An eternal Nation of many cultures – Summer Issue 2009

Canadian author and social/political thinker John Ralston Saul has recently challenged the nation with his book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. Saul is regarded by Utne Reader as one of the top 100 Visionaries of the World. Saul, the husband of former governor-general, Adrienne Clarkson always pushes buttons with his writings, and this one is no different.

Saul argues that Canada is a Métis nation, heavily influenced and shaped by aboriginal ideas: egalitarianism, a proper balance between individual and group, and a penchant for negotiation over violence are all aboriginal values that Canada absorbed. He says all the important traits we Canadians feel we have inherited from Western Civilization — tolerance, inclusiveness and fairness — we have actually learned from Canada’s native peoples.

In Saul’s view, the earliest settlers started by intermarrying with natives, which is why he calls Canada a Métis civilization. Aboriginals taught the bumbling Europeans pretty much everything worth knowing, from how to live on the land, to how to live with and listen to each other. But then, in the 19th century, the British imperial elite decided to squelch this native contribution with its glorious oral and humane traditions. The imperialists did this by rewriting the history of Canada.

Michael Adams, another Canadian author [Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism] and pollster [Environics], comments on Saul’s book:

Aboriginal peoples are one of Canada’s most rapidly growing demographic groups. Now at 1.2 million, they are close to the numbers estimated to have been here when Jacques Cartier first set foot on this land. An even larger number of us (1.8 million) claim aboriginal ancestry and both these numbers have been growing in recent censuses more rapidly than new births, suggesting that we are in fact witnessing a renaissance of aboriginal identity in this country – an emerging spirit that Saul is sensing.”

While I haven’t fully digested A Fair Country, my international experience causes me to agree with the basic premise of Saul’s previous book, The Collapse of Globalism. There, Saul suggested that despite the conventional wisdom of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, globalization is not reducing friction between cultures. In fact, during this most inter-connected period in human history, there are more and more ethnic conflicts popping up everywhere – making “a spiky world” rather than a flat one.

My contention is that as our human and cultural identity is minimized to promote supposedly universal values [a flat world], people feel they have to push back – with force. We have witnessed this recently in the conflict in Sri Lanka, which showed up predominantly on our TV screens in Canada because of our large Tamil-background population, particularly in Ontario. In the attempt to make a unitary, centrally controlled government, one ethnic community feels marginalized, their identity minimized, diminished, in the process, and so they fight back with the various resources at their disposal.

Several years ago, Queen’s University professor, Will Kymlicka, wrote a helpful article entitled, “Multicultural states and intercultural citizens.” Kymlicka makes a distinction between how government can facilitate the structures for peaceful habitation of differing cultures, and yet individual citizens still have to make choices about how to relate to their neighbours across the back fence. He suggests that:

an intercultural citizen is someone who not only supports the principles of a multicultural state, but also exhibits a range of more positive personal attitudes towards diversity. In particular, it is someone who is curious rather than fearful about other peoples and cultures; someone who is open to learning about other ways of life, and willing to consider how issues look from other people’s point of view, rather than assuming that their inherited way of life or perspective is superior; someone who feels comfortable interacting with people from other backgrounds, and so on.

In Hebrews 11, the New Testament writer understands that “by faith Abraham…made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

I believe that we are called, as followers of Jesus, to hold our Canadian identity with loose hands. We need to understand ourselves – all of us, however deep our roots are in this land (mine almost 200 years) – as strangers and foreigners. God is in the process of building a new city, a new humanity, an eternal nation that is full of people from different cultures, languages, tribes and nations. No, that’s not Canada! Whatever we do in Canada with the multicultural idea, it falls short of what God has in mind.

In our Canadian context, the people of God must take the lead in not minimizing the culture and identity of those around us, whether that be Aboriginal, Francophone, South Asian, Mexican, or WASP. And this will require adjustment – that’s the social meaning of ‘metis’ – to learn from, to adjust to, even as “the other” is learning from and adjusting to, us. And that’s a ‘shalom’ thing – seeking the peace and welfare of our neighbourhoods, cities and nation.

Dan Sheffield works regularly with FM churches seeking to find appropriate responses to their increasingly diverse neighbourhoods.