Canada is a country of dichotomies: rural and urban, newcomer and native-born, rich and poor, natural and industrial, east and west, French and English, aboriginal and colonial. These dichotomies are perennial sources of divisive human conflict. Why not in Canada? The answer is simple.
We are a people comfortable with complexity and uncertainty.
In this fair country differences are celebrated. We Canadians see ourselves belonging to multiple worlds simultaneously, pursuing not a single dream but a concert of dreams towards a common future. The promise of the Canadian spirit is to see the world whole.
This unique promise is shaped by history and geography. Aboriginal heritage is our foundation; a deep appreciation of nature and intricate relationships. Compromise between two colonial powers and waves of immigrants taught navigation of nuance in socio-economic interactions.
It is not in our psyche to force singular, brittle “answers”. We instead dance with powerful dynamics of grand systems beyond our taming to find equilibria. In this way, we endure.
Enlightenment ideals of rationality led to a century of economic growth and narrow specialization. Today, the impact on our vast and humbling natural environment dampens any runaway belief that this is the only desirable answer.
Humanity faces a litany of grand challenges in the century ahead that cannot be faced piecemeal: climate change, economic inequality, globalization and ecosystem collapse. These are not problems to be solved, but relationships to be renegotiated. The Canadian promise offers a way forward. We must nurture the potential for all minds in our country to engage with these challenges and share our findings with the world.
I propose the creation of a panCanadian post-secondary confederation, where various programs are offered in cooperation by consortiums of universities and colleges across the country. Students would spend each year of their degree with their cohort in a different part of Canada and summers working in the north, rural areas or traditional aboriginal lands.
I propose a movement towards deeper integration of traditional aboriginal knowledge, the academy and the new sciences of systems and complexity. We should continue building and democratizing a Canadian intellectual tradition that already counts great thinkers like McLuhan, Riel, King, Atwood and Innis among its ranks.
I propose the formation of transdisciplinary research and educational institutions in the far reaches of this country, on reservations and in the remote areas, to lead this paradigm. These “Foundations” would seek to integrate and apply global knowledge of energy, agriculture, storytelling, politics, economics, and engineering to create new frontiers in response to the vexing challenges. They will be New Charlottetown’s for a new time.
If Canadians nurture their ability to see the world whole, we will offer humanity something marvelous. This is my vision, deeply inspired by one of Canada’s most original thinkers: John Ralston Saul. I highly recommend his book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada.
Below was a follow up column that responded to a column critique. Unfortunately I can no longer find that critique. The gist as I remember was that the claim of a Fair Country was offensive, problematic and dangerous.
Justice as a process
I was interested Filzah Nasir’s critique of my Oct. 3 column. In that column, “Reflection on A Fair Country”, I proposed ideas for increasing cultural, methodological and disciplinary pluralism in the university system. My argument for enacting these initiatives hinged on the ideal that deep down in the cultural psyche of the people of Canada is the capacity for pluralism. The design of our education systems should better reflect that. We can demand more than the current state of affairs in our thinking. This was all inspired by John Ralston Saul and his 2009 book A Fair Country. Saul makes a compelling case that Canada is at its core a métis civilization, an idea supressed by the elite and standard narratives.
If you seek to be offended: you will be. Last week, Filzah Nasir made a counter-argument to the article, stating that “The state of Canada is not, and indeed has never been either fair or just.” This is a very important argument that challenges dangerous tacit assumptions – but a counter argument against something not posited in my article. Wait, who is making the outlandish claim that Canada is a utopian just society? Weren’t we talking about motivating change for pluralism in education?
Nasir’s interpretation reminds me of reasons I occasionally find it difficult to participate in activist campaigns for causes I care about: they can be pedantic, exclusive and cynical. Ends are predetermined. The whole is ignored. Meaning is read literally and uncharitably. One has to always say the right things. Thinking spaces are narrowly defined. Surprise about gaps of knowledge is feigned. The desire is to find adversaries rather than create common ground. It’s not always this way and it doesn’t have to be. The causes are too important to let this be the case.
We won’t reach a terminus of “a just society”. I’m deeply suspicious of people who imply we will or should or can. Framed as an end it implies a final state of social equilibrium, knowledge privilege of what the end looks like and nothing about the nature of the means to get there. This lends itself to perpetuating the cyclical pattern of injustice. Fighting the pattern can prevent the particular. Fighting the particular doesn’t necessarily address the pattern.
Instead, we can think of justice is a process that we should strive towards in our actions and beliefs every day. We need inspired learners and teachers to navigate the ideals. It is the responsibility of each of us to sew together a collective future.
Social justice and recognition of injustice are topics that need to be at the forefront of our dialog. Nasir rightly outlined important events that we all need to talk about and take seriously in the decisions we make. We need to be thorough and identify bias in the narratives we construct. My original article could have used a more explicit assemblage of the scope of Canadian history instead of assuming knowledge on the reader. It seems that one side of the coin is taking account for past injustices. However, there are debts that can never be paid off; justice must also be forward looking.
We must find ways to all work towards futures and institutions that are more inclusive and fair. We must elicit the failures of the past and use principles of justice as a means towards better futures. Our thinking must be critical, thorough, charitable and optimistic so that together we can navigate the pluralist process of justice.