Losing The Soul Of Our Nation (January 2011)

Was the security team at the recent Quebec National Assembly wrong to refuse entry to several Sikh Canadians carrying their ceremonial kirpans?

Certainly, how we should balance the demands of public security with the right to freedom of religion is an important question that justifies a national conversation among all Canadians.  A nation cannot strengthen and progress without national discussion and consensus on fundamental moral issues that affect the fabric of society.

But not only did our prime minister and his government fail to enter the debate, they also failed to condemn the attempt by parochial partisan Quebec politicians to cast the debate as a purely Quebec issue, with Quebec “secularism” pitted against alien Canadian “multiculturalism.”

With its silence, our national government abdicated its fundamental role to govern for all Canadians and to speak for one Canada. But this should come as no surprise. This is the same political party that cannot bring itself to use the word “Canada” in its French advertising in Quebec, opting instead for the phrase “Notre région au pouvoir” – a cynical play for nationalist voters who have little attachment to Canada.

It is time for Canadians to raise the alarm and demand answers.

If our national life is reduced to simply managing the economy and federal-provincial relations, not rocking the boat; if the provinces and courts become the default focal point of all serious moral debate; if we come together only in celebration at sporting events, and in grief over the casualties of war and environmental catastrophes, then we are losing the soul of our nation.

If we lose our connection with and responsibility for other Canadians – regardless of residence, religion, income, or country of origin – then we will fail to realize the great promise of building a vibrant, innovative, pluralist 21st-century nation that can be an example to the world.  Our international presence and coherence will fade, and the world and country we leave to our children and grandchildren will be much diminished.

If we are to increase our internal strength and global potential, we have to understand what draws us together as a nation. A national discussion must begin with the recognition that people are not knocking on Canada’s door because we are “tolerant.”  Our welcome mat does not say, “Please come here, and know that as long as you do not bother anyone, no one will bother you.”  Tolerance cannot be an end in itself. We owe each other more than tolerance. We must move beyond a passive “tolerance” for our increasingly diverse population to a more robust respect for our neighbours that will allow us to work together in facing the profound challenges of the day.

So we cannot shrink or hide from national debates over the whole range of rights and responsibilities of Canadian citizens. Quebec should not be alone in engaging in vigorous public debate over the niqab and the kirpan. The courts in British Columbia should not be the only forums prepared to address issues such as polygamy. Such issues are matters of national debate and deserve attention from Canada as a whole.

We urgently need a national government that will govern for all Canadians, rather than abandon the field to the provinces and the courts – a national government that provides clear moral leadership and that can lead the discussion on issues of polygamy, the carrying of kirpans, and the wearing of niqabs. We need our national representatives to publicly debate the competing values and interests at stake and to promote a national consensus that may not satisfy everyone, but will allow us to have a better understanding and shared sense of the kind of society and nation that we are building.

As a nation, we need to be collectively responsible for maintaining values of gender equality and non-discrimination, even if this leads us to hold inconvenient debates over the propriety of cultural or religious norms.

We need open, civil, national discussion about the right to freedom of religion and how to balance that right with the need for public security. We can agree that we all have the right to practise the faith of our choice. But we must also agree that we all have a clear responsibility not to express prejudice and incite hatred and discrimination against those of different beliefs. This shared understanding should facilitate consensus on what might constitute legitimate public security restrictions, for instance on the carrying of ceremonial daggers. This consensus is then far less likely to be the subject of manipulation by petty provincial politicians aiming to divide Canadians and undermine the fabric of Canada.

We are Canadians without borders, looking outward to an exciting future in the networked age of the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and WikiLeaks. We know that we are not as divided about the fundamentals of our great country as our politicians seem to think. We know that we are stronger when we work together.

What draws us together as Canadians is opportunity, both economic and social. Canada must represent the best of universal values – justice, equality, diversity, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, equal rights, and non-discrimination. We want a chance to live in peace, to build a progressive, multi-ethnic democracy in which economic prosperity coincides with environmental preservation.

For Canada to be a global leader, as it can and should be, its strength must come from a unity of purpose: to pull together our huge and growing pool of exceptional human talent with the best-quality education, from childcare to post-secondary; to become more than producers of raw materials for emerging markets; to be credible, global players in the growing number of areas of our national life that have an international dimension requiring global cooperation (most notably, the crucible issue of our time – climate change); in short, to build a better Canada and world for future generations.

It is time for our national government and representatives to step up to the plate, to stop avoiding us and resisting serious debate, to provide clear moral and ethical leadership, and to speak to our collective obligations to our fellow citizens, regardless of province or territory.

We need bold and visionary national leadership to inspire us to confidently take on the problems we face and to convey a sense of forward motion in our complex world. We need leaders who refuse to pander to prejudice and parochialism. We need leaders who are poets, not pollsters.

Nothing less than the soul of our nation is at stake.