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Summer Conference 2002

Rima Berns McGown

René Lavoie

Session Four – Social Inclusion in the Globalized Urban Environment
RÉNE LAVOIE, Directeur general, Action Séro Zéro (bio)
RIMA BERNS McGOWN, Writer/independent scholar (bio)
ROGER OBONSAWIN, President, O.I. Group (bio)

Synopsis by Sonali Thakkar

The Moderator began the session by pointing out that it is a great tragedy that we let capital flow freely, but nonetheless continue to limit the movement of people into our countries. He wondered as to how we can ensure that we are giving rights to citizens instead of capital, and stressed the need to recognize all people and their skills in order to create more vital, healthy and inclusive cities.

Roger Obansawin, President, O.l. Group

Mr. Obansawin began by explaining that as a student in 1969, he was confronted with a speaker from the Department of Indian Affairs who discussed Native rights and services, and who suggested that allowing Natives to administer their own welfare would be self-government. Obansawin described this as "administration of our own poverty." He suggested instead that the way to begin is by building your own community and then looking at how you can help others with the resources you have. He emphasized that when people’s abilities aren’t maximized, social exclusion occurs, which in turn leads to aggression, hostility and passivity. Tracing the history of Aboriginal migration into the cities, he explained that lack of opportunities led to the migration into cities, where Aboriginals were not absorbed in a productive way; even today, many have not been able to take advantage of urban opportunities. According to Obansawin, 152 years of attempted assimilation backed by money have failed, and it is now time to allow Aboriginals to find their own solutions; central to this shift is a recognition that for the government’s definition of inclusion is assimilation, whereas the Aboriginal view of inclusion is integration.

Mr. Obansawin’s proposal for how to address the dilemmas of Aboriginals in the cities revolved around taxation. Noting that Natives agreed to share, not give, the lands of Canada in exchange for certain rights (including freedom from taxation and conscription), he suggested that Natives be able to use their own tax revenue for the improvement of their community. He specified that the government should not tax aboriginal ventures, allowing tax immunity till Aboriginals achieve income parity with other Canadians. Such a policy would allow a self-financing of economic development free from government control, and Obansawin underscored the need to develop Native economies as a key factor in the creation of a more inclusionary environment. Stressing the importance of tribal sovereignty, Obansawin explained that because inclusion has not worked, Natives need, in a sense, to be excluded in order to be able to solve their own problems and then become part of the system. Obansawin concluded by pointing out that the policy of domination and assimilation exists, and persists, because it’s based on the theory of Canada as terra nullis–the idea of empty land, free for the taking, and that this theory continues to fuel misconceptions about Natives.

René Lavoie, Dirécteur général, Action Séro Zéro

Actively involved with issues of HIV/AIDS and a militant in the gay community for the past 20 years, Lavoie explained that his experiences haven’t revolved around the concept of globalization, but around the practices of entrenched poverty. He explored the difference between the terms ‘globalization’ and ‘mondialization,’ pointing out that the latter seems to include more about culture. In the context of previous seminar discussions, he suggested that most of the discussion had focused on the container–the city, and less on the contained–the people.

He asked whether, as cities become larger, we are moving back towards a version of the city-state as it existed in the Middle Ages. Acknowledging that this question is often framed in economic terms, he asked how we can protect the role of the ordinary citizen in the new mega-city. One important element singled out by Lavoie is the need to try to find smaller common denominators in large cities that bring people together. He provided the example of pressure exerted in Montreal (during amalgamation) to ensure that the city would keep the system of ‘arrondisements,’ which afford the citizen a certain proximity to services such as libraries and to their representatives, which in turn encourages involvement in local politics. Citing apathy towards local politics as a concern, Lavoie pointed out that cities don’t always have the ability to deal with major issues, such as health.

Raising the question of the epidemic in cities, he evoked the example of the Plague in the Middle Ages, describing its shaping effect on the cities it affected. In the case of AIDS, there is a higher rate of urban infection, which raises specific issues and concerns in the city. One of these issues is that health is not a city issue, which then often interferes with the administering of public health. He explained that the city needs to work closely with the right authorities, and stressed the need to empower individuals and communities in order to increase the delivery of health services. He questioned how, if one works in the community and wishes to build a community-based health care program, one can do so within the complex system involving the provincial and federal governments and all the ministries.

Rima Berns McGown, Writer/Independent Scholar

McGown began by raising the question of perspective as it underlies the understanding of difference, and the way in which this affects the inclusion of minorities and immigrants. She mentioned that as a writer, she’s exposed to a great deal of debate about voice appropriation, and the question of who has the right to speak for whom. While she argued that it is important to be able to imagine ourselves in others’ shoes, there is a need to be careful. She explained that we have to recognize the ground we stand on, or our own perspective, so that when we tell our stores and try to talk about difference, we can still ensure authenticity. She stressed the importance of writing about difference in such a way that the things we write about do not seem ‘othered,’ and explained that authentic ground means that we have a perspective that is not interested in the preservation of dominance.

McGown emphasized the importance of narrative and storytelling, explaining that how we tell and interpret stories is central to the way in which we construct identity. Drawing on theorists such as bell hooks and Edward Said, she explained that certain perspectives about other ethnic groups, races and cultures are enshrined in even our classic works of literature and ideas, and thus become entrenched. Thus, it is the responsibility of each individual to ensure that they stand on authentic ground, which involves a process of self-examination. Giving the example of her own experience writing a book on Somalis in Toronto and London, and what it means to be Mulsim in the West, McGown explained that she found people very open and not reticent about discussing their views with her, and suggested that she could not have gotten very far without a basic respect for the people she was speaking to. Describing the experiences of those immigrants when confronted for the first time with the experience of being viewed as ‘different’ (for reasons of religion and colour), she explained that these Somali immigrants had to try to understand what it meant to be a Muslim in this new country, thus reimagining and recreating their religion and sense of identity. Describing the differences between the experience of Somali immigrants in London and Toronto, McGown explained that Somalis in Toronto felt that their cultural imaginings were more welcome there, and that this is perhaps because in Toronto, immigration is not only viewed as acceptable, but as necessary and beneficial. Evoking Pico Iyer’s description of Toronto as a unique city in which it is possible to patch together an identity from all kinds of different sources, McGown suggested that this ability is what gives Toronto, and Canada, its particular political culture. She stressed the importance of accepting and including the imaginings and narratives of all people in order to prevent marginalization, which in turn leads to apathy and even revolution. McGown ended by stressing the need for whole polities, not just their intellectuals, to think about authentic ground and how to find it.

The Moderator, in his closing remarks, pointed out that due to the high rate of immigration to cities, cities are in a unique position to discuss and examine the more general processes of globalization and its effect on culture. He noted that culture had been the link between all three panelists, and pointed out that education and the importance of educational opportunities were recurring themes, suggesting that these ideas of inclusion, identity and culture need to be addressed within the schools.