Is This Who We Are?

I am asked from time to time, as perhaps you are, what my views are on various issues confronting us in this country.  The questions are usually friendly, coming from younger family members (there are none older, alas!), friends and neighbours, and readers of this blog.

Two recent topics of concern have centred around the grisly discovery of more than 200 Indigenous children’s bodies, buried in an unmarked grave on the site of a former Roman Catholic residential school in British Columbia, and the horrific murders of a Muslim family here in Ontario.

I have tried to imagine myself being approached on the street by a news-channel reporter interested in my opinion, and asked: What do your people think of these horrible events?  I would have trouble with the question because I’d not be sure what is meant by the phrase, your people.  I am a married, White, straight, Christian, male septuagenarian of comfortable means, so which of those categories does the question imply I represent?  All of them?  Only some?  Which ones?

In fact, of course, I represent no one other than myself.  The question is idiotic.  It would never be asked of me.

Nevertheless, I have watched on TV as persons of colour—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, mixed race—have been asked that very question by (usually) White reporters: What do your people think of these horrible events? 

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the reporters in wanting the answers, but I question the ingrained attitude that presupposes a person of colour other than White might be qualified to speak for an entire cohort.  That presumption is equally idiotic.

I am also dismayed when I hear people in positions of power or authority—people who have it within their scope to enact laws and influence public perceptions, but don’t—passing along their deep thoughts and prayers to the families of victims of crimes like those cited earlier.  Such thoughts and prayers following on the heels of a tragedy are worth nowhere near as much as education, legislation, and enforcement beforehand, all measures to help prevent such tragedies in the first place.

Helping our young people learn about our history of racism, the reasons for it, the work of countless advocates to reverse it, and how they might become more tolerant of differences among us is surely one such objective.  Helping them devise skills to confront overt racism and discrimination of any sort when they face it is another.  Aiding them as they grow into adults who will understand that actions have consequences is yet another.  All of us must know we will be held accountable for what we say and do.

After such horrendous events occur, it bothers me to hear apologists proclaim: This is not who we are!  Who do they mean by the word, we?  The Canadian people?  Only some of the Canadian people?  Which ones?

The fact is, in both tragedies I have referenced, the perpetrators were White and (ostensibly) Christian.  In other tragedies I might have cited that have befallen this nation, those responsible have been persons of colour, or persons of different faith, and even persons with serious socio-emotional problems.  But they have all been Canadian.

So, I think this is who we are, in fact—a conglomeration of people of all races, ages, individual gender-identities, different religious and political affiliations, divergent economic situations, possessing and acting upon a value system that ranges from what is broadly considered within social norms to the lunatic fringes.

And for this reason, I think no one can truly speak for the Canadian people.  We are not one happy, united clan living in the true north, strong and free.  Rather, we are a collection of clans—clans whose members overlap, to be sure, in our workplaces, our schools, our places of worship, even our homes; clans who freely subscribe to many of the tenets that bind us as a nation; clans who, for the most part, want to live in harmony with each other; and clans who demand for their members the same fair and equitable treatment afforded all citizens.

But there are rogues among us, unfortunately.  And they, too, are members of our clans.  They are part of us, and so they play a part in defining who we are.  The reasons for their behaviours—the grievances they nurse, the anger they manifest, the helplessness they harbour—all contribute to the actions they take.

Until we understand the causes for those grievances, that anger, and until we take steps to alleviate the conditions that spawn them, we shall never be free of their rogue behaviours.  Looking back at our past can certainly help us understand where such hostility comes from, but perpetuating that past will doom us to more of the same.

I was discouraged when a major political party in Ottawa voted against a federal non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia in 2017, and again when the ruling party in Ontario this past week blocked a motion calling on the legislature to unanimously condemn Islamophobia.  Unbelievably (or perhaps not), in a startling display of hypocrisy after those votes, the leaders of those parties quickly trotted out their timeworn thoughts and prayers mantra following the most recent tragedy. They do not walk their talk.

As a nation, we need to take positive steps to redress the wrongs of history by charting new paths, new legislation, new opportunities, that will promote and ensure equality for all citizens, not just the privileged few.  We need a generation of leaders with the courage to walk boldly.  

I confess I am unsure if we have it in us as a people to make that happen.  And if we do not, I am left with one troubling question—

Is this who we are?