07 January 2016

Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto

Author: Rudyard Griffiths
Year of publishing:2009

Like most book lovers, I enjoy the idea of discovering a country, its national character, its quirks through the written word. Some of the first questions that come to my mind when I think of a new country are - what accords it its unique identity; what are its most distinguishing features; what are its beliefs that it carries forward? With most countries, this question of identity is not problematic. Most have enough distinguishing characteristics and national symbols to set them apart. Think Chinese, and you imagine a rather competitive, cut-throat, high-achieving population. Not to forget Chinese food, and cheaply produced assembly products that are flooding the world market. Think Japanese, and you conjure up images of their traditional art and crafts, philosophies, and their meticulousness, You think America, and a dazzling collage of brands and names come to mind.

 Part of Canada's problem of self-perception is having America as its neighbour - an enterprising, saucy, on-the-face giant nation that not only manages to completely overshadow its more mild-mannered neighbour to its North but also makes Canada appear anemic and too "boringly nice."

When I moved to Canada a couple of years ago, I will admit, I did not know very much about it apart from the fact that it is a cold country. I knew it to be prosperous, I knew it to be home to many Punjabis and Sikhs (thanks to Bollywood), and I knew Canada had been extremely generous with its immigration and refugee policies. The country had generously absorbed several waves of refugee influx in the last many decades and had emerged triumphant in being able to offer a safe haven to these newcomers. The country is now home to many wonderful writers, one of them being Shyam Selvadurai who fled his home country, Sri Lanka in the 80s during the Tamil-Sinhala riots.
Yet, this unique destiny that Canada has charted for itself by being home to a record number of immigrants, many of them now visible minority, is changing the composition of the country in irrevocable ways, Much of this immigration is of course in high-density cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. In Toronto, a stunning 40 percent of the population is visible minority (mostly from China, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan).

There is no question that Canada needs immigrants. For a by and large sparsely populated country, that distinguishes itself through its welfare policies -free education and health for all-  it becomes imperative that enough taxes are collected to fund these schemes. Canada wants to use immigration to maintain its ratio of four workers for every one retiree.

But this ever-changing composition of the country - Trudeau's new policy is to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees - can pose several challenges towards preserving the core values and identity of any country. These waves of mass immigration have the potential to completely change the complexion of a country, and without the strong trunk of national identity and social capital, Canada may not necessarily be able to hold all its boughs and twigs together. This is the quandary that author Rudyard Griffiths lucidly discusses in his important book, Who We Are.

I have personally been struggling to understand aspects that define Canada, and while their immigration policy is a stand-out, they do not have many other national symbols or distinguishing features to make it a talking point. Canada, which was largely created on the historical plank of Anti-Americanism, seems to have decided to be unlike Americans, in order to stand apart. So from a very early time, even before the immigration of the present kind, what you got was a rather dispassionate, mild-mannered, cultured group of folks, whose ancestry and loyalty remained with either England or America (for those newcomers who joined later).

Griffiths argues that Canada's loss of political clout on the international stage, its seeming neutrality, its non-aligned nature, it's inability to be seen as a leader is the result of policies of the last several decades, and a result of moving away from Canada's founding principles and values. But his greatest fear is the country growing lack of social cohesion and social capital born out an apathy for advancing the country's history and civic traditions. Societies with diverse and disparate population are historically prone to strife, he says. And without social solidarity and a sense of understanding of who we are, Griffiths believes that "any prolonged national crisis can severely strain the country's institutions and loyalty to each other."

Griffiths feels that without an appreciation of our past and the struggles of previous generations to forge an inspiring civic identity, capable of bridging our ethnic, regional and linguistic differences in common purpose, Canada would face uphill challenges in its attempt to stay united. Yet, he also understands that there is a significant group of people who believe that Canada's "fuzzy and indeterminate nature of what it means to be Canadian" actually works to the country's advantage. The book quotes John Ibbitson who says that Canada would exemplify what can be achieved when "chauvinism gives way to accommodation, when an obsession with shared race, shared blood, shared history are transcended by an infinity of permutations."
According to Pico Iyer, Canada has distinguished itself from America and the rest of Europe by not being bent on asserting a common identity to which all citizens must subscribe. Many commentators likewise believe that for highly pluralistic societies, a strong national identity can be an impediment.

"And this is not just the view of an academic fringe," Griffiths says. "One in three Canadians surveyed felt a 'lack of strong national identity' makes Canada successful.
This post-national vision, he feels can cause "disastrous realignment of our public institutions, civic values, and personal convictions."

There was a considerable furor over writer Yann Martel's statement when he described Canada as "The greatest hotel on Earth: it welcomes people from everywhere."  Martel's comment was meant as a compliment and was in response to a question about why Canada has some of the best writers in the world. But most people thought the metaphor of a hotel to be a "disheartening and dangerous" formulation. A hotel is a symbol of impermanence; you pay bills, follow the rules, but hold no allegiance to it.

Griffiths believes that the metaphor is a damning indictment of what Canada has become - a country of civic slackers that is fast losing its reserves of social capital. He says people have been choosing highly individualized definitions of identity and showing "cavalier disregard" towards the politics of their country. The voting levels are lower than ever; volunteering in truly important and relevant areas are dwindling. Things like volunteering in a church, joining a professional group, becoming a member of a political party - elements that help build an informal network between people - is completely missing, he opines.  It doesn't surprise him that Toronto lays claim to being the city with the most Facebook members worldwide; a by-product of its low overall levels of social capital.

