The Ottawa Citizen by Amira Elghawaby 14 November 2016
The morning after Donald Trump’s victory, I was fortunate to seek refuge from the din at what I imagine would be a Canadian version of an anti-Trump rally.
I was at WE Day: a massive, youth-inspired celebration of building community. Surrounded by 16,000 young people, my 10- and 13-year-old daughters and I were engulfed in a dazzling display of song, light, dance and motivational speeches. It was a welcome escape from the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s dismaying win.
The crowd seemed eager to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he bounded up on to the stage as part of a parade of who’s who sharing messages of inspiration. My daughters had previously heard Mr. Trudeau express his warm view of diversity and inclusion, yet I could see on their rapt faces that his signature message of hope resonated that much more deeply. As did his mother’s subsequent tribute to his dad, Pierre Trudeau, for successfully enshrining the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “We are one of the freest countries in the world,” she yelled joyfully to the crowd, her smile beaming through the Jumbotrons.
Young people of all backgrounds and abilities then talked about ways they help make their own neighbourhoods, as well as villages around the world, better places to live. All of it served as a balm. “We stand together for fostering hope, promoting optimism, for building communities — and tearing down walls, rather than building them up,” WE co-founder Marc Kielburger boomed.
The secret, though, to all that was being celebrated in that massive Ottawa stadium, standing as it does on unceded Algonquin territory, is that Canada owes much of our cherished principles and character to many values of the First Nations peoples.
As philosophers such as John Ralston Saul have noted, aboriginal concepts of egalitarianism, interconnectedness and negotiation have permeated Canada’s 150-year history, ensuring that people of all backgrounds and those who express a multitude of identities always find a place in a growing, proverbial circle of belonging.
“The Canadian concept of living in a perpetually incomplete experiment may seem radical to many in the Western world,” wrote Saul in an essay series on pluralism last summer. “And yet you could simply see it as a profoundly non-racial approach to civilization – one based on the idea of an inclusive circle that expands and gradually adapts as new people join us.”
How unlike the one-dimensional nationalism we heard and saw on the election trail in the United States, and which is often espoused by far-right movements in Europe. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” said Trump when he first accepted the Republican nomination. Rather than “me to we,” it was “me to some of us.”
That “some of us” creates mythologies about who belongs in our societies and who doesn’t. We aren’t immune to that in Canada. A recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute surprisingly shows that more Canadians than Americans believe immigrants should assimilate.
Believing in a limited notion of what a Canadian or American stands for or represents becomes both exclusive and perpetuates ignorance of our country’s own shortcomings.
In his 2015 documentary “Where to invade next?” American filmmaker Michael Moore takes viewers to Germany where there is full atonement for the country’s shameful, racist past and a concerted, nationwide effort to ensure its young people “never forget.” That is missing in the U.S., argues Moore.
Here in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pulled back the curtain on our history to fully expose what previous governments and institutions did to thousands of aboriginal children. Bearing witness to ugly aspects of Canada’s past is one way to inoculate against further violations of human rights and dignity.
Reaffirming our indebtedness to First Nations’ values of inclusion and openness will help us protect and celebrate the rich and diverse tapestry that makes up our “we” and will help us stand firmly against those who would unmake it.
Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.