A Senior Moment: ‘Us and Them’

“—we have a national identity, we are proud of it, you come into this country you have to integrate, you have to learn our language, there is one law for everybody, right, and we will decide how many people come in.”

This may read like one of President Trump’s ubiquitous ranting tweets; or it might sound like an defiant utterance from some American far-right American group. In fact, the speaker is a former leader of the Federal Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff (Globe & Mail, September 17, 2016).

To be fair, he was not referring to Canada, but to Central European nations like Hungary and Poland. His argument was that the best countermeasure against rampant populism which is growing in these countries is to acknowledge that these ethnically homogenous states have a right to ensure the survival of a national identity. By contrast, in countries like Canada and the United States which are already multicultural, Ignatieff contends there is greater acceptance of immigrants from other cultures, including “—the idea that desperate people have a right to asylum—.”

While both nations celebrated the founding of their countries this past week, Ignatieff’s assumption may sound a bit naïve.

As the world’s attention (and widespread condemnation ) has been drawn to the US Southern border and the plight of those 2,500 children separated from their asylum-seeking parents, the battle lines become clearly drawn: the poignant plight of refugees and asylum-seekers balanced against the right of a nation to control its own borders. Trump is vigorously, albeit crudely, enforcing laws which were already on the books but seldom fully implemented under more cautious past presidencies.

In Canada we now have our own leaky border. An estimated 27,000 undocumented border-crossers have entered our country since Donald trump became president in January, 2017 (Reuters) In the subsequent 18 months 135 have had their appeals for asylum rejected (CTV News, June 7/18)

As we celebrated our 151st Birthday, how do Canadians feel about “the other,” especially those labeled as visible minorities who make up 22% of our population? One survey reassuringly found that about 65% believe that percentage is the right balance for Canada, 15% believe we need more diversity while 20% believe it is already too high (Probit Newsletter, June, 2018) The problem with these numbers is they make no distinction between visible minorities who have been citizens for generations and those who are newcomers, legally or not. And, of course, not all newcomers are members of visible minorities

A rather frightening American survey has noted that a third of its population believes that rising hostility over Trump’s immigration policies and the resultant public harassment of members of his administration is potentially leading to a “Second Civil War.” (Rasmussen survey reported in USA Today, June 28) United States Attorney-General Jeff Sessions wryly noted that many so-called liberals who oppose Trump’s planned wall, hypocritically live-in gated communities themselves, protected from outside “undesirables” by high fences. There is no doubt American public opinion is increasingly polarized.

In Canada, our own record concerning issues of race and diversity Is far from perfect. In both nations, novel efforts are being initiated to respond to the challenge of endemic bigotry between groups. The recent “anti-bias training day” workshops initiated by Starbucks for its 1,000 North American franchises, including those in Canada, reflects this approach. Other corporations are currently running similar seminars and training sessions.

CBC Radio Noon recently featured anti-bias training as its phone-in theme. That was the moment when my normally progressive, liberal self became somewhat perturbed. Am I not supposed to hold any biases? A dictionary will define “bias” as simply an inclination or preference. Everyone has biases, I freely admit to being biased in my choice of vehicle, my favorite genre of music (opera, not rap,) and in my selection of friends. Couples I help prepare for marriage are biased in choosing a life partner. Is anti-bias training some form of politically correctness carried to brainwashing extremes? 

Once I calmed down, I was able to decipher what the program’s guest was actually talking about. She was describing a type of bias or prejudice in which a person carries a negative assumption or predisposition toward the “other,” an attitude which is not based on facts. These attitudes then lead to acts of discrimination against that “other” person based on race, religion, ethnicity or whatever triggers the stereotype. I would go as far as suggesting that Canada may have to accept that some folks may remain stuck with holding negative biases, as long as they don’t make their public behaviors based on them.

It has been said the Canada is not so much a multicultural country as it is a multi-ethnic one. If this nation of diversity is going to avoid some pitfalls inherent in American society, we will need to continue along the path toward greater understanding of one another. Yet I oppose the trendy concept of “cultural competence” where we are expected to achieve deep knowledge of all our many “communities” which constitute Canada. 

I prefer the alternative term “ cultural humility” where we approach “the other” with an attitude of openness and a desire to learn and change as needed . It is not just the majority group in Canada which needs to change and evolve. Minority communities are not above holding their own negative biases and stereotypes. We can all start by avoiding racist, ethnic and gender negative labelling. 

By reducing stereotypes of all kinds we will be building bridges not barriers, between groups—between the other and us. And that was reason enough In 2018 to celebrate our Canada Day—together in our home and native land.