese hedonist, who seeks solace in Protestant evangelicalism to cope with the loss of past privileges. Lily, however, chooses to stave off loneliness and homelessness through writing (Luo, 2013).
At present, Canada offers limited protection to vulnerable newcomers. Indeed, recent policies have undermined health and legal protections (Miedema; Kuile; Wayland). In addition, federal multi-cultural policies have had limited immediate effect in integrating non-mainstream immigrants. More critical social scientists have suggested that integration on the basis of equality is in fact not the purpose of official multiculturalism, which is often more about promise than reality, more about discipline than opportunity (Bannerji). If Li’s characters are any indication, inclusion is some way off.
Lily is a survivor. So are Li’s other women. But their survival is frequently built on frustration, humiliation, and abuse of their human rights and it offers no substantive, constructive guidance to their successors. The continuing underrepresentation of women, especially immigrant and visible minority women (Wayland, 2006), in Canadian politics, as in China , makes immediate prospects all the dimmer.
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