Canada’s second annual Truth and Reconciliation Day has now come and gone. It is just one of many days in Canada intended to celebrate diversity and work toward an equal cultural mosaic that is the dream of so many. Another that passed just days before Truth and Reconciliation Day was Franco-Ontarian day on September 26. These types of days are meant to keep us moving forward. We cannot change the past, but we can certainly learn from it.
The idea of a cultural “mosaic” is that people with different beliefs and value systems can live together peacefully and happily. This is something that Canadians can be proud of, because not all countries approach diversity this way. Many readers are probably familiar with the term “melting pot”, which refers to the traditionally American style of expecting immigrants to assimilate to an “American” way of life, whatever that means.
It is interesting to think of how our ideas of inclusivity have changed over the years. In fact, just the word “inclusive” is a step forward from using the word “tolerant” to describe welcoming those from cultures other than our own. Decades ago, those seen as the most culturally forward-thinking were anthropologists and research professors who were interested in studying and documenting practices and customs in other cultures. The keyword here is “other”, as the basis for such research was usually in making a comparison between “us” (the in-group) and the “other” culture (the out-group). Of course, considering that a century ago half the population was openly racist, and just a few decades ago the level of discrimination was far worse than it is today, it is easy to see why researchers who actually cared enough to document diverse cultural practices were considered the liberal heroes of their day. No one questioned the euro-centric way of doing things because it was at least a step in the right direction.
We now know that in order to facilitate true cultural diversity, people must be able to share their own stories and teach their own values. Why have a Caucasian university professor study a particular ethnic group and then teach a group of students about this “outside” culture, when it makes so much more sense to let diverse groups do their own teaching? When studying music in undergraduate university, I took one of my two seminar courses on the music of Canadian Indigenous peoples. Yes, the professor was a Caucasian woman, but she understood that she was not in a position to have the greatest expertise on Indigenous practices, despite being a professor of such. Our teachers for the course were mostly Indigenous musicians and Indigenous elders. Oh what an enriching experience that was!
When we think back to the mistakes we have made in this country, including with Indigenous people, it can be daunting to even begin to imagine how we are going to fix it. We acknowledge that we live, work, and raise our families on unceded Indigenous territory, but of course that does not mean we are planning to give it back anytime soon. I recall listening to a radio talk show years ago during a discussion on how our land is unceded territory, wherein the host of the show quipped “well, I own my piece”. Yes, I own my property as well, but I think the host missed the point. No one is asking us to give up our homes and our properties – to do so would not be the Indigenous way. The best way forward from any situation of such immense wrongdoing is to begin listening – truly listening – to the affected group. A group of Euro-Canadian policymakers sitting in a boardroom have no right to come up with ways to make amends with Indigenous peoples. Only Indigenous peoples can tell us how to truly make things right, and the process is gradual.
Of course, it is not only Indigenous people who have been marginalized throughout the years. For example, LGBTQ2S+ individuals have had a rough go for centuries. Progress has been made, but there is much more to do. One thing society still seems to struggle with is not acting like we are doing marginalized groups a favour when we treat them fairly. Fair treatment of all is an imperative, and is something we can be proud of not because we are going above and beyond, but because we are fundamentally doing the right thing – nothing more, and nothing less.
Of course, there will always be groups and individuals who continue to spread hate and division. Some religious groups have a bad reputation for this, including locally. Why don’t we shut them down? Why don’t we limit our tolerance to only the most forward-thinking of ideas? Irony, that’s why. It is ironic to think that imposing our beliefs and shutting down entire religions that disagree with us is forward thinking, when the shutting down of an entire set of cultural beliefs was the goal of the now infamous Residential School System. We must be careful that in our quest to shut out hate, we don’t end up creating more division and hostility. Speaking out against specific acts of hatred is one thing, but painting entire groups with one brush and moving to eliminate them because of their beliefs is hypocritical when done under the guise of inclusivity.
As days like Truth and Reconciliation Day pass, it can be disheartening to know that there is still hurt to fix, and still progress to make. The important thing to remember is that we don’t always have to get to our destination quickly – we only have to keep moving in the right direction.