The Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) recently hosted a three day conference called 6 Degrees at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The event was an opportunity for ordinary citizens to discuss issues of civic engagement with thought leaders around the world. For our group, we attended the morning lecture that focused on the topic of Inclusion in Canada. It was moderated by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson whom welcomed us to the discussion and informed us we are currently on the land of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, to humbly remind us that today we are here because the notion of inclusion is so delicately weaved into every thread of our Canadian identity. Several speakers for this specific topic were present on stage: political scientist Denise Dresser, author and world-traveler Pico Iyer, mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi, and International Relations chair at the European University Institute Jennifer Welsh.
One speaker who stood out for me was political scientist Denise Dresser. By way of introduction, Clarkson said ‘she is known as La Gringa in her native Mexico’ because she can pass as an American based on her looks. She tells us that as a NAFTA partner she knows a great deal about us, but asks what we really know about Mexico. She discusses how Canada has successfully adopted inclusion into our social identity, using Mexico as an example of a place that still has its own battles to face that we have already resolved: gay marriage is still banned, abortions are still illegal, poverty is much too prevalent. And it’s time we start to teach the lessons we have learned to the world, including to our NAFTA partner, whom we’ve never had to learn much about since we are the country with more political leverage. After discussions, the floor was open to the audience, one of whom was a prominent member of the Mississaugas of New Credit Nation.
Upon introducing himself, Adrienne Clarkson welcomed him, and without missing a step he thanked her hospitality- and welcomed her right back. The irony of the moment was not lost on the audience as uproarious laughter ensued. We later attended one of three workshops available, and I chose Language and Politics: how language influences our politics and vice versa. There were four speakers: Pico Iyer, Denise Dresser, journalist for Al-Jazeera Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, and Miami Herald journalist John Yearwood. Again, Denise brought up some interesting insights about how language can shape our politics, pointing out that in Spanish there are very little words to describe the foundations of liberal democracy. If a culture doesn’t have the vocabulary to even communicate the ideals, then how could we begin to develop it? She’s reminding us that it’s not just about public policy- even words have a power to facilitate notions of inclusion.
‘Inclusion’ itself was a significant choice of word, rather than say, ‘accommodate’. Inclusion has more an air of acceptance, whereas ‘accommodate’ suggests tolerance, and consequently, an underlying hostility or reluctance to make space. Inclusion is a relationship between equals and not one host charitably giving to another. This was none too clear in the beautifully unscripted interaction between Adrienne Clarkson and the member of the Mississaugas of New Credit Nation. In Ms. Clarkson’s defence, I feel she was welcoming him to the open space of the conference, but in turn, he reminded her he too had a say in welcoming her, as this space was first inhabited by his nation. Both had their ways to include one another, reminding us that there are so many ways, so many degrees of inclusion that even using the same words of welcome can have completely different meaning. So there’s really no reason that we can’t come together in the end.