Canadian values. That two-word phrase is so well undefined it can fuel a debate between just about any pair of Canadians. Sometimes only one is required.
Our Prime Minister recently apologized for laying claim to an understanding of Canadian values that resulted in providing a response in French to a question asked in English at a town hall meeting in Quebec. His understanding has since shifted with the realization that asked in English would better have been answered in English, just as in Alberta asked in French would be better answered in French.
The phrase isn’t just employed by politicians.
Of late, Canadian values has been too frequently used as a phrase to hurl at adversaries as an allegation of bigotry and abject failure of character, or as words to hail claim to (y)our side’s genuine Canadian-ness. But what exactly are these values we Canadians hurl or hail?
Publicly touted as at or near the top of any list of Canadian values are tolerance and diversity.
Tolerance was once societally defined and understood. Rather than to assail contrary speech or beliefs, tolerance equipped Canadians to respectfully and peacefully disagree. Tolerance started with acceptance of one another as people. There was acknowledgment that civil dialogue, even debate, might not bring agreement. And that’s why tolerance was required.
In those (good old?) days, my parents’ Bajan accents were heard in conversation with the diverse collection of other Canadians’ accents on the street or over the backyard fence, not always in pleasant conversation but civil enough. I don’t recall hearing anyone being told to go back where they came from. Their kids, me among them, were even allowed to play together.
In twenty-first century Canada, tolerance is too often self-defined by the person/group claiming to be tolerant. The tolerance claim is almost as often made in conjunction with the assertion that those who disagree are intolerant. And frequently accompanied by an ad hominem attack stating opponents are evil, phobic or both.
Diversity is today also most often declared to be as defined by the person or group claiming it. The opinions or beliefs of others are rejected solely because they diverge from those of the diversity claiming claimant. Emphasis is, again, placed on the evil or phobic nature of any person or identifiable group of people whose opinion differs.
Human rights legislation developed to protect individuals and minority groups as a shield from abuse is today being asserted instead as sword. Select individuals and groups advance rights-oriented arguments decrying those who do not conform as being unworthy to belong in a democratic society or in need of re-education. Of course the danger in striking with a sword is that swordsmanship prescribes a strike be met with a block and counter-strike. The public square thus becomes a battlefield rather than its intended place for dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.
In the name of free speech, tolerance and diversity, increasing numbers of individuals and groups now threaten or engage in actual violence – against police officers, elected officials and other alleged adversaries – ostensibly in order to prevent peaceful presentation of differing ideas in the public square.
The concepts of tolerance and diversity that were once used to build societal bridges have been re-engineered by the new brand of activists to erect walls of societal division.
The Supreme Court of Canada has considered these assertions in the light of our constitution, declaring that in a free and democratic society… we all belong. The Court has dared suggest that tolerance is not about exclusion or forced inclusion but acceptance of difference. And diversity does not require compliance or conformity with another’s beliefs or demands. However, the Court’s words are at variance with the positions of many new philosopher-activists, who have chosen neither to welcome the Court’s words nor heed them.
More is required of us as Canadians if we are going to engage in meaningful conversation, conversation not just about what we have in common but accommodation of our differences. Isn’t that the kind of conversation vital to living life together in the shared space that is Canada?
Genuine tolerance leaves little room for allegations it is intolerant of others to peaceably disagree. Authentic diversity has little space for the assertion that those who are not like us don’t belong. There is not a sincere understanding of either that can legitimately suggest violence as the way to secure one, the other or both.
First century author Paul of Tarsus offers these still relevant words of advice, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15)