TORONTO — Four decades after Hollywood’s first interracial kiss in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” shocked mainstream America, Canada’s multicultural society is increasingly showing signs that love is colour blind.
The latest census figures released Wednesday by Statistics Canada show that, on this side of the border, mixed unions are forming at unprecedented rates.
There were 289,420 mixed-race couples, married and common law, in 2006 — one third more than in 2001, the last time the data was collected.
Yet there was a time in North America’s not-so distant past that marrying someone of a different race wasn’t just taboo, it could land someone behind bars.
Before a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled it unconstitutional, 16 states still had laws banning interracial marriage.
Since Sidney Poitier’s landmark smooch, Hollywood continued the tradition of big-screen portrayals of interracial romances. Kevin Costner hooked up with Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard” and Spike Lee brought together a black man and white woman in the more gritty “Jungle Fever.”
Images of real-life interracial couples such as Halle Berry and Montreal model Gabriel Aubry, as well as Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean and Jean-Daniel Lafond rarely provoke a mention of their mixed-race makeup.
Statistics Canada began looking at mixed unions in 2001 as yet another indication of Canada’s diversity and the way in which different ethnicities are integrating, analyst Tina Chui said.
Wendy Roth, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, said the reason intermarriage and mixed unions prove so interesting is that they serve as a litmus test of social relations between different groups.
“If this is a sign of anything bigger, it’s a sign of the fact that those barriers, those social barriers between racial groups are being chipped away at a little bit,” Roth said from Vancouver.
“The rate of increase of mixed unions is not huge, but it’s steady, and the fact that it continues to be steady in different censuses suggests that those barriers are diminishing.”
The vast majority — 85 per cent — of interracial couples counted in the 2006 census involve a white person and a visible minority. But in a country where visible minorities are on a steep incline, so too are marriages among couples from two different visible minority groups (15 per cent).
The Japanese are most likely to enter a mixed union, the census showed, at 74.7 per cent. The second and third groups most likely to be involved in an interracial relationship are Latin Americans (47 per cent) and blacks (40.6 per cent).
In contrast, South Asians and Chinese are among the least likely to form a union outside their group.
While they are certainly more prevalent, modern day interracial unions aren’t entirely immune from the scrutiny and stigma that has coloured them in the past.
Wilson Fong, a 32-year-old Toronto police officer, was born in Hong Kong and is now married to a woman of Korean descent. Their families are accepting of the interracial marriage, but Fong said a previous engagement to a white woman raised eyebrows in Oshawa, Ont. — a largely white community east of Toronto where he was raised.
“I found that people looked at me and I always felt they didn’t approve of it, just from the way they looked,” Fong said.
Fong’s mother, who remarried three years ago, and his older sister are both married to white men.
His wife Gina’s parents, who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, still hold onto their traditions, but have become more Westernized. Over time, they’ve become increasingly accepting in their attitudes to things like her sister’s engagement to a white man.
“My sister has never dated a Korean guy and it was more acceptable as the years went on,” she said.
“It was difficult at the beginning but it got easier. Now, they’re totally fine with it.”
But it wasn’t always that easy.
Tina Dawes, now 31, watched as a teenager the disapproving looks cast upon her parents — an interracial, interfaith couple who married in the late sixties. Her mother is a Filipino Catholic, her father a white Protestant.
They would later relocate to the U.S. for about three years for work, where Dawes said the marriage “really wasn’t viewed kindly.”
“As well as people saying, ‘She’s from a different culture from you,’ when they got married, they also said, ‘Oh, you guys are a different religion, this marriage is never going to work,”’ said Dawes, an electrical engineer.
Her paternal grandparents didn’t attend her parents’ wedding despite living close by, but the births of Dawes and her older brother seemed to help bring the family together in the years that followed.
“At the time, they definitely didn’t have the blessing of everyone close around them, which was too bad,” she said.
Dawes herself is now involved in a mixed union. Her partner Alistair Forster’s white parents hail from England.
Forster said his wife’s cultural background was simply not a factor in determining he’d met his match.
“I couldn’t see not being with Tina because of any reason other than who she is or her character, and that comes from values that were given to me by my parents,” the 32-year-old Ottawa lawyer said.
Open-minded attitudes regarding interracial relationships have also extended into the domain of professional matchmaking services.
Susan Kates, president of Dinner Works which organizes informal dinner parties for singles, said orienting events around themes or interests such as fitness or travel is as far as it goes when it comes to categorizing clients.
“On the rare occasion, you do get ones who are looking for people who are of their own cultural background but that’s very rare,” Kates said.
“We say we can’t promise that because that’s not what we do. We don’t work on that element. It’s very much (along) cross-cultural lines.”
Susan Semeniw of Divine Intervention, a Vancouver matchmaking service, said she will always ask clients if they’re open to a partner of a different race.
The extent to which an individual has been exposed to different cultures can play a role in their willingness to consider an interracial relationship, she said.
“If you’ve travelled a fair bit to other markets, like to Asia or whatever else, you might be more open, or if your demographic makeup of the population tends to skew more ethnic, you might be broader in your perspectives,” Semeniw said.
Roth said low levels of interracial marriage often has to do with tradition and culture, but can also relate to where the visible minority groups settle.
“If they tend to live in neighbourhoods where there are a lot of other people from their own group around them, that can contribute to more marriage within their own group,” she said.
Tina Fong, 27, a teacher originally from Abbotsford, B.C., said more of her friends are tying the knot with people outside her Korean culture.
“A lot more of my friends’ parents are much more open to mixed marriages and it’s being more accepted now, whereas before it was taboo,” she said.
“At the same time, many still do marry other Koreans depending on where their duties lie in the family, like if they’re the oldest or the only daughter.”
Language can also play a role, she said.
“Some of my friends’ parents don’t speak English very well ... so if you can’t communicate with your in-laws, it becomes that much more difficult to understand the traditions that Koreans have,” she said.
Wilson and Gina Fong said it’s important to celebrate their respective cultural traditions in their new life together, starting with their wedding which involved both Chinese and Korean tea ceremonies.
They also plan to teach their children Korean, which Gina speaks fairly fluently.
Dawes is eight months pregnant with her and Forster’s second child. Forster believes it’s extremely important to ensure their children are educated about both sides of their heritage.
“We’re definitely going to be going to the Philippines and England in the next few years,” he said.
The likelihood that intermarriage will reach the same levels as same-race unions probably won’t happen in her lifetime, Roth lamented, but she thinks there’s a very good chance that Canada will get there one day.
“We still have a way to go and a lot of work has to be done to break down those barriers,” she said.