Philosophy 101

Philosophy 101 posed an interesting question:  If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to witness it, does it make a noise?

“Of course it does,” one person might answer.  “Noise is governed by the laws of physics, regardless of human presence.”

“Not so fast,” another person might argue.  “Sound waves from any source emit no noise on their own.  It is only when they are received that those waves generate noise.”

Which, if either, is the correct answer?  I’ve heard persuasive arguments mounted on both sides of the question, but I’ve always been struck by the impossibility of being able to prove either position.  One cannot be simultaneously there and not-there when the tree falls in order to determine if it makes a noise.

And it probably doesn’t matter, anyway.  The tree fell.  Who cares?

tree

Here’s another question:  If a person is unaware that (s)he is doing wrong, does the action still constitute wrongful behaviour?

“Of course it does,” one person might say.  “The concept of right and wrong is an absolute, and ignorance of the wrongfulness is no excuse.”

“Not so fast,” another person might argue.  “The concept and definition of right vs. wrong are not universally-accepted.  They are ethnocentric, based upon cultural and religious teachings, only some of which might overlap.”

Here once again, as with the first question, one might shrug off the relevance or importance of the answer.  We already know bad things often happen to good people, so what difference does it make if they are the result of unknowing wrongdoing or merely random happenstance?  The result is the same.  Who cares?

Well, the answer to this second question, I believe, does matter, indeed.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about this since beginning work on a novel, my fifth, which has as its backdrop the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls currently underway in Canada.  Researching the subject leads, inescapably, to a list of similar situations—the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, and the forced relocation of Indigenous children and their enrollment in residential schools, to cite but two examples—both undertaken as official government policy well into the twentieth century.

res school

Most Canadians now, I think, see these actions for what they are: atrocities.  To those who don’t, I would simply ask, “What if they were to come for you, or your children, tomorrow?  Because of your skin-colour, perhaps.  Or your religious beliefs, your sexual orientation, or your political stance.”

Governments today, federally and provincially, are apologizing and attempting to make amends to the descendants of those who were victimized.  Some Canadians, it is true, believe such efforts are unwise and unnecessary, given that it was not we who committed the deeds, but our predecessors.

It begs another question:  Why should we be held accountable for the actions of people who died long before we were even born?

In answering this question, it’s instructive, I think, to try to determine if those actions were wilful or merely misguided.

Did those in authority in that earlier time think they would somehow improve the Anglo-Saxon bloodlines of our populace by sterilizing Indigenous women to prevent the birth of what some of them termed defectives?

Did our predecessors know—even as they did it—that they were wrong to uproot children from their families, to send them far away, to inflict the terrors of residential schools upon them?

Or, were they just trying to do the right thing, what the orthodoxy of those imperialistic times demanded, the assimilation of conquered, native peoples into the colonial mainstream?

“Of course they were right,” one person might claim.  “They weren’t monsters!  Many of them were clergy, nuns, teachers, all doing what they believed to be right.”

“Not so fast,” another person might say—especially a person of Indigenous descent.  “They were rapacious invaders who took everything from our forebears—their land, their culture, their language, and their children.  Would they have considered it right and just, had the tables been turned?”

I suspect the truth lies, to some extent, in both answers.  Surely there were good and faithful people among the newcomers who believed they were doing God’s will, just as there were avaricious adventure-capitalists, determined to seize the riches of the new land for king and country (and their shareholders).

But the fact is, most Canadians today have come to a realization that those actions were wrong, regardless of motive.  Even if the best among our predecessors were unaware they were acting wrongfully, their actions still constitute wrongful behaviour by today’s standards.  And, they were knowingly carried out with government approval under the banner of Canada—under an authority that endures from generation to generation.

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So, here is a fourth question:  If hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people who lived in territory under the jurisdiction of Canada were severely mistreated by their government, and if no one alive today was there to witness it, does it matter, and should the government of today be held to account for those misdeeds?

