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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

The Canadian Essence: What will it mean to be
a Canadian in the 21st century?


[Moderator: I thought we would first ask the panellists themselves if they would like the opportunity to pose a question to each other.]

Sen. Oliver: I was interested in what John Gray had to say when he was talking about Canadians being sort of a mirror image of Americans and to find out who we are as Canadians we look at Americans.

In terms of the racial history in America, the Canadian history is very different. He would know about the Texaco case, where the company paid $300 million to pay off a major discrimination suit. That couldn’t happen in Canada, because our racism is so different.

Gray: I come from a town where the Afro-Canadians live in entirely separate areas. Nobody knows why that is and nobody ever talked about why it was and nobody ever talked about how it happened.

One of the most pernicious things about Canada, to me — and this is the dark side — is our ability to see and not see at the same time. We are very good at that and it’s a village characteristic, because people who are from diverse backgrounds, who have to get along day after day, year after year, generation after generation, whose family come from blood feuds back in the old country they watch what you say and you pretend you don’t see things you do.

The oddest thing about it was that I played with an R and B band. I played Afro-American music. Though the town was segregated, by far the majority of people coming to hear Afro-American music were white.

What it often calls for — and what I think it called for — is the emperor’s new clothes. Somebody just has to say it. Somebody just has to come out and say, what the hell, and break the silence.

I hope that’s happened back home, I sure do.

*     *     *

Shields: I found John’s comments on how we identify ourselves very refreshing. I wish I’d heard that in the ‘60s when we were all panicking about how to define ourselves.

I guess I’m proud to belong to a country that doesn’t have an identity; in fact, has what you have suggested, a number of identities layered one upon the other.

I can remember during the great flag debate — I never got any converts to my cause — but I remember going around saying: let’s be the first country in the world that doesn’t need a flag, because we all know that the history of nation states has been inglorious.

Moderator: Rene-Daniel Dubois can I get you to respond to this discussion about democracy and being the first country not to have a flag?

Dubois: I think I better keep my turn for later and keep listening to people.

Bell: First of all, we don’t have a democracy, we have an oligarchy. When you have a majority in a government and the Prime Minister decides just about everything and no can vote against him, like John Nunziata couldn’t vote. He was the only politician that said, we said if we don’t scrap the GST, we’ll resign or something like that.

He was the only one that had the integrity to stand up for it and he paid the price for it.

We don’t have a democracy, we have an oligarchy and the party banished him and he was made fun of and everything. But, to me the man had integrity.

Where’s the CBC on this? Well, that’s another story.

Here’s what I want to say. We not only have a segregated part of your town, the country is segregated. It always was. We founded this on two solitudes. We didn’t want to say the words, English and French, so we said solitudes.

But what does solitude mean? It means your by yourself. No one else can come in.

The reason I’m talking about this is that democracy only works if the public is educated. And too much of our public is not educated and we don’t have a good democracy and that’s further compromised because it’s an oligarchy.

But, Senator, I quite agree with you because our people, the native people, for hundreds of years we realized that we have also a very poor immigration policy.

So, the English can live here, principally, although you can travel, and the French will live here, principally, and travel. You’re going to get all the wealth. We’ll remove all the people who really live here. We’re going to take all the wealth and all their homes and everything else and we’ll kill most of them.

Here’s what happens hundreds of years later. And this is how I interpret it from my quasi, non-nationalistic viewpoint.

You all known of the Nisga’a land claim case out on the West coast and there’s this fellow Rafe Mair writing for the Financial Post, who says, how can we give the Indians this land, or the fishery, it’s based upon and race is non-democratic and race is non-academic and non-intellectual. How can we base it upon race?

And I’m saying, what are you talking about? The entire country and the entire history has been based upon race.

We’re going to have the English own all this and the French own all this. We’ll bring the Chinese over when we only need to build a railroad.

There’s not one native person that works for the Couchiching Institute or is on the board. There’s not a native on a major corporation. There are very few Aboriginal people in any positions of power in this country. It’s our country!

You all turn a blind eye to it. You all say, well, that’s just the way it is. We live in a totally segregated society, where Aboriginal people — I don’t think I heard the issue of Aboriginal people, of course I haven’t been here all weekend — but this thing about the Nisga’a getting something; it’s one one-hundredth of billions and billions and trillions of dollars that are due to native people in fairness.

When you look back and think about it, it’s a national tragedy and someone has to say it and I am.

Gray: I just want to say the complete quote is, love is when two solitudes care for each other.

