The new Canada: A paradox of citizenship and belonging

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Can we still belong to each other?

I suspect many of us share Adrienne Clarkson's vision of what Canada is and should be: a place where everyone can belong.

Her latest book Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, based on the 2014 Massey Lectures she delivered on CBC Radio, offers plenty of philosophical and evidentiary reasons for promoting the admirable concept of shared citizenship.

Yet, somehow, I also suspect that many of us couldn't help wonder whether this grand vision she describes so convincingly is fading away into a past we are already beginning to lament.

For a moment, though, let's imagine this nation Clarkson describes. After all, if anyone knows this country, it's the former governor-general, journalist, author, and yes, immigrant. So let's imagine the country Clarkson argues still exists because, as she puts it, it's only through imagination that we can all will this place into being.

"We know that we can be citizens who are not related to each other by blood, religion, or even past history. What we believe is that we can belong to a country that has welcomed us and that fortunately has a very strong infrastructure of parliamentary democracy, common and civil law, two official languages, and an Aboriginal foundation. We start in this country not with a political status quo from which an idea of ‘citizen' devolves, but with an idea of citizen from which a nation evolves. This idea starts always with the personal question ‘How do I belong?' That is our revolutionary act: for the Greeks, if it doesn't exist on the ground, then it doesn't exist; for us, if it doesn't exist in the imagination, it can't exist."

Clarkson bases much of her discourse of Canadian society on ancient Athenian philosophies in order to understand the role of individuals in a democratic nation-state, and it is an effective backdrop.

"Democracy was not simply about laws or voting or constitutions; it was also a culture of values, hopes, and ways of living life. Pericles advised the citizens to acknowledge poverty and said that the real disgrace of poverty was not that it existed but that citizens would decline to struggle against it and eradicate it."

Yet though the history is significant, there isn't enough analysis of the present day manifestations of these lofty ideals. It's perhaps in statements like these that one begins to lose hope that Canada, so admired by people around the world, will remain as it once was, a place where success didn't lie in material wealth alone, but in the greater, social good we were all responsible for contributing towards. You know the saying "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link?"

Consider Clarkson's remarks in light of certain policies around the right of refugees to access health care, for example.

"Those who live lawfully among us, whatever the technical status the state has accorded them -- citizen, permanent resident, temporary visitor, or refugee -- deserve the equity and compassion that will allow them to live healthy lives dignified by respect and consideration….If we exclude any person whose legal status guarantees them a place in society, we are violating our own values, undermining our own decency, and ultimately working against our own well-being."

Throughout Clarkson's remarks about the inter-dependence of individuals within our communities, and the very real need we all have for one another, one can't help but wonder what she really thinks about the current state of Canada's political landscape. On this, Clarkson remains silent. The question that begs asking is what role is there for our political leaders in ensuring that every citizen truly belongs?

Perhaps to ensure her words remain as timeless as the philosophers she quotes, Clarkson may just want her audiences to read between the lines.

"At best, citizens belong to each other because they trust each other, and that trust is the key to all political functioning and fundamental to our modern notions of what a society can be. When trust has disappeared from the public sphere, just as it can from the private one, rot and breakdown set in."

At times Clarkson's practice of looking for the moral lesson in some random and little known true story in order to bolster her argument reminds one of Malcolm Gladwell's own signature style. Yet, the stories Clarkson chooses in this lecture series don't truly lend themselves well to her overall thesis, serving instead as a distraction (at the very least require re-reading to fully grasp the point).

Clarkson's formidable literary strength is instead found in her sweeping statements, her quotable quotes, her imagination.

Hers were the dreams of someone who arrived at just the right time in Canadian history. True, Canadians had yet to be introduced to official multiculturalism (a government policy that came into effect in 1971) when Clarkson's Chinese family arrived in the early 1940s, but Canadians would nonetheless be generally welcoming to her family. Her experience then was a far cry from the days of the government-instituted Chinese head tax which lasted from 1885 to 1923.

"Had I known then what I know now, I wonder if it would have made me feel that I belonged less to Canada, that I was less committed to being Canadian. I was part of a despised and rejected group, but I did not feel, nor did my family ever feel, personally despised and rejected. We were popular at school and at church. No one ever said, ‘You shouldn't be here.' No one ever told us that we did not belong."

"That was the paradox of being a Chinese-born Canadian back when we were a small, predominantly white country: it is not the laws that create how you feel about where you live and whether you belong; it is other people who make you feel that you belong."

So laws have nothing to do with it? Not so.

Clarkson later admits that the very language governments choose to use to describe immigrants can indeed have an impact on that sense of belonging. She compares the rate at which Canadian "permanent residents" become citizens, as compared to "resident aliens" in the United States (double!). These are important distinctions and comparisons because by 2030, Canada's growth will be entirely based on immigration.

So it's in everyone's best interest that newcomers are welcomed here. But, in case you haven't been watching, ongoing changes to citizenship rules and fees, voting rights, programs around temporary foreign workers, and selecting refugees based on religious criteria, all contribute towards a different understanding and place for tomorrow's immigrants.

Clarkson is right that we should all "feel, in your heart's core, the reality of others," as writer Margaret Laurence so eloquently wrote. The trouble is that the realities of others will have to be shared with renewed energy and urgency and in new and creative ways because the national institutions meant to provide those connections and collective identities are crumbling. The CBC, the very platform from which Clarkson delivered these important lectures, may not even be around by 2030.

How will we belong to each other then?


Amira Elghawaby is a contributing editor at

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