Problematizer, philosopher, contrarian. Critic, cynic, shit-disturber. I think I’ve been a problematizer all my life, just not in every part of my life.
This post is not me trying to be an Opinion columnist. And it’s not me trying to be some do-gooder or, worse, some feel-gooder. This is from me about me, something I was prompted to write from having read about somebody else. It’s a step in a process. Read on, and take issue as you must or as you will.
On Having Re-Read Garnet Angeconeb’s “Speaking My Truth: The Journey to Reconciliation”
As far back as I can remember, Canada has told me that we embrace diversity. Not always using that word, but still that message.
Our various governments and politicians, our cultural day-to-day. Our jobs, our coursework. Campus life, news coverage, social media, friends around a table… continually, there it is, Canada telling me, telling all of us, how diverse and tolerant we are. For me, the word “diversity” became Canada’s overwhelming self-portrayal soon after the 9/11 terror attacks. But I remember the call as far back as Grade 1 class, an amenable time of life for anyone to be told such grand concepts.
We sat cross-legged around the front carpet as Mrs McCrae sounded out the word cosmopolitan on the chalkboard. This word, she told us, was what our Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, wanted for the country, for us: a mixture of people from all over the world, a good thing. That winter, 1977, Amanda’s Uncle Ron visited with footage of his trip through China – silent Super-8 images of crowded urban Shanghai, so drab and different from Vancouver, and the Great Wall, so mythic and unhurried. I remember we read Holling C. Holling’s marvellous book and sat wholly entranced not once but twice, a bunch of six year-olds, watching Bill Mason’s “Paddle to the Sea.” I can still hear the pops and scratches of the spliced soundtrack churning past the projector bulb, can still smell the chilly school building, which stands as ever just a few blocks away.
And I can still see Mrs McCrae tapping out the syllables with her chalk that day on the front carpet. Whether she gripped the class, I can’t say, though I knew we were listening. I was listening. I remember thinking and thinking about what she told us, thinking intensely, and when Trudeau was re-elected a year or so later, his name and face sounded it out for me, again and again: “Cos-mo-pol-i-tan.” Canada, for me, has quietly been cosmopolitan all my life because, when I was six, that’s what I was told.
Childhood experiences are momentous… their measure smaller, more intense, less diluted than an adult’s. Two years before, at our sunny backyard farewell, my pre-school teacher, Mrs Needham, gave me a goodbye card, green construction paper with a cheerful yellow lion glued to the front. I sat in her arms when my turn came, and she read to me what she wrote: “Remember, Scott,” printed in big friendly letters, “to think before you act.” To say I never forgot, really, I always remembered. I remembered and did what she told me to do. I still have the card, bundled with the rest of my degrees and diplomas – the one that cost the least, time and money, perhaps worth most of all.
Primary lessons, intangibles, engrained so early. They can resurface, borne of reflection, yet years might pass before we notice them staring back from the mirror. When we’re children, we take our cues from adults, as we learn to become adults ourselves. My Dad coached my soccer team a few seasons. One evening, he said, “Hands up if you can think.” We dutifully raised our hands, and he told us, “If you can think, you can play.” Some nodded, some laughed. In fact, his point was to single out one particular boy, whose name is lost although I see his face so clearly, as a way to build his confidence. It’s something I only learned when my Dad told me years later. I’ve been coaching, myself, over thirty years now, and I still use this one: if you can think, you can play. I like its appeal, that basis of something commonly shared.
By the time I was an adult, whenever that happened, lessons like these were so engrained it took me years to notice them – and these just some influences I remember. How many I forget? That’s fair. Memories, influences, lessons… intangibles are borne of reflection. What took longer still was noticing their effect, or better to say having their effect pointed out to me, despite their staring back my whole life whenever I looked in the mirror. These days, I’m obliged to notice that who and what I am affects the way people treat me. I just took longer to feel obliged, and to notice that I noticed. I was blind to my self, really. But eventually… and I could list off a bunch of traits. It’s just that listing them seems a bit petty. There’s nothing petty about how I’ve been treated most of my life on account of who and what I am.
Once, long ago, I felt compelled to correct a customer who took our shared resemblance as a chance to share his bigotry. It was finally my girlfriend’s photo that told him we disagreed. Another time it was my daughter’s photo although this person assured me her comments weren’t about my daughter, specifically, just other people. A few years ago, on my daughter’s field trip, the guide gave me the instructions instead of her teacher, who stood next to him. He’d just greeted her, shaken her hand. At the hospital, some of the nurses and specialists – not all of them, just some – spoke to me as though my Dad weren’t even in the room, even while answering the lucid, specific questions that he asked himself. At a restaurant, the smiling host walked right past our party planner and welcomed me with an outstretched hand, well over twenty feet away. I was holding the door open for our group to come inside.
Innocuous moments… hardly seem worth mentioning. No injuries, no threats. No danger. Yet also nothing trivial about somebody else reduced by a decision to single me out. Each time, I clarified. Told them different, set them straight. Other times, too, since then. And I only surmise what distinguished me as somehow different each time because no one ever actually said. On the other hand, I well understood what made me a punchline for howlie-jokes… party with the new in-laws, around the table, in the rec room, wherever it was. Once or twice I’d retort, but no no, they insisted, I was out of line. Just joking, they said. “All in fun, Shark Bait!” No offense, just some gentle family hazing.