Hall: I think it’s easier to say that race doesn’t matter when you’re in a power position than when you’re a person who has been excluded because of race. I think that the challenge — because as a country and as communities, we have people of many, many races — is to find the places that will bring people together and work through the power sharing that the Senator has spoken to.

The reality in Toronto, which is often described as the most diverse city in the world, [when] you go to City Council and look around the circle you don’t see a very diverse group of folks.

I think as a Council there are people who recognize that and have worked hard to bring more people to that circle.

But, first and foremost it takes a recognition and then it takes a lot of tough work. I think we need to name these things in our communities and sit down and do the tough work.

If we don’t, I think we’re destined to go to a place that’s dark. I’d like to hear what Qajaaq thinks are the ways to avoid the darkness. I suspect he’s given some though to that.

Many of us here have maybe worked hard on finding lightness, but we’ve also reinforced some of the darkness.

Ellsworth: I just want to comment on the Aboriginal issue. It’s true that for years and years that many different groups of people, not like the people in power, have been mistreated and a lot of lives have been ruined, families torn apart; a lot of atrocities have been committed over the years.

But, I’m one of those people that don’t believe in placing blame on people because it wasn’t one person or one group of people, just people who made mistakes that maybe thought they were doing the right thing in the interest of their people or the interest of all people.

I think that we’re at the level now where Canadians are tolerant toward people different from themselves. That’s a big step from where we’ve come in history. It’s something that we can accept tolerance. I was talking a little about it earlier. We have to move forward and start bringing respect and deep love toward other people into the formula.

What I feel right now when we have the Nisga’a claim, the Nunavut land claim agreement and things like, it may be just to keep those Abos quiet and shut them up and keep them from appearing on CBC Newsworld with their guns and all that stuff.

But it’s a step in the right direction. It’s showing these groups of people that they do have the common sense; it’s acknowledging the common sense of these people to be able to take their future into their own hands and pass down a little bit of that authority.

Now, [I’m] going to talk about this bright future; what my ideal future is and a little bit on some of the principles we have to adopt to get there.

Earlier I was talking about a dark future. So, flipping the coin over, looking towards the bright future.

It’s something that is very possible; something that is within our reach.

Looking toward a clean environment, being able to see the sun and the clouds and the rain and feel the snow without tasting all these chemicals; everybody using only what they need.

I’d just like to define need. I’d just like to apologize to everyone for using this cup. I’ve used more than one cup over the last few days and it’s not something I needed to do.

[I believe] in using only what we need to keep us alive, to breathe, and to be happy and help other people to be happy. Everybody uses things we don’t need.

I admit I’ve shot a ptarmigan I didn’t need to shoot. It tasted good, but I didn’t need to do that.

We have to start only taking the things that we need, using the things that we need if we’re going to have the things in the future that we want.

Everybody’s going to be recycling the very few things we do use and there will be no industry that pollutes to any degree in the future.

We’ll be able to consume animals from the wild life without having to worry about the chemicals that we put into it, or that people from other countries have put into it.

We were in a discussion group yesterday in circumpolar relations and I was letting people know that it’s my goal by the time I’m 30, which is only nine years from now, to live out on the land away from all of this chaos that we come against in modern society; to be able to live out there and wake up in the morning with a nice cold nose and breathe the fresh air and go out look for my food for the day; food that’s going to feed me and my family; [and] be able to look at the landscape and breathe this beautiful clean air.

Law will be what it should be. It will be formulated to benefit the majority, if not all the people...and people will begin to respect this law.

All people will be what we call employed. And we will not see employment in the future as a 9-to-5 job...but we’ll see employment as what as it really is; that is providing for ourselves and those around us the food that we need and the shelter that we need. It’s not all about money.

There are many, many other ways to provide for ourselves and for other people without money received for food and shelter.

We’ll see education as a way of learning the skills necessary to survive in our environment. We’ll begin to see education for what it really is; and that is when we interact with people, when we exchange with people, we’re learning from them. We’ll start to learn consciously from everybody that we see, to take away some very positive knowledge.

Minority groups will feel adequately represented, not necessarily meaning that they have seats on city councils, but that their needs and the things that they want will be not given to them, but will be respected and will find a way to give each other what we need. Aboriginal people will be given the right to self-determination and as I said a littler earlier we will move from tolerance towards respect.

All Canadians will at the very least will have at least a small understanding of our world. They will have come up and visited me and checked out the landscape, how the people live, how we make each other smile and go out get our food and things. We’ll have a real understanding for each other and a respect for our different ways of life. And we’ll do what we can to ensure that we’re giving each other what we need to live, without compromising our own way of life.

