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RECURRENT VOICES: Jonathan Swainger

May 17, 2016

Recent events — Toronto’s Black Lives Matter activism, the Truth and Reconciliation Report (TRC), Jian Ghomeshi’s trial and outcome, in addition to the Trudeau government’s anticipated House of Common’s Komagata Maru apology — demonstrate that Canadian society needs to make space for a broader assortment of voices and perspectives. For some, especially those who have long assumed the unquestioned rightness of white (and typically male) privilege, this will be unsettling and threatening. Even for those who accept the proposition that we are obliged to bear respectful witness to these voices recognize that this will be a challenging enterprise. In the least, it carries real potential to display uncomfortable and unflattering images of our national historic and contemporary experience. Yet as difficult as this will be, it is arguable that a still greater obligation is to ensure that in framing this space, we fashion a permanent renovation of how we live our lives and our histories, rather than cheapen the effort as a trite “new” normal, a faddish enthusiasm for open dialogue.

As a university professor, I see this particular challenge as one shaped largely by my interaction with students. Indeed, the TRC recommends that we raise the profile of First Nations’ history in what is now Canada to alert students to the forces that still shape and often distort the contemporary experience of being a First Nations or a Metis person. A similar call to action is long overdue in relation to our nation’s anti-Asiatic past, our marked antipathy to the Black Canadian experience and, indeed, the often paternalistic and misogynistic strains at the core of how this country came to be. The list is daunting and the urge to take cover by concentrating on content in our courses and leaving these big and unsettling issues to dining hall debates is understandable yet indefensible.
So what then are we to do? Nurturing an intellectual culture encouraging empathy in our interactions with other human beings is an obvious first step. One hastens to add that this does not mean that we sympathize or adopt every perspective that we encounter, but it does oblige everyone to consider seriously these other views and the evidence presented in their support. Just as our own historical journey (and that of our predecessors) has exerted a defining influence on how we have lived our lives, the same is equally true for others. Putting this to action won’t be simple or painless but, in the least, we might start with an early schoolyard lesson: treat people (and their histories) in a way that we want to be treated.

Further –  and this too is difficult – we have to engage with others and their evidence of how these lives have been lived as an opportunity to grasp the legitimacy of these histories and not as a personal attack or rebuttal of our own experience. We should enter these exchanges not with a mindset of mounting an unwavering defense of our own historic experience and its contemporary legacies but rather, with the goal of opening a window onto the truths that others hold dear.

Arguably, a prudent approach is one rooted in empathy and a clear-headed sense of what constitutes compelling evidence. This too represents a shared responsibility. Being empathetic does not mean the uncritical acceptance of weak evidence or flawed arguments. The point bears emphasis. Those whose historic and contemporary experiences have been marginalized, as well as those whose stories have often occupied center-stage, are equally obliged to acknowledge tenacious reality, no matter how discomforting. If we are to be serious about this renovation of how we engage with each other, we must abandon the insistence on simple binaries of good and evil. There’s no question that in our history Euro-Canadian men have, more often than not, enjoyed undeniable advantages but broad ascriptions about the supposed characteristic of “all” Euro-Canadian men are no more compelling than are similar assertions about the characteristics of “all” Black Canadians, First Nations peoples, or Asian Canadians. Quite simply, we will not move forward through a reliance on selective and blinkered approaches to the evidence at hand.

Finally, we do ourselves no favor by investing our energies in hypotheticals about what may have occurred. The challenges of unravelling the complexities, nuances, and irreconcilables of human behavior are sufficiently testing without wondering about that for which there is little or no evidence. After all, the reality of Canadian racism and white privilege revealed in Jane Gilmour’s Trouble on Main Street- Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots, Graham Reynold’s and Wanda Robson’s Viola Desmond’s Canada, Patricia Roy’s Boundless Optimism: Richard McBride’s British Columbia or indeed, Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk speaks volumes. There is nothing gained through excursions into what did not happen.

Given how contemporary events have exposed the voices and histories that mattered in the past and continue to shape our present, it is clear that broadening our conversation to include those marginalized and ignored voices, even if it means a confrontation with an unsettling exploration of our shared histories, is sorely needed. While empathy and a disciplined approach to evidence may not promise success for this engaged national conversation, at least they offer the prospect of creating space where we might learn to listen rather than merely talking past each other.