Women Immigrants and Social Justice: the Perspective of Lily in the Snow by Yan Li

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1331088319646_ORIGINALBy Huai Bao

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.

 

 

 

 

Resources:

Bannerji, Himani. 2000. The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press and Women’s Press.

Bird, Karen. 2011. Voter turnout among immigrants and visible minorities in comparative perspective: Canada. In The Political Representation of Immigrants and Minorities: Voters, Parties and Parliaments in Liberal Democracies. Edited by Karen Bird, Thomas Saalfeld and Andreas M. Wüst. New York: Routledge.

Howe, Paul. 2007. The Political Engagement of New Canadians: A Comparative Perspective.” In Belonging? Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada. Edited by Keith Banting, Thomas J. Courchene and F. Leslie Siedle. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Kuile, Sonia , Rousseau, Cécile , Munoz, Marie, Nadeau, Lucie, and Ouimet, Marie. 2007. The Universality of the Canadian Health Care System in Question: Barriers to Services for Immigrants and Refugees. In International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care. Vol. 3 Iss: 1, pp.15 – 26.

Kymlicka, Will. 2007. Ethnocultural Diversity in a Liberal State: Making Sense of the Canadian Model(s). In Belonging? Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada. Edited by Keith Banting, Thomas J. Courchene and F. Leslie Siedle. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Luo, Shao-Pin. 2012. Writing Chinese Diaspora. In Canadian Literature. 12 Jan.
http://canlit.ca/reviews/writing_chinese_diaspora
Retrieved on October 3, 2013.

Miedema, Baukje. 2008. Climbing the Walls: Structural Barriers to Accessing Primary Care for Refugee Newcomeers in Canada. In Canadian Family Physician. March. V 54, no. 3, 335-36.

O’Neill, Brenda a, Gidengil, Elisabeth b and Young, Lisa c. 2012. The Political Integration of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women. In Canadian Political Science Review. Vol. 6, No. 2-3. 185-196.

Wayland, Sarah V. 2006. Unsettled: Legal and Policy Barriers for Newcomers to Canada.
http://www.communityfoundationsofcanada.ca/documents/legal-policy-barriers.pdf
Retrieved on October 3, 2013.

White, Stephen, Neil Nevitte, André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Patrick Fournier. 2008. The Political Resocialization of Immigrants: Resistance or Lifelong Learning? In Political Research Quarterly. 61(2): 268-281.

Huai Bao
Huai Bao, a.k.a. H. B. Dhawa, received his Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University. Thanks to the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, he is currently conducting postdoctoral research with the host institution being University of Toronto. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Waterloo, and has published two books and numerous peer-reviewed scholarly articles in North America, Europe, and Asia. His personal website is www.hbdhawa.com

This article was written by: Huai Bao

Huai Bao, a.k.a. H. B. Dhawa, received his Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University. Thanks to the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, he is currently conducting postdoctoral research with the host institution being University of Toronto. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Waterloo, and has published two books and numerous peer-reviewed scholarly articles in North America, Europe, and Asia. His personal website is www.hbdhawa.com