Nobody will feel the need to kill themselves, or kill other people.

This is something that I brought up yesterday during the exercise we did yesterday. I found it weird people didn’t see that as a very important issue. We’ve got people all over the country killing themselves.

Somebody asked me why I brought that up. They looked at my name tag and said, okay!

No disrespect towards the person, but I find it sad that they were wondering why suicide was an issue to me.

And they looked at my name tag and thought, oh, your Aboriginal. You guys are plagued by suicide. You have people dying left and right.

But, suicide is a problem everywhere. We’ve got people dying who don’t need to die and these people in real pain, people that can’t go on. And there are a lot real lessons we can learn from these people. These are people driven to the wall and they feel they can’t continue going on.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from. They’re the ones really affected by the problems and understand what their problems are. When we try to understand what their problems are, then I think we can come up with some real solutions.

Yes, I have been affected by suicide. It’s very important to me because my people are killing themselves.

It’s not just because my younger sister chose to kill herself. It’s because there are people dying and it’s not necessary.

We for a long time only responded to what the emergencies are. Aboriginal communities now are doing a lot of work toward addressing the issue of suicide, because it’s an emergency.

I think it should be an issue for everybody. If there’s one person you know that has committed suicide, one person is too much. We can’t wait until we have 40 per cent, 50 per cent of our people killing themselves. We have to start addressing that right now.

We can’t accept anything that is better than perfect. If we do, we’re going to have this dark and dirty picture I painted. If we don’t aim for something better than perfect, we’re never going to get it.

[Moderator:] I’d like to point out something. In Qajaaq’s notebook, his earlier presentation was his Canada of the 21st century was a bleak version. The title on the second page is my other Canada in the 21st century. I think it is a vision for a Canada we would all prefer to be aiming toward. I just want to include a few more people up here and a few more points...that might dispel some of the darkness. I do want to go back to the idea of nationalism.]

Dubois: You used the expression [earlier], fighting against darkness, or struggling against the darkness — something like that.

I don’t think you can struggle against darkness. You do what you have to do in front of it. You don’t fight it. If you fight it, you make it stronger.

This may sound very childish, but one of my favourite books is The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien and I look at myself very often, especially these years, like Frodo, who has to take the power ring and know its weight and its power and go into the dark lands and drop it into the volcano. The closer he gets to the volcano, the heavier the ring gets and the more tempting it gets. I like the fable Tolkien built.

I think he was right. There’s nothing else to do but to drop the feeling of power, or the need or craving for power and there are many paths that lead to that kind of feeling of struggling for power.

For example, the cult of your own weakness. That’s a very efficient one.

Just to draw a quick picture. I’ve never been a nationalist, but I’ve been an independentist for 20 years.

Let me tell you why. I never believed that the reasons I was given for struggling for independence were based in reality. But, almost everybody around me believed it.

So, I told myself, it’s like a ghost. If someone runs to you, saying: there’s a ghost behind me. There’s no way you can explain to that person, no, I look and I see nothing, because the person will turn and then, of course, the ghost will always be behind.

The only way you can do it is to say, just go against the wall and stay there.

I was what I call an ergotheraputic independentist.

So, let’s get rid of all the excuses and then, well, there will be nothing left but we’ll see what is to be built. Right. That was my position for 20 years, until I realized that that itself was a trap, because the purpose of nationalism was not to solve anything but, to the contrary, to build a struggle for power. And it’s a never ending process.

And it’s never enough. When you shoot yourself with power trips, it’s never enough. You need more and more and more.

At one point I realized how far I’d been going in telling myself stories in order to deal with the fact that it was totally irrelevant, that the stories I was telling myself were completely crazy, just in order not to look at this very specific point.

Sometimes I look at Quebec society, but I think many other societies could be described this way; like people doing belly dancing around a hole in the ground and the only rule is, dance as quick as you can without paying attention to the hole.

So after five minutes, the people witnessing this see only the hole, of course, and those who are dancing.

It’s a rule in theatre: what you are obviously are not looking at, is the only thing the audience will see.

What I mean is three years ago I started some research in order to try and put my ideas back in place right after the referendum, because I opened my mouth at one point.

I was ordered to write a text during the referendum campaign, being an official independentist, and I said, well, I think we have many problems and I have very little time. Do you mind if I do something else other than propaganda for awhile. And the answer was, no!

I realized the rule was stricter than I ever realized and I was taken apart and never spoken [to] for a while.

So, I decided I was going to cancel my vote during the referendum and I publicly said, instead of voting, I was going to draw two little rabbits fucking on my bulletin. And I received many different drawings from different people.

