Indo-Canadian "Mixed" Marriage: Context and Dilemmas

By: Jacqueline A. Gibbons

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp. 93-98
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The particular intimacy of religion and cultural identity creates special challenges for the South Asian family involved in the experience of "mixed" marriage. This essay describes the general context and some specific cultural aspects of this phenomenon in the multicultural environment of contemporary Canada.

Indo-Canadians constitute a significant immigrant group in the population of Canada. These are a people who bring distinct and rich cultural practices to this country. Their traditions and customs, however, are being modified by the culture and philosophies of the ethnically-varied Canadian society. In this essay I explore some aspects of the "Canadianization" of families from South Asia. In particular, I shall concentrate on the phenomenon of "mixed" marriage, an inevitable result wherever human beings come together to form a common society. This phenomenon has not been the subject of any in-depth research in connection with South Asians in Canada, and this work is, therefore, largely introductory.

The migration of a range of ethnic and cultural groups has been the story of Canadian life. Influxes of peoples from varied lands have occurred as great waves or small trickles, according to the needs of the nation or pressures from outside. Since with the apparent crossing of the Bering Strait by aboriginal peoples, North America has become the home of a vast range of peoples. In Canada, French and British fur traders and colonists in the seventeenth century laid the basis for European migration; and from the nineteenth century to the present we have experienced the continuing influx of immigrants from every part of the world. Canada has shared the flavour and cultural diversity of many nations, and South Asians have made special impact over the last twenty-five years.

Marriage patterns for all groups have been affected by the opportunities available for culturally-mixed relationships. For example, ethnic intermarriage generally takes longer to happen in rural areas than in large cosmopolitan cities. It is also apparent that marriage is more likely to have mixed ethnic components in the second generation than in the first (Augustin, 1975, 1985).

The Arrival

When South Asians arrive in Canada, their first tasks are to find a home and jobs so that family life can be reconstituted in the new cultural setting. Another important part of this settling process is to contact old friends and relatives. This special emotional component of settling addresses peoples' personal needs: the need to discuss trials, tribulations, sadnesses and joy; the need to resolve personal or professional problems; the need to share an evening or a meal with a compatriot where the conversation is in a familiar language and is based on the same cultural assumptions; where the same food and rituals of table are understood and respected. These personal contacts also provide useful information to the newcomers, who will discuss schooling for their children, clothing, goods that may be purchased, and stores where they can shop for the kind of food they are used to. And they may exchange information about their work and about job opportunities that are often different from the possibilities or barriers back home.

When South Asian immigrants arrive in Canada and start to settle in the community, they exchange information about the affordability, availability and character of different kinds of housing and communities. To be comfortable in their home is vital to the emotional stability of new immigrants. It is only when the home becomes settled that the affairs of work, children, and other concerns are addressed with a sense of peacefulness and from the stability of a geographic base (Gibbons, 1989).

Education and the Mix of Relations

The children of newly arrived Indian families learn in their classroom and in the playground that in Canada they are one of many sorts of children from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds. In the larger cities, like Toronto, children of Polish, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Italian, Vietnamese, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, Somali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, North and South Indian, and Sri Lankan parents arrive in their classrooms with a vast range of backgrounds and languages.

Although there is an instant immersion in cultural diversity and plurality at school, there grows, as well, a new awareness of something that is North American Anglo-Celtic and is called "Canadian." This "Canadianness" manifests itself in the emerging interests that are shared at home through the medium of television. Thus baseball, football, the world of cartoons, and other programs that are watched by the family are cultural seeds of germination which serve to produce a Canadian and North American identity and perspective.

The children learn new games in the playground and find new friends who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. There are new relations between girls and boys, as they explore the informal and personal world of other young people. There are discoveries of ethnic mergings and cultural splits, where one ethnicity is antagonistic to others. They learn about friendship and about conflicts, animosities, hostilities, and biases. They observe and may find themselves entangled in webs of ethnic enclaves, where hostility is also a sign of insecurity and of vulnerability. These schisms can be along class, sexual, and ethnic lines: they may constitute the fabric of newly cemented alliances or of greater schisms and splits. They may also be minimized or reinforced by teachers or parents as the grown-ups share their own fears or prejudices. The children are both reflectors and initiators of these attitudes and values. They may become embroiled in the internecine conflicts, and the reformulations of cultural and ethnic alignments. This can be trench warfare but it can also be the fabric of new liberal values. The new relationships formed will create the possibility of interethnic marriage.


South Asia is the home of most of the "great" religions of the world, including some that have been virtually unique to the region until the period of recent migration. The South Asians who have come to Canada have brought religions and cultural and social practices that are deeply influenced by their religious identity. The children of new immigrants inherit this legacy. Their parents may practise Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, or Jainism. They may have symbols in their households that represent warm and familiar associations or a well loved deity; and the families may attend temples, mosques, "gurdwaras," or churches.

Perhaps the aspect of religious variation that is most relevant to the possibility of mixed marriages is the degree of religious orthodoxy in the household. Where religion is extremely important in the family, the children are raised with particular rules and prohibitions and they will partake in the rituals, prayers, and practices of that orthodoxy. They may choose to adhere to this orthodoxy, or they may react against it. These responses are determined by the development of tastes and values.

Certainly the values of the parents can be affected by their children's attitudes toward religious doctrine and dogma and these attitudes can cause joy or much pain. It is clear that these rich religious currents are a power to be reckoned with in the shaping of beliefs about marriage for the next generation.

