Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Look In The Mirror


There is a scene in the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, (about the Scopes Monkey Trial) where Spencer Tracey and Frederic March, courtroom adversaries, discuss faith. March insists it is necessary for the masses to believe in something beautiful; it makes their lives more palatable. Tracy counters with a story about his childhood yearning for Golden Dancer, a rocking horse he had long coveted in a store window. With much scrimping and saving by his parents, he awoke one morning to find it at the base of his bed.

But the story does not have a happy ending. The first time he rode it, it fell apart, so poorly constructed was it, "put together with spit and sealing wax. All shine and no substance."  This story relates to the ignorance and bigotry that hides behind great displays of religiosity, as evident in a previous scene, and is a major subtext of the entire film as science, in the form of evolution, confronts biblical literalism.

That got me thinking about the power of myth, both for good and ill, which brought me around to the often destructive influence of national myths, ones that are foundational to how people see their countries and themselves. Some are obviously destructive, such as American exceptionalism and the belief in the United States as a land of unparalleled opportunity, where anyone can become anything.

Then there are those that suggest something good, like Canada being an accepting, tolerant land that welcomes all and treats everyone well. As recent events have shown, we can no longer accept such anodyne myths as approximations of truth. They conceal too much ugly reality.

Consider, for example, this:

Before the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found in British Columbia last month, two-thirds of Canadians say, they knew a little or nothing about the history of this country’s residential school system.

It’s one of the findings in a survey commissioned by the Canadian Race Relation Foundation and the Assembly of First Nations.

They polled Canadians the week after the discovery at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., was announced.

For many Canadians, it seems to have been a moment of shattered ignorance.

As Tom Parkin reports, ignoring reality was at the forefront of Jagmeet Singh's recent angry speech in the House of Commons, prompted both by the unmarked Indigenous graves and the horror that took place in London, Ontario.

“Some people have said, ‘This is not our Canada,’ ” Singh told MPs.

“But the reality is, this is our Canada. We can’t deny it. We can’t reject that, because it does no one any help. The reality is: Our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people.”

Singh may be sensing a widespread mood. In an opinion poll Leger released last week, 57 per cent of Canadians said the Kamloops graves made them “question the whole moral foundation that Canada has been based on.”

Parkin says this is not a message that Canada's political and business leaders will take kindly to or promote.

The deaths and burials at residential schools were known by Indigenous families, but news media didn’t tell those stories. Nor is the frustration with ongoing racism, and fear of violent racists, new in Canada. Many Canadians live with both every day.

These are the experiences of what political science calls the “subaltern” classes of society — groups who have no say and no command in politics or business. And they certainly don’t decide the meaning of their country. Not usually, anyway.

Subaltern society is divided into identities, each pushed to the margins of political discourse, isolated from each other, and without the common networks, culture, or political language to tell a common and unifying story. That now seems to be changing.

“This is our Canada” isn’t just a demand to look objectively at Canada’s past; it’s a call to disparate people to find a new moral basis for their country. 

And it is also a call for all of us to take a good, long look in the mirror.


  1. Lorne, you're being too hard on yourself.

    If we are to take Jagmeet's rants as sincere, he has obviously succumbed to the delusion that his predecessors in politics and other storytellers have used to contend a distinctive Canadian brand of exceptionalism. No group of people should be expected to live within the fantasy its leaders and opinion-shapers invent as they book their time.

    Jagmeet sounds like a man in search of a Heritage Moment, and that's okay; they were due for a revision.

    1. One of things I bear in mind, John, when I read comments like those of Singh's, is the fact that as a member of a visible minority, he has experienced racism throughout his life. That is his reality and the reality of countless others in Canada, whether native-born or of foreign birth.

      Even ignoring recent events and revelations, it is not hard to uncover this unpleasant truth about our country. Even though I am white, I could tell you stories from the Italian side of my family (my mother's parents were from Italy) of terrible behaviour directed toward my mother and her sisters when they were in school from the Catholic nuns. Of course, there was also internment of Italians during the Second World War, although their incarceration hardly matched what was done to Japanese-Canadians.

      Those are but two of the reasons I cannot take issue with Singh's comments.

    2. I get it. Yabbuts will be deferred to the long-overdue long conversation that it's looking less likely the country may have one day.


  2. .. I've reread this post several times - wondering each time if I have a valid comment & I'm still unsure. The broad context really bothers me. I think that's where I strand myself. So I look more macro inside myself for a seed or truth of an idea or belief.. a starting point

    Full disclosure - I am pretty certain I know and have known more about Canada's Residential Schools than 99.99999 Canadians (excluding First Nations people as I can't speak for them)

    I have a lot of trouble re Canada & Muslims. I also have trouble re Israel & Palestine

    Are you seeing a common thread Lorne ? I appear to have trouble with 'organized religion'

    When organized religion sticks its nose into the tent or the Canadian Environment I get pretty testy.. Just add money and I get really fired up. The 'holier than thou's' in Politics today really stick in my craw. Add lazy ass Mainstream Media and I'm many stages beyond outrage.

    When a punkass psycho from London goes postal whether with a gun or a truck it could just as easily been a group of Catholic school girls or 4 kids fishing by a stream. I know a fair bit about murderous rage in a completely fractured and distorted mind. We can't draw broad inferences about Canada from such a sad case.. nor can we conflate it with Residential Schools

    I have seen frightening things - I have seen the 'boogy man' and I have seen tragedy. What we can control and should muster is our individual actions & choices.. Again 'the better angels' Owen mentions... and that starts in our neighborhoods, our schools & communities.. in our hearts and minds

    1. You raise some very interesting points here, Sal, but I will just deal with your last one: "What we can control and should muster is our individual actions & choices.. Again 'the better angels' Owen mentions... and that starts in our neighborhoods, our schools & communities.. in our hearts and minds."

      There is a letter in today's Star that, I think, reflects those sentiments nicely, and I reproduce it here:

      Reading about the need to challenge and fight hate, I am struck by the fact that there is nothing mentioned about the best way to counter it: to reach out to all, to love as strongly and vehemently as the hater.

      I am not advocating hugging your neighbour, but simply and consciously creating an atmosphere that allows for “the other” to feel safe and accepted.

      Austin Repath, Toronto

      When all is said and done, it really is up to each of us to help realize the kind of country our mythology tells us Canada is all about.