By the Numbers

By demographic definition, I am what is sometimes not-so-flatteringly referred to as a WASP—a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant.  As such, I am in a sub-group of white-skinned people currently comprising approximately 80% of Canada’s population.  Not all white people are protestant, of course, nor are they all of Anglo-Saxon descent.  And neither are they all native-born.  But a good many of us are aging.

The other 20% of the population is made up of visible minorities—mainly South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean, and Japanese—and aboriginal people belonging to First Nations.  Not all of the visible minority people are native-born, either; approximately two-thirds of their number emigrated from other countries.  And many of them are young.

Immigration to Canada originates from almost two hundred countries, and immigrants number nearly seven million people of a total population of 35.85 million today.  Among this cohort is every skin colour imaginable.

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Statistics Canada projects that more than half of immigrants in Canada will be Asian-born by 2036, if recent trends continue. At the same time, the share of European immigrants will decline by about half, to about 16 per cent.  More people will belong to a visible-minority group in the next twenty years, and the share of the working-age population who are members of a visible minority will reach up to 40%.  South Asians will remain the largest group, followed by Chinese.  In cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg, visible minorities could become the majority.

These visible minority projections do not include the aboriginal population.  A previous Statistics Canada projection to 2036 found the share of indigenous people in the population will grow as high as 6.1%, from 4.4 % in the 2011 census.

The total share of immigrants in Canada’s population is expected to reach up to 30% by 2036, which would be the highest since 1871.  Canada, as it marks its 150th birthday, already boasts one of the highest shares of foreign-born people in the developed world, and it appears the trend will continue.

Canada may also become more secular as the share of people who report having no religion continues to grow—up to about one-third of the population presently, compared with 24% in 2011.  At the same time, the number of people affiliated with non-Christian religions will reach about 15% of the population, up from 9% now.

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One of the factors influencing these changes is the birth rate in Canada.  The last year the replacement-level fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman was reached—meaning couples, on average, had produced enough children to replace themselves—was 1971. In 2011, the total fertility rate was 1.61 children per woman, up slightly from the record low of 1.51 about a decade earlier.  Data from other studies, when examined, show that non-white mothers have higher fertility rates than the Canadian average drawn from all ethnic and religious groups.

For the first time, a study in 2015 found the number of Canadians over 65 to be larger than the number of citizens under 15.  Throughout the history of our social welfare system, there has been a large base of people at the bottom of the pyramid whose taxes have helped to support those at the top.  Now, that pyramid has been inverted, and the question arises as to how fewer taxpayers will be able to support pensioners who are living longer than ever before.

[Projections based on population models from the 2011 National Household Survey]

So what might all these statistics signify?  Why do they matter?

There are several implications, I think.  First, if Canada is to endure and prosper, immigration must continue apace.  No nation will survive in this age if its population is shrinking, or aging, without replenishment.

Second, our tolerance for religious and ethnic groups other than our own (regardless of who was here first or came later) must continue.  The numbers project a declining percentage of white Caucasians in an increasingly diverse, multi-ethnic Canadian population, all of whom must live harmoniously side-by-side if the country is to survive.  Hatred and vitriol will serve none of us well.

Another effect is a growing need for education, training, and retraining in order to equip citizens for the workplaces they will encounter.  With the advent of artificial intelligence and robotics, many of yesterday’s (and today’s) jobs will become obsolete.  The challenge is to ensure that young people—the workers of the future on whose productivity we will all depend—do not suffer a similar fate.

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It is not a matter of propounding the concept of a global economy, or abhorring it; rather, it is the need to face the reality that we are irreversibly set upon that path.  The objective must be to maintain Canada’s uniqueness among the nations of the world, even as we become both trading partners and rivals with them.

As a nation, we will not be able to do that if we allow our cherished rights and freedoms to be trampled in endless, internal squabbles among ethnic groups, religious groups, and pro- and anti-immigration forces.  A free society, by its very definition, must evolve to accommodate all those who inhabit it.

I am a WASP, yes.  But first, I am a Canadian, with all that such status implies.  So, too, are my fellow-citizens, whether or not they look like me, worship as I do, speak the same first language, or honour the same traditions.  In Canada, there must be room for all of us.

From sea to sea to sea.

The Supreme Power

Rudyard Kipling wrote these lines in 1902, the beginning to a small poem about his daughter:

I keep six honest serving-men/(They taught me all I knew);/Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who…

Five of those interrogative words, whether rendered in English or any other language, enable us to ask the fundamental questions of all mankind.

What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  When did life begin?  Where are we headed?

And the most fundamental of all:  Who created us?

Throughout the millennia, mankind has striven to find meaningful answers, and has codified those answers in various constructs: dogma, commandment, or science.  The first of these forms the basis for religious belief, the second for a stable, civil order, the third for progress.

One may ask, however, whether the answers so far obtained have been beneficial to our understanding of our existence.  It might be argued, for example, that the plethora of religious beliefs espoused by so many have led us, not to an utopian bliss, but into almost-endless warfare as we seek to establish the predominance of our own set of beliefs.  Think of wars fought in the name of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, either to preserve or spread those creeds.

