In 1965, Mohamed Assaf travelled to Edmonton from a small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. When he arrived, a relative who had preceded him on that journey offered a piece of advice: “Canadians always say please, thank you and stand in line.” Mohamed was twenty-one at the time and would go on to become a successful member of a well-integrated Lebanese Canadian community. For a while, he had his share of struggles, even as he helped put his brother through law school back in Beirut. But years later he would name one of his sons Dany, after the Lebanese American entertainer Danny Thomas, whose success was “proof of the unbounded potential that North America provided people of our heritage.”
Dany Assaf gathers quite a few anecdotes like this in Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line, an account of his family’s history in Canada. Now a successful Bay Street lawyer, Assaf is a born-and-bred Albertan, a “failed hockey player” for whom “the sight or memory of a clean sheet of ice under a big blue prairie sky stirs up an almost spiritual feeling deep inside.” His all-Canadian pedigree notwithstanding, Assaf, like many North American Muslims, found himself on the receiving end of a newly sharpened Islamophobia in the days after 9/11. The surge in hostility left him reeling, tipping him over into a nascent double consciousness. “I saw the world in much the same way as other Albertans,” he writes. “I never imagined that I was an ‘other’ Canadian or a stranger. It was like looking into a mirror that is somehow lying to you.” Twenty years later, he now hopes that we can “build on the finest of our heritage — what I like to call the Canadian way” and avoid the lurking perils of populism, extremism, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
This is a slim manifesto-memoir with an assortment of rambling, impressionistic chapters. To sketch a vision for this country in the twenty-first century, Assaf moves through Lebanese history in Wild Rose Country; the value of the “Canadian brand”; and the problems with social media, big tech, and party politics, both here and in the United States. Like many model-minority advocates, he counters any entrenched structural problems by assiduously demonstrating his Canadianness, arguing for the economic benefits of diversity, and staking his hopes on middle-of-the-road policies, which is to say more of the same old same old. His is an earnest tale about harnessing the power of our differences, placing our faith in the rule of law, and finding our way to an “inclusive meritocracy.” And it’s one we’ve heard many times before.
That’s not to say some of the specifics aren’t interesting. Assaf ’s great-grandfather, Said (Sid) Tarrabain, arrived in Edmonton in 1927, heeding the call of fellow Muslim Lebanese who had gone prospecting in the Klondike. Those earliest immigrants, Assaf tells us, missed the gold rush by about five years, but they stayed anyway. Sid, who had been forced to leave his daughter and pregnant wife behind, opened a general store on Jasper Avenue, in the centre of Edmonton. His son Jimmy, still in utero at the time of his father’s departure, arrived in Alberta in 1950; he would go on to become a successful fur trader. Assaf’s father came in 1965 and quickly found a job at Ecco Heating, where he was “promoted quickly, eleven times in twenty-seven months.” Such achievements, Assaf writes, showed the family that “Canada was a place where merit was rewarded, where it didn’t matter what your background was.”
Although the book’s early chapters have a manufactured rosiness that brings to mind Heritage Minutes of old —“Edmonton was a cultural mosaic made up of Cree, French, Scots, English, Metis, Ukrainian and Scandinavian people”— they are nonetheless the most captivating (particularly for those who may not know that the Alberta government, despairing of the falling standards in the fur trade, once built “an experimental station for mink”). Still, one wishes Assaf had done more to sketch the personalities of the time — like his uncle, the award-winning mink rancher, or Hilwi Hamdon, the woman who travelled the Prairies to solicit donations for Canada’s first mosque. One also wishes Assaf had looked more carefully at the complexities and power dynamics of trading with the family’s “Indigenous neighbours.”
Instead of offering such details, Assaf wholeheartedly embraces liberal multiculturalism with a generalized and almost willful naïveté. He argues that hate can be explained in purely psychological terms. Perhaps “our narcissism is in combat with our willingness to listen to others,” for instance, or perhaps we resort to anger to fend off feelings of powerlessness, shame, or envy. Yes, Canada has had “tragic episodes” when it comes to Indigenous communities, but we’ve done much better on the immigration front, perhaps because “we are all immigrants, with our hardwired human curiosity to explore and enjoy the marvels of our wonderful planet.” Almost predictably, Assaf sees the murder of George Floyd as a “wake‑up call for more diverse and inclusive policing,” rather than for structural reform. The Toronto Police Service, the oldest local police service in North America and the largest municipal force in Canada, has made “great progress” in the past two decades, having gone from 10 percent visible-minority officers to 24 percent (in fact, this statistic is neither here nor there). Ultimately, what will save us from our current malaise, Assaf assures us, is the free market, which, like hockey, rests on a “creed of merit and fairness.” But in the face of what we know about capitalism — about the many social and environmental crises and injustices it has wrought — such an unshakable faith is almost indefensible.
That said, not all of the book’s arguments are misplaced. Assaf offers a smart take on big tech and makes a compelling case for regulation. And his argument that party politics is broken — that we must forge a new consensus — holds true, even if he wants a rejuvenated centre rather than a left with any teeth.
Good immigrant or bad immigrant? Reinforced by economic and demographic arguments over immigration, that tired dichotomy continues to constrain discussions of who belongs and who does not, as if human value remains open to arbitration. Out of pragmatism, perhaps, Assaf seems to accept those terms. In his own life, whenever the nation’s embrace has proven provisional, despite all his merit and good behaviour, he does what many well-intentioned, middle-class Canadians have done before him: he simply tries harder. That might make this book a crowd-pleaser, but it also forecloses the critical discussions we desperately need — especially when Muslim families walking down our streets can be targeted in fatal premeditated attacks.
“Narrative is a powerful force,” Assaf writes early in his book, “and it can overtake history, facts, logic, and individual lives.” He is referring to the ostracization of Canadian Muslims, but one could say the same thing about tales of immigrant rise-and-rise. Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line turns on the idea that racism and Islamophobia are aberrations in our shared cultural fabric, the shoddy handiwork of incompetent politicians who would rather point fingers than offer workable solutions. But this idea obscures what many Canadians have known for a long time, and what the events of the past year have thrown into stark relief: saying please and thank you and standing demurely in line — for your rights, your dignity, your humanity — will buy you neither safety nor freedom.