Mosaic of Cultures

Balwinder William Sundhu – Keynote Speech for Mosaic of Cultures – at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, British Columbia – Sunday, April 19, 2009.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Honoured Guests:

It’s wonderful to see all these smiling faces so early on a Sunday morning. No doubt, some had to choose between attending religious functions this morning and attending this Mosaic of Cultures. I heard a story told by Gore Vidal recently, when asked how a couple of different religious affiliation decided which church to go to – he said, “one Sunday we choose not to go to my church, and then next Sunday we choose not to go to her church.”

Thank you for being here to celebrate our mosaic of cultures. And, I hope you’ll indulge me this morning – for looking at culture and diversity, seriously. I hope you will agree: Culture and diversity is more than costumes and cuisine – more than mere celebration.

One might ask:
What sort of country do we want to live in?
What sort of country do we already live in?
What do we like? Who are we?
What is our past, present and future?

This from Canada: A People’s History:

On June 28, 1886, Macdonald boarded the first transcontinental train. It had started in Halifax and was bound for Vancouver. Macdonald saw the west for the first time from a special luxury car, observing the clam plains through his window.

Immigration to the west had stalled, due to the rebellion, harsh winters, and failed crops, and only the most determined stayed…

Macdonald stopped along the route to campaign – an election was only months away. In the foothills he met with Crowfoot. “My chiefs fear for their children, that food would not be given them,” the chief told Macdonald. “I ask you Sir John to help banish these fears.” Macdonald gave him a new suit and William Van Horne sent him a permanent pass for the CPR.

The Plains chiefs who had witnessed the destruction of their traditional culture and livelihoods did not survive long into the new era…

On the afternoon of April 17, 1890, Crowfoot himself lay dying in his tent near the present site of Gleichen, Alberta, surrounded by friends. His mother, who was well into her nineties, was among his last living relatives, a small, mute witness to a century of change. “A little while and I will be gone from among you,” Crowfoot told them. “From nowhere we came; into nowhere we go. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in wintertime. It is the little shadow that moves across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” At the end of a long obituary in the Macleod Gazette, Father Lacombe wrote, “He is no more. No one like him will fill his place.”

Macdonald won a comfortable majority in the 1887 election, his political gamble paying off…1

And, this from the Judgment of the British Columbia Court of Appeal, in R. v. Munshi Singh, 2 involving the passengers of the Komagata Maru, settlers from India who were denied passage and entry into Canada in 1914:

It is plain that upon study of the question, the Hindu race as well as the Asiatic races in general, are in their conception of life and ideas of society fundamentally different to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic races, and the European races in general.

…without disparagement to them, undesirables in Canada, where a very different civilization exists, the laws of this country are unsuited to them and their ways and ideas may well be a menace to the well-being of the Canadian people.

…their customs are not in vogue and their adhesion to them here only giving rise to disturbances destructive to the well-being of society and against the maintenance of peace, order and good government.

…Better that peoples on non-assimilative, and by nature properly non-assimilative race should not come to Canada, but rather that they should remain of residence in their country of origin and there do their share as they have in the past in the preservation and development of the future.

Reflecting popular sentiment, this was Canadian justice. It was decades before restrictions were lifted against various racial and ethnic groups.

What does it mean to Canadians? Let us look at recent events of our neighbour to the south.

Obama’s Victory and Race: What Does It Mean To Canadians?

The election of Barack Obama as U.S. President is not only historic; it is a tectonic shift in symbolism and the way most of humanity has come to see power, equality and their place in the world. Obama has transcended nationhood to capture the imagination and hopes of peoples around the globe. In a sense, he has become – if even, for the honeymoon phase – everybody’s President, from Kenya to Indonesia. Many of my generation never thought we’d live to see the day a person of colour ascend to the Presidency of the United States.