Canada, and especially a city like Toronto has failed to become a melting pot of cultures like Mumbai or New York. People feel more comfortable with members of their own ethnic groups. Call it distrust, or a lack of interest in pursuing friendships with people who don't speak the same idiom; who share a vastly different cultural value-system, Canadians simply do not mingle to a great extent.

Griffiths believes this is a dangerous situation and in the "not-so-distant future we could wake up to find that we are strangers in a strange land, with little in common."
He also says that the time to be aloof is over for Canada, both domestically and on the world stage, as the coming decades will pose plenty of challenges that can potentially test the country and its people.
Without having a sense of nationhood, without being aware of the country's history, its values, its traditions; without strengthening citizenship rules, without creating equal opportunities for immigrants; without immigrants knowing about the country's core civic values and without them following it; without demanding more from its people in terms of national service --- Canada could well find it difficult to sustain itself as one nation. Griffiths devotes considerable space to Quebec and its demand for separate nationhood that was met some years ago. The author says he was distressed to find most people being sanguine about the demand and quite willing to give what was asked. He feels this ran contrary to the essence on which the nation was build - a bilingual, bi-cultural country, that put common values and core principles ahead of any sectarian, ethnic considerations.

Apart from climate change, an aging population is a big worry for Canada. The country runs on welfare schemes and to keep those going would need replenishing its workforce. Griffiths takes a generous, pragmatic view about immigration, and believes it is essential to the country's progress. Yet, the fact is that Canadians earn fully one-third more money than newcomers in the same age and with the same educational qualifications; as many as one in four immigrants are also close to the poverty line. Many foreign degrees are not recognised in Canada; most newcomers do not find jobs in their own fields and have to start afresh or choose a completely different line of work that leads to them earning far less than they could. Housing and child-care are prohibitively expensive, and newcomers bear most of its brunt. Away from loving family members, in a relatively dull, cold country with not many prospects or income is making many immigrants re-consider their choice of Canada. Also, their native countries like China and India are progressing steadily, which makes immigrants start comparing benefits. This is a worry, says Griffiths. Immigration numbers are already going down, and might further dip if enough opportunities are not created for them to integrate into the society and work-force, he says.
 One of the book's fascinating chapters is on Canada's history that talks about the country's earliest settlers who were British (Tories). They were joined by the Loyalists (followers of the Queen) who had to flee America during the American Revolution. They were welcomed to Canada. However, when many poor Americans started coming to Canada, there was resistance, and soon the unequal treatment gave rise to political conflict. It took the wisdom and political sagacity of Robert  Baldwin and La Fontaine to rise above the country's ethnic, sectarian character, and create common laws and common public institutions that emphasized a system of fairness and justice. Canada was a proud, high-achieving nation through the 50s and 60s and was an important player on the world scene. However, much of that eminence the country earned was frittered away, as biculturalism gave way to multiculturalism. It was thought best not to assert the country's history or heroes for fear of making newcomers feel disconnected. This timid and too much political correctness has led to a near complete erosion of Canadian idea of history and values, notes Griffiths.

How come America with its diversity maintains its civic touchstones that help its citizens define who they are as a country? Griffiths is right that the average American takes far more interest in the country's politics and civic life than Canadians do, The average Canadian is disinterested, if not completely apathetic to politics. This, Griffiths believes, must change.

He comes up with several solutions to set the wheel moving in the right direction. A tougher citizenship exam that tests immigrants on Candian history and politics is one of his suggestions. He also recommends having a similar civic literacy test for all students in the country.

After presenting a rather pessimistic view of Canada, Grffiths changes gears to see the brighter side of the country and believes it can expect a more committed approach from both native Canadians and immigrants. In spite of its issues, the author believes Canada has many things going for it. The country is by and large considered far more immigrant-friendly than America and Australia. It is essentially a very prosperous country on account of its rich minerals and natural resources. The biggest advantage is that Canadians today enjoy a reassuring geographical distance from the globe's trouble spots. Griffiths view is that Canada must value itself, and rethink its policies on dual citizenship, that allows people minimum responsibility and maximum benefits. He also puts forth the idea of a national civic service that requires one-quarter of 400,000 Canadians (to be selected by lottery), who turn 18 each year to undertake a mandatory eight-month service for the country. The government, in turn, could give these students a generous subsidy on their higher education.

Griffiths' solutions are reasonable, but the crisis points that he foresees for the country and its future are far more realistic. He is right that mass immigration is going to change the complexity of the country in unimaginable ways. He is right about climate, and its geographical impact to a country that is already one of the coldest in the world. He is right about the class divide that is entering a country which has so far striven to be egalitarian in its approach, and successfully so! He is right that Canada is losing its sense of identity,  and is unable to preserve or celebrate national symbols.

Part of the problem, I believe is that Canadians are a gentle, modest lot, who think it is bad manners to assert one particular identity or culture onto another. Yet, this has led to the country's core vanishing, and this should be distressing to not just native Canadians, but even newcomers who would be far more reassured in a culture that takes pride in its history and culture.

Griffiths considers Canada to be ambitious, a risk-taker, with the ability to go contrary to popular notions. "The Canadian way" is important to Canada in all its decisions. The author believes its immigration policy is its greatest experiment and serves as a model for many other countries. Yet, within that broader idea, there are undoubtedly several pesky issues that need to tackle for the country to preserve its special place in the world.