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Or consider the nearly-numberless dictators and rulers over the ages who have demanded fealty and obedience from their subjects, only to have their empires crumble into disarray: Persia, Athens and Sparta, Egypt, Carthage, Imperial Rome, the Ottoman Empire.  Their names are legendary—Cyrus the Great, Leonidas, Rameses the Great, Hannibal, Augustus Caesar, Suleiman the Magnificent—but their legacies are reduced to historical footnotes.

And what of more modern empires, be they economic or military—the British Commonwealth, America, Russia, China?  Are they truly stable models of order and good government, destined to last forever?

Even science, that bastion of fact-based evidence, can mislead us.  At various times in history, scientific evidence demonstrated conclusively (at least to some) that the world is flat, the earth is at the centre of the solar system, there are canals on Mars, and life as we know it would end on Y2K.  So, who is to say the theories we espouse today are any more reliable—that evolution, not creation, has brought us to our present state; that our very existence is imperilled by global warming; or that the universe we inhabit is endlessly expanding?

The most fundamental question (Who created us?) can be deconstructed into two oppositional queries.  The first:  were we, in fact, created by some supreme power?  And the contrary second:  did we create the notion of a supreme power to help explain our existence?

Worldwide, the answer from untold billions of people to the first of these is Yes!  And, perhaps not so strangely, the answer to the second, from different people, is also Yes!

Truth be told, I have offered up affirmative answers to both queries at various points in my life, believing each at the time.  I have flip-flopped on many occasions.  But even as I answer, more questions form in my mind.

If there is a supreme power (variously portrayed paternalistically in different religions as Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, and so many more), why did it create us?  Is there some magnificent purpose behind it all?  Were we put here to love and nurture one another, in a grand homage to our creator?  Or were we created to murder each other, providing a somewhat cruel spectacle for the amusement of our maker?  Was there, perhaps, no purpose at all, just a random experiment quickly forgotten by a supreme power that is, at one and the same time, our initiator and destroyer?

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Conversely, if there is not a supreme power—if, in fact, mankind created that notion to soothe our fears and protect us from our most base instincts, lest we annihilate ourselves—then what?  Are we alone in the universe, left to our own devices?   Are we nothing more than a tiny fluke in the cosmic sea?

Religious folk, theists, profess to both adore and fear their maker, as well they might in their longing for life-eternal, rewarding their faithfulness.  Non-religious folk, atheists, proclaim no god (though some may fear an unknown afterlife).

And those in the middle—the ones too sophisticated to fall for the charade of a supreme power, yet too fearful to deny its existence—what of them?

I do not know the answers to any of these questions.  But I favour the idea that there is a creator, that we and our universe could not have sprung spontaneously from nothing.  That’s not provable, mind you.  It’s faith.

This much, however, I do know to be true.  As I survey the world around me—with its endless stream of callous and fervent punishments inflicted on some of us by others of us, and with the threat of nuclear or environmental destruction looming ever more forbiddingly in our future—I despair.

If there is a supreme power, but one uncaring toward, and indifferent to, our plight, (s)he must be laughing hysterically at our hapless ways.

Equally, if a supreme power exists as a loving and compassionate being, (s)he must look upon us with pity and sorrow.  And weep.

And most frightening of all:  what if there really is…..nothing?

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People Who Know Everything

People who assume they know everything are annoying to those of us who do!

Thus spake a friend of mine (in jest I think) during a conversation about smarmy politicians who claim to have solutions to the ills that plague our society.  All we have to do is vote them into office and our worries will be over.  Or so they promise.

I confess I, too, become annoyed whenever someone presents as a know-it-all—not, as my friend joked, because I think I know everything, but because I think no one does.  Whenever I hear someone bloviating loudly on any subject, I remember a character from the Saturday morning cartoon shows of my childhood, Foghorn J. Leghorn.  I still picture him as a blustering, southern senator, speaking a mile a minute, pausing only intermittently to check with his listeners.

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“Pay attention to me, boy!  I’m not jus’ talkin’ to hear my head roar!”

“I keep pitchin’ ‘em, son, an’ you keep missin’ ‘em!”

“Any o’ this gettin’ through to you, son?”

The theory, I suppose, is that no one can contradict you if you won’t allow them a chance to speak.

The problem is, the world is a complex place where almost any issue has more than one truth attached to it.  Draining a swamp, for example, might be considered a fine idea by a developer who wants to convert it to a new mobile home community, but not such a good thing for the alligators, herons, and muskrats who already make it their home.  One’s perspective always plays a part.

If the swamp denizens are afforded no chance to speak on their own behalf, if they’re out-shouted and overwhelmed by those who know everything, by those who have the financial and political wherewithal to dominate the conversation, they are doomed.  In such cases, although both sides of the argument may have merit, only one side gets heard.  And that side usually prevails.

My experience with know-it-alls is that they seldom want to be confronted with facts or evidence that might support a view contrary to their own.  The flat-earth society comes to mind.  When presented with the famous ‘blue marble’ photograph of our planet, shot from an Apollo spacecraft, the society’s response was, “It’s easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.”

