While our neighbours to the south were experiencing shoot outs and protests on their city streets, here in Canada the Institute for Canadian Citizenship was hosting the Six Degrees-Citizen Space global forum exploring inclusion and citizenship in the 21st century. Following the great humanist traditions of earlier centuries, the Toronto-based conference was about how to open the circle of belonging to newcomers and outsiders rather than shut it down.
I realize that comparing ourselves to Americans is the one sure-fire way for Canadians to feel superior, and this forum was no different. The timing couldn’t have been better. As Donald Trump underscores his resolve to build a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border, we’re looking for ways to make the greatest upheaval of the era, migration and immigration, friendly.
War and climate change have intersected to create the most significant migration of people since World War II. Six Degrees was intended to challenge our thinking and to encourage participants to search for solutions to the crisis by suggesting this:
“Think of the planet as a circle. That shouldn’t be so hard. No one really lives outside this circle —how could they? Our challenge is one of empathy. Are we capable of it? Can we imagine the other? Respect the other? Live with the other? We do have the small mercy of mutual dependency and the sweet expectation of becoming part of something larger and more expansive.”
Six Degrees-Citizen Space Forum was the brainchild of former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and her philosopher husband John Ralston Saul. The two are the ultimate intellectual power couple in Canada, exquisitely educated, authors of multiple books and lectures, and fluent in both official languages
Clarkson and Saul could be retired, resting on their laurels. Instead they’re in the thick of the action, spear-heading a global forum that is investigating the consequences and rewards of immigration.
Full disclosure. I’ve known and admired Adrienne Clarkson for years. She hired me at McClelland & Stewart in the 1980s when she was the Publisher of the storied publishing firm. On top of being a terrific boss, she had a magnificent eye for current issues that needed to be addressed by what was then the largest Canadian publisher in the country.
Later, she returned to the CBC, until 1999 when Prime Minister Jean Chretien offered her the prize: Governor-General. With Clarkson and Ralston Saul in residence, Rideau Hall became a glamorous meeting place for Canada’s foremost thinkers, artists and writers.
During a PEN conference driven by the couple while Clarkson was in office, I first learned about the writers in exile trying to make it in Canada. Toronto had become the international hub for creative writers and journalists who’d left their native country for writing what their autocratic governments forbid them to cover.
I met writers from Eritrea, Columbia, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan and many other countries. Some had been tortured for their ideas, some had been jailed. All of them were finding it extremely difficult to land jobs in Canada commensurate with their experience. Almost all were depending on survival jobs like driving cabs or delivering pizzas while the country was ignoring their talent and credentials.
I left the PEN conference promising myself that I would launch a program for writers in exile at the college where I ran the journalism program and within two years I was mailing acceptance letters to forty writers who needed English as a Second Language Training as well as a solid introduction to the protocols of the Canadian media. Both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail provided generous financial support as well as the federal and provincial governments.
The program was an unqualified success and we ran it for four years, as long as there were newcomers to Canada who needed it. I might add, they were the most gratifying years of my teaching career.
This September, I was eager to attend another conference where Clarkson and Saul were the driving force.
And so I listened with great interest to Naomi Klein’s lecture that opened Six Degrees and for the first time, I must admit, I understood how upholding the Paris Accord’s resolutions on controlling climate change, would challenge the way Canadians do business. Our economy has been built on extracting natural resources from the wilderness, from beaver hats to fossil fuels, and it’s going to take more resolve than we’ve seen from governments to save the planet.
I also attended the second day of the conference, when the question being explored was how immigration intersects with prosperity?
The Royal Bank sponsored this conversation and as one bank employee added “the magic happens when we can create the space for people to be themselves.” Speakers emphasized that Canada must recognize the assets that immigrants bring to our country, but the problem remains that although we are good at inviting people in, once they are here, we often abandon them.
Six Degrees was working with the notion that we assume that immigrants are coming to take from their new country rather than to contribute to it. This new paradigm was the most important one of the day.
To see immigrants as risk takers, the exact kind of people who make great entrepreneurs, was encouraged. Clarkson added that newcomers see opportunities that those of us born here are often too privileged to observe. If you think about it, many of us who have immigrant parents came from entrepreneurial families, mine included.
After the forum, I read in the Globe and Mail about how followers of three faiths are praying under one roof in Montreal. The Al Jazira mosque, the Chabad synagogue and the Sainte-Marguerite-Bourgeoys Church, all within steps of each other, found common ground in a particularly Canadian way: “they communally set up a donation centre for Syrian refugees –-the Muslim community first launched it, the Jewish community secured the warehouse rent free, Christian churchgoers help staff it, and today all three groups work together organizing toys, clothes, dishes and school supplies as volunteers.”
Six Degrees and the Montreal multi-faith donation centre both illuminate a unique kind of inclusiveness that is not new to Canada, but not much talked about. Maybe it’s finally time for bragging rights.