As some of you know, I’m a lover of jig-saw puzzles. Every piece has its unique colour, its unique bumps and indentations, and if a single piece is missing, the picture is always incomplete.
So it is with the diversity of the human community. The picture is incomplete if some are left out or have somehow gone missing. Each piece of humanity whatever its shape adds something to the whole. And yet, in real life, all too often, people seem to reject some of their fellow humans. They prefer to cluster together only with those who have the same colouring, the same shape, and often, the same opinions. They start to value sameness over diversity.
Canadians are better than most in this regard, and there is much that we have reason to celebrate. On the other hand, I fear that we still have a long way to go to complete the picture. I thought of this last night as I listened to a reminder that UBC’s buildings sit upon on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. I started to think of how few Indigenous people I actually know and include in my circle of friends and community. I also started to think about how little I actually know about Indigenous cultures, and how little thought I have given to what I might learn from them. Finally, my thoughts drifted to my own grandchildren, and I tried to imagine them as five-year-olds, screaming and clinging to their parents when the government and church authorities came to take them to residential schools where they were forbidden to even speak their own language. It was 1996, my lifetime and perhaps yours, when the last residential school in Canada closed its doors.
Among the lessons to be learned from the past is that Canadians were wrong to “try to kill the Indian in the Indian,” as it was worded when I went to school. Statements that we now consider racist were the norm not so long ago. I often fear that some – or perhaps many Canadians have simply changed the way that they speak, but not the way that they feel.
In a 2017 article, Macleans asked “Is racism different in Canada?”After a careful weighing of the evidence, the authorconcluded that “Canadians have a tendency not to be less racist than Americans, but less loud about it.”  A similar article in The Walrus points out that “although there was no conspicuous signage, Viola Desmond was “man-handled out of her seat in a Nova Scotia cinema in 1946, a century after slavery had been abolished in Britain. The article goes on to point out that such signage was simply not the way Canadians have sustained racism in this country. Our methods are arguably more insidious and covert.
Along with you, I celebrate the progress we have made toward accepting that people of all cultures and religions have a valued place in the Canadian mosaic, but we must not sweep the past under the rug and pretend that it was never there. When attitudes are driven underground, they too often re-surface in new and hateful forms. Besides,we do live next door to an elephant, and there is always a degree of spillover in attitudes and values, as well as in the actions of some Canadians.
I think it’s important that we not confuse uniqueness with superiority. Just as individual humans often fail to live up to their own values, so it is with groups of every shape and variety, including both religious and secular organizations. As I see it, the world’s cultures and religions are much like the clothes we wear. Colourful, different, but all covering that inner nakedness that we have in common. Underneath, we are all the same.
Is there a religion that does not preach kindness to one’s fellow humans? And yet, like individuals, religions sometimes succumb to indecent acts of cruelty. Think of the Crusades. Of witch-burnings. Of recent acts of barbarism. Not just in some remote past, but recent. In preparation for this conference, I looked up the date of the last “officially reported” lynching in the US. Again, it was within my lifetime, and possibly yours. 1981. On March 21, 1981, a perfectly innocent man, 19-year-old Michael Donald was chosen at random, chased down, beaten brutally, then strangled. The killers showed him off at a party at that night before hanging his body from a tree. The killers were members of the KKK, and they espoused an explicitly Protestant Christian terrorist ideology. Their goals included “re-establishing Protestant Christian values in America.” Many believed that “Jesus was the first Klansman.” The ritual of lighting crosses was steeped in Christian symbolism, including prayer and hymn singing.
Lest we think that Canadians are different, let me remind you that in 2016, KKK flyers found on doorsteps in Mission, Chilliwack and Abbotsford. In 2017, Macleans magazine published an article entitled The KKK has a history in Canada. And it can return. The article states that “What we learned from our last journey down a similar road was that being smug about our own virtue and blind to our own systemic racism … only made it easier for KKK Kanada to set up shop. I was horrified to see KKK followed by “Kanada” spelled with a matching capital K.
I sincerely hope that this period of self-isolation has made Canadians aware that viruses do not respect national borders, and that we are one humanity. Whether a family member dies in Vancouver or Venezuela, the pain and the loss are the same. Europe has recently seen an influx of people seeking to escape horrible dictators and impossible living conditions. I fear that Europe is just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and that climate change will bring drought and starvation to some lands while it floods others. Canada, our beloved far north true and free is likely to become a destination for millions.
Will we turn them aside, saying “We don’t want those people” the way Canadians did when the ship the St. Louis tried to land with its boatload of Jews fleeing the Nazis? When the Canadian Prime Minister promoted an anti-Jewish immigration policy of “None is Too Many”? Or will we draw upon our religions as a reminder that all people are our neighbours, and that it is wrong to treat others in ways that we would experience as hateful?
Like all humans, we could, we can, and hopefully, we will do better. We will learn from past mistakes, and we will move forward. Fixing this world is going to take everyone: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Agnostics and Atheists, all committed to living up to their own ideals. It matters not whether you or your ancestors came to Canada from India or Italy, from Poland, Pakistan or Peru. Everyone must seek ways to become part of the solution if they are not to remain part of the problem. When you look at it that way, those same problems don’t look quite as insurmountable after all.
It’s vital that everyone ask “What can I do to help? How can I make a difference? A difference to one person? A difference to many? What needs to change, and how can I be an instrument of that change?”
Hi Helen … Beautifully written, as always, and timely comments given the increase in racism recently. Don absolutely loved working with the Musqueam people when we were in Vancouver. Have a good day and take good care of yourself.