Just… now there’s a versatile word. Maybe they were right. Maybe I just needed to learn how to smile. Years later, outside the Blue Mosque, made to feel especially white and tall and exceptional, I was more prepared, thanks to those (now ex-) jokester in-laws. Thanks, then, from an “out-law,” as that family liked to call us, we who married in. I’m better at it now, laughing and letting go. The stakes no longer feel so high. But I’ve had good fortune in life. Not that I mean to compare.
Where or why or how differences began encouraging us to neglect each other I don’t know. People warrant consideration. Dignity and respect for all is not a platitude. I can only speak for myself. Even in difficulty, my childhood was fortunate. I took a while to notice that who I am, what I am, affects the way I’m treated, or as I said before, I took a while to notice that I noticed. But I did. For years after, I kept to myself, thinking that nothing I had to offer could amount to what people knew better for themselves. Respect others by minding my own business.
I suppose I offered when it seemed constructive. But mine, as any life, was entirely simply mine, so I actively sought to respect everyone else’s autonomy to go it alone, just like I was doing. And surely they did go it alone, didn’t they, since that’s what I was doing… I became expert at minding my own business, and you should have, too – would have saved me years of road rage. Anyway, none of this was my decision to begin with, right? Tall, white, heterosexual, male, the petty list… offering an opinion about how to treat people, about anything, really, would not just look self-righteous, it would be self-righteous. Wouldn’t it? Respectful detachment, I thought. Respect people to be themselves. People are different, being themselves. Let them be. Respectful detachment.
Diversity. Diversity is Canada’s strength, after all. That’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been telling the world. He and I are the same age; I wonder if his teachers ever told him about being cosmopolitan. I figure his Dad must have done. Our greatest strength, says Trudeau the Lesser. Strong because of our differences. And, he warned, so easy to take for granted – that bit reminded me of when people say Canada is “historically a nation of Peacekeepers.” Not that the two messages relate, but just the presumption to think that every Canadian has ever known that we have ever known this all along. As for peacekeeping, I think the BNA Act preceded the UN by some 82 years, during which time Canada earned a reputation for fighting in both World Wars and dozens of armed conflicts prior to the 20th century. Although, granted, for much of that time, “Canada” wasn’t even a country yet. Are we squeamish over such history? p.s. in 2017, a Canadian sniper fired a record setting rifle shot, keeping the peace from 3.54km away. That sentence makes the sniper sound cowardly, but that’s not my intention. Irony is my intention, and Canadians are my target. So hey, why not just rewrite my sentence?
When the times are a-changin’, does that make us more informed, egalitarian, advanced, sophisticated, woke? I guess we’re just better now than we were back then. Or maybe we put ourselves at risk by misconstruing our memories and cherry-picking our history for judgments good and ill. I mean our judgments about history, by the way, not theirs when it wasn’t yet history. Big difference. Diverse, you might say. I’d say there’s a lot more to history than any one’s record of it. Historical records are just the bits that someone decided to keep, out of what someone could remember, out of what people felt was worth remembering that way, for the reason they want to remember it.
As surely as Canada has always been this nation of peacekeepers– p.p.s. if you’ve missed the irony, I’m saying we haven’t always been peacekeepers. I’m saying that we owe much to our military for their combat as much as their peacekeeping. I’m saying our trumpeting diversity is afforded time and space thanks to a lot of others who assertively provide for Canada’s stability. I’m saying the world is far more layered and interconnected and ironic in time and space than any lone one of us can account in any one moment. Anyway, as surely as the doubt cast upon “always this nation of peacekeepers,” have we also always been that nation of immigrants? As in, are we not colonists and settlers? That change to history’s now a-comin’, too, judged and rewritten every time we utter the words.
So who’s responsible for Canada’s history? I mean all of it, not just the recorded bits. Which people, or culture, or government, exactly, should we say has slowly come their ways to initiate change… change that respects dignity and culture, change that redresses abusive power and obtuse ignorance and acknowledges history? Whose decisions were they that have caused incalculable suffering to entire nations of people over a few centuries? Where’s the change that grants more room to agree with platitudes like diversity being Canada’s greatest strength? Weigh that against change that gets our goods moving again, and our traffic, and jobs and our economy. Both matter, or is this just long-term / short-term? Rights and recognition vs. stable day-to-day? Driving change or punting the ball? These are different motives because they have different outcomes. Our priorities drive our politics. I don’t know what he thinks before he acts. But politics is a tangled web, and I suspect he would welcome that benefit to my doubt. Well, it’s a free country, right? We all have opinions. Diversity is a strength except when it isn’t.
This is but one moment. I’ve been prompted to look back at myself. It’s the history I know best. I’m compelled to think before I act because that’s what my teacher told me to do. Luckily, it’s also a lesson that seems wisely conceived, if not always exercised, like when emotions run high. As for cosmopolitan mixture, life alongside others without need for comparison or category– With every passing day, I still benefit in ways I will not even realise, thanks to the historical currency borne by that list of traits issued from a lottery of birth. But, since then, also thanks to snipers in far-away places. Thanks to a lot of things, really, way more than I can explain or know about. Maybe it’s easiest just to say I’m not alone, in my history or my present day-to-day or, so it would seem, in my future. I am not alone, and neither are you. Here we are, with each other, all of us. And all my respectful detachment… amounted to nothing, or may as well have. That could be disappointing, a life’s effort or, in fact, just perfectly Canadian, things in this country being so unresolved.
Something needs to happen, so I’ve begun by working with who and what’s been given to me. I encourage all to do the same.