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There are numerous other situations where those claiming to know everything reject scientifically-based information in favour of pre-determined positions: holocaust deniers, global-warming skeptics, and tobacco users are but a few.  The staunch refusal of these deniers to entertain an opposing point of view effectively cuts off any possibility of meaningful discussion, and imposes their peculiar world-view on everyone.  In the words of the Borg, from the Star Trek television series, “Resistance is futile.”

It is instructive to reference Susan Glaspell, a Pulitzer Prize journalist and novelist, who wrote:  One never denies so hotly as in denying to one’s self what one fears is true…

I don’t know the ‘honest truth’ (if there is one) about any of these controversial issues.  But I instinctively doubt those who claim to know it, especially in the face of possibly-contradictory evidence.  Surely both sides of any argument (or however many sides there may be) should be weighed and assessed before conclusions are reached.

And in cases where such rigorous debate has occurred, the resultant conclusions should still remain open to further examination and challenge as new information comes to light.  But certainty is the enemy of an open mind, and an open mind is the enemy of those who claim to know everything.

I’m reminded of a snatch of dialogue from a long-ago film that illustrates the point.  While arguing about something, one character states his opinion in no uncertain terms, clearly brooking no challenge.

“You really think so?” his companion asks.

“I don’t think,” the first one declares.  “I know!”

After a meaningful pause, the second character says, “Good, ‘cause I don’t think you know, either.”

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Indeed.

The Message and the Medium

In 1964, long before the advent of the internet, Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase that has become iconic—or as it might be termed in today’s online environment, gone viral.

The medium is the message.

Today, more than fifty years after the publication of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it is amazing how prescient he was.  As I understand his thinking, he was positing that the form or method of communication was more significant to our evolution than the content being communicated.

The content is the easy part, that which our minds tend to focus on as we listen to, watch, or read something that sparks our interest.  It could be the latest album from a pop star, a television program, or a new book we’ve picked up.

The medium, and there are many examples—smartphones, tablets, televisions, movies, print media, recordings, to cite but a few—is the structure or framework in which the content is couched.  The medium is how, not what, we learn.

To see how important the medium can be, imagine learning about a massive earthquake, for instance, in one of three ways: by hearing the news on the radio, by watching video on a nightly TV newscast, or by witnessing live events as they happen on your mobile device.  Which would have the greatest impact on you?

It might be argued that the advent of television was one of the most unifying forces the world has ever seen, allowing populations from every corner of the globe to see everyone else.  It was the dawn, perhaps, of the notion of a worldwide village.  If that is so, then the emergence of the internet with its worldwide web immediacy has surpassed even that.  This medium, with its instantaneous online access, has brought far-flung peoples as close as next-door neighbours.

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All good, right?  For the closer we are, the better chance we have of understanding each other, of allowing for each other’s differences, of adapting to each other’s unique ways of living.  Or not.

In 1961, well before the publication of McLuhan’s book, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA, Newton Minow, criticized commercial television as a vast wasteland.  He was referencing both the calibre of programming available (the content), and the failure of the industry to utilize television (the medium) to its best effect.

A letter writer to a newspaper recently remembered how, in his childhood, he and his friends slew dragons, conquered armies, practiced games of skill, and played at sundry other activities, just as children today do.  But, he wrote, they did it without computers.  And they did it, for the most part, outdoors.

Those activities (the content), and the environment in which they pursued them (the medium), influenced their cognitive, social, and bodily development.  It made them, for better or worse, who they are today.

But what of tomorrow?  What effects will the media of today have on the intellectual and physical growth of young people?  There has never been more content to share, to learn from; yet it remains secondary to the manner in which it’s delivered.  Just as McLuhan stated.

How often I have seen when I’m out and about—at a restaurant, let us say—two people sitting opposite each other, each with attention focused solely on their smartphones.  Are they texting each other, I wonder, rather than talking?  Are they so disenchanted with their present company that they’d rather be with someone else, if only vicariously?  Or is it that the lure of the technology (the medium) has persuaded them away from human interaction (the content)?

Human brains are evolving organisms, constantly adapting to conditioning stimuli from the environment.  Hence, the brain of the indigenous New World person who spied the first European sail on the distant horizon more than five hundred years ago, and the brain of the erstwhile seafaring explorer, would have functioned quite differently than that of today’s urban dweller.  None of them would likely survive for long in the others’ world.

Yet we, the people who descended from both aboriginal and interloper groups, do survive today, proof that the brain has responded to the information discovered by subsequent generations, and to the forms in which that information was presented.

Should we despair that future learning, and the means in which it’s delivered, will be different than the past learning with which we are familiar?  Or should we celebrate the change as progress?

Should we criticize the infernal internet, that vast wasteland, and its array of technology that seems to isolate people from one another, even as it brings us together?  Or should we embrace it as the surest way to advance our global civilization?

In search of answers, I decided to consult a medium.  Alas, she had no message of comfort for me.

Perhaps I’ll do a Google search.