Opinion

The World Needs More of Canada's Tolerant Hoser Wisdom

We’re far from perfect. But on better days, we punch bigotry in the face.

By Mitchell Anderson 7 Dec 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee columns here.

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What can the world learn from Bob and Doug McKenzie? Could Canada’s most famous toque-wearing beer-swillers represent the pinnacle of human achievement? As the world struggles with ethnicity and tolerance, our country is arguably at the vanguard of human cultural accommodation -- perhaps one of few nations on Earth where even our hosers seem largely immune to bigotry.

Seem far-fetched? Consider this video produced by York University students last year after the tragic shooting of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo on Parliament Hill. On the eve of Cirillo’s highly charged Hamilton funeral, the students secretly filmed a ruse where a man dressed in traditional Islamic garb was apparently harassed by a bigot at a bus stop.

All of the engaged bystanders intervened on the Muslim man’s behalf, including a local tough in a toque and mack jacket who bragged that he was “going to go home and put on a turban or a dress” and wait for the first person to tell him he couldn’t walk down the street. His buddy then socked the faux bigot in the mouth and they both chased him off under threat of further “fucking him up.”

Likewise, the nation’s media descended on the small town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 2006 when word got out that two male RCMP officers were being wed in their iconic Red Serge uniforms. The press was obviously on a mission to secure the wedding pictures or perhaps inflammatory comments from the locals. They got neither.

While Yarmouth is hardly the most gay-positive place in the country, the officers were well liked and respected in spite of some good natured ribbing as “the brokeback mounties.” One exasperated lobster fisherman told a reporter baiting him for a print-worthy opinion, “It doesn't bother me one bit. As long as they're doing their jobs properly, I couldn't care less about it.”

There are many more examples of Canadian “intolerance of intolerance.” Meanwhile Europe, for all its old-world history and intellectual achievements is rife with neo-fascist gangs and populist parties opposed to immigration -- now making big gains at the polls. And in spite of electing their first black president, the United States is a long way from resolving their race issues, as evidenced by the extreme views of Donald Trump and others now nudging into the American mainstream.

Here in Canada, political conservatives know it’s politically fatal to stray far from the tolerant mainstream. Stephen Harper’s fate was sealed when he broke with 10 years of tight message control and played to the cheap seats around the niqab non-issue and the laughable notion of a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Many hardcore Conservative supporters were disgusted with this departure from core Canadian culture that saw the Tories banished to the political wilderness where they may remain for years.

Far from perfect

So is everything awesome in Canada? Of course not. There is always a danger in engaging in self-satisfied smugness, so allow me to start with a personal note of contrition. As a somewhat financially secure middle-aged white male living in one of the luckiest places in history, I am highly unqualified to hold forth on issues related to intolerance. Mea maxima culpa.

We first need to own up to our own heinous history of racism, particularly to Canada’s First Nations, who endured the residential school system, the Potlatch laws and gross injustices through the treaty process. Everyday intolerance persists as evidenced by the recent soul-searching in Winnipeg about pervasive local bigotry. Our country also has a long way to go to improve horrific housing conditions in First Nations communities and the troubling rates of incarceration of native people. Hopefully our new aboriginal justice minister will help turn the page on these and other injustices.

Canada has its share of shameful examples in shunning diasporas of different backgrounds, including the Chinese head tax, the ill-fated Komagata Maru and the MS St. Louis, filled with Jewish refugees that were refused entry by Cuba, the U.S. and Canada. After returning to Europe, about one-quarter of the passengers perished in the death camps -- a terrible tale of fatal xenophobia famously chronicled in the Voyage of the Damned.

Canada is also not immune to isolated acts of idiocy, and there have been some recent examples. However, even verbal assaults often make front-page news in this country, and the community response almost always eclipses such anonymous cowardice.

We also have a great deal of space, and being surrounded by three oceans and the U.S. don’t face the challenges of having thousands storm our borders. This no doubt contributes to our comparative generosity to newcomers. As Canada proves every day, people are just people regardless of where they come from, and we are no more intrinsically egalitarian than anyone else -- just luckier.

Whatever the reasons, it seems Canada has become the most tolerant country on Earth. The recently released Legatum Prosperity Index ranked Canada the most welcoming country in the world to immigrants. We take in new Canadians totalling almost one per cent of our population each year, a rate unmatched anywhere else.

This hospitable reputation has become an economic advantage. While our technology and talent still lag behind that of other nations, Canada benefits for better or worse from a reverse brain-drain as thousands of gifted people flock to our country.

The world could learn a lot from Canada and speaking as a Canadian, it frankly seems to have a long way to go. The festering ghettos of Paris and Brussels are an obvious breeding ground for racial resentment fuelled by generations of economic inopportunity. An overzealous police response to the Paris attacks will do little to make potential candidates for extremism feel like they are included or respected.

Don’t make us be impolite

Canada was not created in a policy meeting. Our country happens in kindergarten, where children from across the globe find common purpose on the playground long before they might be indoctrinated by arbitrary intolerance delightfully inexplicable to a six-year-old. Canada happens at wedding receptions when couples from different ethnicities force their parents to interact with in-laws from elsewhere in the world or else miss seeing their children get married.

Canada occurs when we push each other’s cars out of snow banks or share a bus shelter when it’s 20 below. Our harrowing winters are a humbling and unifying force that have long scoured any personal precepts of superiority. Likewise, frontier folks of yore had little time or patience for old world trappings of class -- there was wood to be cut and fields to be ploughed regardless of a person’s presumptive pedigree.

Newer Canadians often share the trauma of being expelled from elsewhere, breeding a healthy distrust of extremism. Generations of refugees fleeing the toxic politics of their home country are all too happy to leave such hatred behind, our borders becoming an accidental osmotic filter for intolerance while allowing cultural contributions to pass through.

Ever heard of a Scottish restaurant? Me neither. Newcomers no doubt felt an urgent need to fill the bland void of second-hand Anglo-Saxon cuisine with better culinary options from virtually every other place on the planet. Likewise our art, music, drama and literature are seasoned with sprigs of cultural old growth from around the globe. Canada has become a cultural potluck feast where there’s blessedly more baba ghanoush than Jello casserole.

Lastly, Canadians are famously, excessively and annoyingly polite. But perhaps this national habit of deference is merely a social code to allow such a diverse group of people to move about their daily lives while reminding each other that any perceived slight is not meant to give offence. All of this adds up to a place that is remarkably better than most at being inclusive.

And Bob and Doug? Like most Canadians real or fictional, they just want to have a good time and avoid overthinking things -- another important inoculant to extremism. But if someone starts acting like an asshole or racist, they might just receive some impolite face punching, honed on the hockey rink.

No apology there. (Sorry.)  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics,

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