The Second Generation

It is through the experience of school, play, and jobs and new friends, values, and interests that the transmission of culture is shaped and reshaped. Often parents will choose to plan their children's spare time by arranging family functions that include all ages, as is normal in Indian households. However, with the onset of adolescence, Indian girls and boys pick up interests amongst their own age groups. These often take them out of their own family and into the families and activities of other ethnic groups. Friendship, in fact, during adolescence (according to North American cultural values), may well take precedence over family functions. Thus young Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan girls and boys will attend the sports events, movies, and parties of their own new friends, who are often drawn from the ethnically cosmopolitan school and elsewhere.

When these offspring go on to university and college, they continue to move in an increasingly differentiated and heterogeneous world that is almost always defined as "Canadian," with all that this implies. Romances come and go, and crucially, the sense of identity is merged with that which is named Canadian; thus ethnic identity may become less important for these young adults.

For the boys and girls there are specific South Asian alternatives to the dating and mating of mainstream North American society. Sometimes their parents arrange their marriages according to traditional family networks or practices. A spouse can be found through personal contact or through advertisements in community newspapers, either at home or in Canada. The decision may be left entirely to the parents, or it may be shared by the son or daughter concerned. Where the young adults accept this practice, it is one way to maintain religious, ethnic, and educational values. On the other hand, others want to adhere to the customs of their new country by meeting their partners in life and marriage through the networks and friendship patterns of Canadian society.

The Test

The real test of these heterogeneous friendships is the introduction, into the household of origin, of a different ethnicity or religion in the contemplation of marriage. For nearly all parents, this amounts to an immense challenge to everything they have stood for and in which they have believed. Liberal words are belied by conservative admonitions; fears are expressed and threats made in family discussions.

Often when the daughter or son raises the idea of marriage to an outsider, the initial parental response is predictable and "protective." The first thought is that marriage outside the community can be a problem, that there are too many unknowns. There is also the fear of divorce, which is acceptable in North America but largely ruled out in India.

Parents will express their concern about the future of their children. They will say that the offspring of those children will belong to neither one society nor the other. Their concerns are real in this articulation of fears and anticipations. Yet there is no guarantee that a marriage will be perfect, or indeed even especially reasonable if it is arranged by parents or family. Those who look to India for a partner in the New World can create culture shock for the emigrant partner. In other cases, an arranged marriage may be unacceptable to the second, and likely, more educated generation. Though we do not have data on the success rate in mixed marriages, I might argue plausibly that mixed couples are especially conscious of the importance of success, and thus may try especially hard to achieve marital longevity. The old argument that girls must be protected and guided as they move from their father's household to that of their husband's, are often re-formulated, as the daughters of immigrant Indo-Canadians choose to shape their own destinies in the spirit of North American pluralism. Some parents are heard to say, "We want them [our children] to be happy and we will put the responsibility with God.''1

It can be noted then that after twenty years of living in the New World, ethnic intermarriage among South Asians has become a statistical reality. As a result, some families are faced with the challenge of ethnic or religious "otherness" as their children become educated and move in socially and occupationally varied cultural milieus in Canada.

Conclusions and Implications

Marriages between Indo-Canadians and persons outside their ethnic communities is a phenomenon that can be transformative, yet can also carry with it the fears of uncertainty of outcome by family and relatives. Despite their parents' strategies for maintaining cultural ties, friendships, and alliances, the second generation Indo-Canadian has already crossed many of the barriers to occupational and educational success. Intercultural marriage may be seen as a good step or as a hindrance depending on the point of view of friends, relatives, and families who are involved. Whether these marriages are made in heaven or not, they are an intrinsic part of Canadian family and cultural life. Clearly also, those young people who choose such marriages are paving the road to a multicultural adventure that is both bold and brave.

Our society has a multicultural base as its very underpinnings. Perhaps Canada is one of the few countries of the world where such newly worked family forgings and linkages have reasonable surroundings in which to take place. The Indo-Canadian marital alliance introduces a special glimpse into the present and future of Canada.


1. Indians of Muslim background cannot be married in the mosque if they are going to marry outside their religion. Where the other religion includes the Bible in its teachings there is greater tolerance because parts of the scriptures come from common roots; thus, for example, Christians and Jews marrying Muslims are seen somewhat differently than Hindu and Muslim unions. Islam, in its teaching of the separation of the sexes, also defines women and men who marry "out" differently: thus if a man marries "out" he is able to keep his "faith," whereas a woman who marries "out" must renounce this. Institutions of Islam in Canada state that they are not keen to address mixed marriages. They consider mixing to be problematic, particularly because of the implications for the children of such unions.


Augustin, Barbara, "Mariages sans Frontières" (Paris: Edition du Centurion, 1975).

Augustin, Barbara, "Le Mariage interculturel: Approche d'un idéal-type matrimonial." In "L'lnterculturel en Éducation et Sciences Humaines: Colloque National" (Toulouse: Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail, June 1985), pp. 577-84.

Gibbons, Jacqueline A., "Alternative Life Styles: Variations in Household Forms and Family Consciousness." In "Family and Marriage: Cross-Cultural Perspectives" (Toronto: Wall & Thompson, 1989), pp. 61-74.

Jacqueline Gibbons is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Sciences, York University.

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