Finally, I voted no.

I’m really too bad in drawing, so I decided to vote no.

After that, I decided to try to rebuild the road. What kind of a path did I follow to get from over there to here? I never believed in nationalism, how come it’s so hard now just to make this move? What are the pieces inside myself that are at play here?

So, I tried to rebuild the thing and it forced me to start reading about history. We talk sometimes about the importance for the younger people and ourselves to know about our history. I couldn’t agree more. When I think even the people who addressed this question the most strongly were way, way behind reality.

It is absolutely crucial that we know — not in order to bring back, "you did that to our ancestors," or that kind of stuff — but just to know what we are made of; not because what we are is defining ourselves, just so that we know it and we know what we do and because I said there are two definitions of my identity.

So, I discovered many terrible things in the history of where I come from. But, most of all I discovered how weakness has been used as a power tool in a wonderful way; very subtle, extremely efficient and I think that’s something we must keep in mind all the time.

For example, there is one line that works very impressively. I remember saying time and time again, that usually people who talk against nationalism are people who lead huge empires. Of course, they don’t mind — they don’t like nationalism. When you’ve got the power, you don’t feel a need for struggling for power and you can teach people, you shouldn’t struggle for power, that’s a very bad thing, of course, when you’re the King.

But, that’s a lie. It’s not true. It’s not because it’s the King saying, yes, it’s because if that’s not what you want you don’t struggle against it, you do something else.

So, if you feel that you have a craving for power , you have to feel it. Okay, go down the road. Use the little ring, feel the great feeling of being invisible and playing tricks to your friends. And then day after day, every time you wear it, you’ll realize that it’s getting on you and it is telling you, "wear me, wear me, wear me" all the time.

And it’s going to get heavier all the time, until you know that the only thing you can do is drop it. That’s it.

But afterward, the end of The Lord of the Rings is very sad, because Frodo and the others are going to have to leave that wonderful Hobbit land where they were living before and there’s a wound that will never heal. That wound is defining themselves, somehow, because what they did is defining themselves. That’s what they are, not Hobbit, but wounded people.

And that’s it.

Bell: I just had a question for John [Gray]. In the first part of your talk, you were talking about change and how we’re always changing. I wonder if you have any words of wisdom on we can make a change from the past and start preparing for changes that are to come?

Gray: I think education is a hugely valuable tool. As Rene was saying, knowing who you are, where you come from is very important. But understanding all the invisible powers and the rings that are being worn at play, looking at history to see how history has handled issues. The more you read the more you will understand about humanity and life and search yourself.

I think our people in the past were quite powerless and disenfranchised and didn’t know really quite what to do. I think asserting yourself and standing up is the most you can do. Try to aim for good; try to do good.

And I think what’s happening with globalization is — I hate that word, globalization — [that] no longer is the world, there’s us and then there’s you. The idea is that we all have to get along on this planet. And every race of people has a place, has value, has something to contribute.

I think as we strive towards humanity, so that we don’t extinct ourselves, so that we don’t prey on each other — that is the goal, that is the ideal.

It isn’t asserting rights just to have power for the sake of power, which is elusive and doesn’t exist anyway. Money exists, though.

Try to do good, try to look at the big picture. There’s no longer "us" and "them." We all have to be brothers and sisters and live together, but don’t let them push you around, either.

*     *     *

My question relates to multiculturalism, which was an integral part of Trudeau’s strategy of pan-Canadianism and strengthening Canadians’ allegiance to the federal government.

We also know that the idea of placing all cultures on equal footing is very problematic for Quebec.

How do you propose to reconcile the demands of the majority of Quebec Francophones...with the notion of multiculturalism?

Could Sen. Oliver and some of the other speakers comment on that tension between multiculturalism and biculturalism, which I recognize is a very exclusive concept for Aboriginal people.

Sen. Oliver: The fundamental basis of multiculturalism policy in Canada as it exists now, and it has to be changed, is based upon the French fact and the English fact of Canada.

So, any new Canadian immigrating to Canada really becomes tangential, because it’s the basic English and French cultural values that form the basis of Canadian multiculturalism. So, if you come from Southeast Asia and you have cultural values that are different you’re not quite a Canadian and that is a major problem.

I didn’t have a chance to express any of my views on multiculturalism because that was the second part of my speech. But, basically I feel that the whole multiculturalism policy has to be looked at very carefully, revamped and revised so that it can get rid of the dichotomy between new Canadians and the old Canadians. You can’t have the hyphenated Canadians that John Gray so eloquently talked about.