What are you?
It may sound like a weird question, but for anyone that doesn’t perfectly fit a racial stereotype, it’s a question they are used to.
People like Mitch Miyagawa.
With a Japanese father and Scottish mother, people need a moment to try and figure him out, he said.
“Somehow people are more open when you’re not immediately peg-able,” said the writer, filmmaker and ESL instructor while sitting in the Yukon College cafeteria.
Miyagawa’s last name usually confuses people as they weigh the options between something Asian, Inuit or First Nation, he added with a laugh.
But at least they are asking about his racial background.
Miyagawa was born into Canada’s multiculturalism-touting generation and has since seen the movement diminish and become submerged in cynicism and criticism, he said.
And while the “what are you,” tends to come off as an awkward and abrupt question, Miyagawa is pleased by the curiosity.
It is more likely to lead to other interest in his culture and heritage than if someone asks no questions at all, he said.
Establishing a safe place to be curious and embrace different peoples’ diversity is Miyagawa’s new job.
As co-ordinator for Yukon Cultures Connect, a two-year project sponsored by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Miyagawa will help organize community events to bring people of different cultures together to learn about and celebrate each other’s culture.
When it comes to multiculturalism, the Yukon is Canada in microcosm, said Miyagawa.
“We have a real growing immigrant population,” he said. Whitehorse’s Filipino population is now around 2,000.
“That’s very visible, but there’s also this growing First Nation community that is growing, not only in numbers but just in independence, and I think people are coming to realize that there’s very distinct First Nations communities too, there’s not just one in the Yukon. There’s 3,500 French-speaking people in Whitehorse. For many of them, that’s their first language.”
But a focus for Miyagawa in this Cultures Connect project is not just to embrace the changes in the Yukon’s populations but to “recognize the diversity that we already have,” he said.
“Historically, there obviously have been problems but relatively speaking, the Yukon’s a very accepting place – not to gloss over any problems that already exist – but people tend to be live and let live here,” said Miyagawa.
“I think that’s wonderful and what we’re trying to do is move from that acceptance to celebrating and really embracing the fact that we have such a diverse population.
“And embracing the fact that we have this really strong First Nation population that’s really doing amazing things in terms of self-government and in terms of their own cultures,” he said.
“There still are barriers. Barriers in terms of being able to openly talk about things around diversity and about race. And to be openly curious about where somebody comes from and what they’re all about.”
Despite his upbringing in a culture high on multiculturalism, as a person of mixed race, Miyagawa is concerned with the movement’s tendency to divide people into specific and separate groups.
“Where do I fit,” he said, with a grin.
Even more so after his parents re-married – his father to an aboriginal woman and his mother to a Chinese man – it can be quite difficult for Miyagawa to find which box he fits into.
“I’m more interested in how cultures come together,” he said.
And people shouldn’t be afraid to ask respectful questions and meld the rules of their own stereotypes, he said.
The “flipside” of political correctness has left Canadians feeling uncomfortable to really explore each other’s backgrounds, said Miyagawa.
“When it comes down to it, it’s about differences,” he said. “And not judging someone because they are different and embracing difference and also embracing it as an opportunity to articulate what you share.”
The Cultures Connect project is being worked on by almost all “cultural hubs” in Whitehorse, including the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, l’Association franco-yukonnaise, the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon, the Yukon African-Caribbean Association, the Japanese-Canadian Association of the Yukon, the Multicultural Centre of the Yukon and the Yukon Arts Centre.
Miyagawa hopes the community gatherings will help make lasting changes in the Yukon. It’s a society that, while extremely sociable, still practises self-preservation techniques of waiting to see how long someone will stay before offering them friendship.
“Most of all, what I want is for people, when they’re talking about Yukon to their friends down south, that this is something that they talk about in a really positive way,” he said.
“How diverse the population is here and how different cultures mix together and that’s something that they’re really proud of. It’s not just about our natural surroundings and the beauty of it but it’s also about the people.”
The first event will be a “mixer” hosted at the college’s Kinnikinnick Kaff (cafeteria) in Whitehorse on March 30. This “house party” includes sandwich competitions, presentations, a dance and cultural discussions. It’s open to the public.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at