The answer to this last question will not be found in Philosophy 101.  But I choose to believe you and I, if we seek the truth, will find it.

Within ourselves.

Happy Birthday, Eh?

Six syllables, sliding sibilantly over the tongue—ses-qui-cen-ten-ni-al.  One-hundred-and-fifty years as a nation, a vision struggling hesitantly to life on 1 July 1867.  Christened the Dominion of Canada, we were four provinces united against the manifest-destiny expansionism of the mighty republic to the south, but nestled still in the colonial arms of the imperial British embrace.

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The first priority of this new nation?  To fulfil the calling of its soon-to-be-adopted motto: Ad Mari usque ad Mare—from sea to sea, the Atlantic on the east, the Pacific to the west.  And eventually, a third sea, the Arctic to the north.

And so it happened, the inevitable northward and westward reach, propelled and supported by the building of a transcontinental railway.  After the original four provinces—New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec—there followed: Manitoba, 1870; British Columbia, 1871; Prince Edward Island, 1873; Saskatchewan and Alberta, 1905; and Newfoundland, 1949.

Along the way, three massive territories joined the mix: Northwest Territories, 1870; Yukon, 1898; and Nunavut, 1999.

Now, here we sit in 2017, Canada, the true north, strong and free.

And what exactly is it we celebrate on this sesquicentennial?  What have we accomplished as a nation?  What are the values we stand for?  How do our actions and behaviours, both collectively and individually, demonstrate those values?

What does our country do for us?   Even more importantly, what do we do for our country?

It has been noted by critics, perhaps jealous of our good fortune to be situated on the northern half of the North American continent, that too many of us are apathetic about the affairs of our country—to which, in response, some of us simply shrug our shoulders.  Others, though, rally to the causes of the day, to try to influence the course of events, the outcomes, the future.

There is a long list of accomplishments of which we might be justifiably proud.  In the realm of medicine, the discovery of penicillin, insulin, and stem cells; in the sciences, the first light bulb, the telephone, Canadarm, and IMAX; on the world stage, international trade agreements, endeavours to control the deleterious effects of industrialization on climate, efforts to support peacekeeping initiatives around the world, a robust military response in defence of freedom during several major wars, and our welcoming of refugees displaced by global conflicts, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or skin colour; and in a more frivolous vein, the invention of peanut butter, the WonderBra, basketball, and Superman.

Of course, there are chapters in our history that might, with today’s sensibilities, bring a sense of shame: the exploitation and displacement of Indigenous peoples, and the horrors of residential schools; the trivialization and suppression of women’s rights; the mistreatment of Chinese and black immigrants; the expulsion and internment of Japanese-Canadians; and the continued exportation of asbestos to developing nations, even after it was banned in Canada.

None of these might happen today because of a singular document: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982.

charter

Governments of the day, to be fair, have apologised for the worst of these past crimes, and have established commissions and inquiries to seek a better way going forward.  But it is questionable, still, how much influence their reports and recommendations have had, or will have, on the future; witness the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Commission, and assess for yourself their lasting effects on national affairs.

As in everything, actions speak more loudly than words.

Still, when I ask myself if there is any country in the world I would prefer to live in, rather than in Canada, my answer is a resounding No!

canada

Despite the tumult and the shouting perpetually foist on us by the lunatic-left and rabid-right of the political spectrum, we are a people that wants leadership to govern from the centre.  We favour moderation, not extremes; tolerance, not xenophobia; dialogue, not diatribe; ideas, not ideology.

Do these tendencies render us apathetic?  I hope not.  Rather, I choose to think of us as slow to anger, quick to forgive, strong in the face of adversity, proud of what we have accomplished, and determined, not only to rectify the errors of the past (even if all too slowly at times), but to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Canada has had one-hundred-and-fifty years of practice with the concept of nationhood now, and still she carries on—both because of and in spite of, the behaviour and attitudes of her citizenry.  Count me as one who is proud to be called Canadian.

Happy Birthday, eh?