Canada’s Globe and Mail News headline read, “Has America Overcome?” Forty-five years ago, Reverend King spoke, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” He famously authored, “Why We Can’t Wait.” Much progress has been made and yet many of the hopes and promises of the Civil Rights era remained unfulfilled. Some may have even lost the faith of a more perfect union and of racial equality. For many of the masses around the world, from Nairobi to Damascus, this is an enormous political achievement in the history of the world. This is poignantly so for those whose histories included slavery and colonialism by the European West. We will all remember where we were on the evening of November 4, 2008.

What does this mean to us as Canadians? There is a tendency to be self-righteous and morally superior to Americans on the questions of race in this country – given the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in the USA. We have no basis for such self-satisfaction and comfort. In modern context, our racism may not always be as overt or brazen – but, it exists. It is hidden and insidious.

The institutions and power structure of this country remain remarkably white and, for the most part, male. They do not reflect the true and ever-changing face of Canada. This amounts to exclusion and inequality for many Canadians. The newly appointed federal cabinet is a minimalist effort to include a wider mosaic of faces – it is hardly representative. It is the same with provincial governments, civil service, boardrooms, judiciary and administrative bodies from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to Port Authorities. The causes are often systemic and inadvertent – but not always. Denial too is a part of the discourse. To allege discrimination becomes a social infraction. Victims are often disparaged and discredited – as malcontents, lacking merit or as an excess of political correctness – because it is an offence against our myth of equality. The occasional “diversity” appointments, while welcome, are held up with an exaggerated belief of our openness – but such occurrences are inadequate. They do not reflect the quality and numbers held by women and persons of colour in this society.

Barack Obama when confronted with the Reverend Wright controversy addressed the American people in a now famous speech last March that, “race is an issue that this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Can the same not be said of us? Is equality a concept Canadians truly understand and respect? Are we prepared to appoint a person of colour to the highest court in the land or elect a woman or person of colour as a Premier or Prime Minister? The republic to the south is once again ahead of us on these important questions.

Inequality is real and has potential to cause social conflict. It is a drag on Canada’s capacity for progress and productivity. Exclusion reflects injustice and the immorality of inequality. It is a breach of promise not just to our highest ideals – we are a multiracial and multiethnic democracy constitutionally committed to equality and non-discrimination. We Canadians have no right to feel complacency or superiority to Americans – as we are often prone to do – even, as we share in the pride of history made by the republic to the south.

A wise person once wrote if we do not ask the questions; we will cease to find the answers. We have come a long way from the legal and practiced discrimination of the past. And yet, we have our own blind spots and inequality. There remain unfortunate gaps between rhetoric and reality.3

These are “uncomfortable” – difficult, questions and matters – because they require us to look at ourselves; to look in the mirror – and that takes courage and honesty. But, we need to talk to each other and expand our understanding and knowledge – not just about each other – but, to serve the interests of our common future as Canadians.

We, Canadians, have indeed come a long way. Still, every generation has its challenges – and, our generation is not so unique.

Five million Canadians were born outside of the country. Six million are “visible minorities.” In the U.S.A., by 2042, the majority will be of non-European origin. Canada’s largest cities are nearing 50% non-white population. We may be the first multicultural, truly global country. We have been endowed with enormous opportunities and challenges. We are one of the richest societies in the history of the world.

No future is assured. It is up to us and dependent on the choices we make – about our environment, pursuit of knowledge and innovation, and capacity to adapt and to truly practice and live by our ideals. That will require inclusion – real, meaningful, genuine equality – so that all voices and aspirations are heard. Our mutual self-interest and well-being will depend on it. Our choices will make us who we are.

I thank you for your patience.

Balwinder William Sundhu: resides in Kamloops, British Columbia, is a lawyer and former judge, member of Kellogg College and Masters Programme in International Human Rights law at the University of Oxford.

1. CANADA: A People’s History, Vol. 2, Don Gillmor, Achille Michaud & Pierre Turgeon, Copyright 2001 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, printed by McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, 2002, pp. 48-50.

2. 1914 Carswell BC 255, 6 W.W.R. 1347, pp. 21-22.

3. reproduced from article written by the author dated November 5, 2008.