A Senior Moment: ‘The Other’

Along with several grade two classmates, I would eagerly escape our public elementary school promptly at 3:30.

Once off the property on one particular afternoon, we happened to meet a similar group of kids from a separate school occupying the same block. We promptly began to taunt them with name-calling and childish threats. Being fewer in numbers and overmatched in physical size, they decided to ignore us and just keep walking. Eventually, after being unable to provoke our would-be adversaries, we lost interest. This was my first encounter with “the other.” (Looking back at that incident, I am now understandably ashamed of my actions.)

In high school, one of these same Catholic students played with me on our Downsview football team. He was no longer “the other.” That designation now became pinned on the opposing team from Bathurst Heights with their hated green and white uniforms. Of course, they viewed us with the same disdain. It was a grudge match between us and them.

Sociologists define “the other” as an ‘out group’, a collective who do not share our social identity. Conversely, we define our own identity in terms of not being one of them. As Canada celebrates its significant 150th birthday, it provides an appropriate opportunity to explore the question of how we have evolved as a nation to shape that identity.

 Peter Russell, the eminent Canadian historian, appeared as Michael Enright’s guest a week ago on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition. He is the author of Canada’s Odyssey (University of Toronto Press, 2017.) In this scholarly work, Professor Russell reminds his readers that Canada was founded on treaties among three, not two, equal peoples or nations—the “three pillars” with the third being our indigenous population.

Historically, French Canada has fought to achieve political power, not just recognition of its unique culture. As we celebrate our 150th Anniversary of Confederation, we have become more aware that Indian, Inuit and Metis peoples are increasingly demanding similar political power and autonomy. On that basis, Professor Russell describes Canada as not only a multicultural, but a multinational country.

Too often throughout our short history, each of these three founding nations has defined itself as being separate and distinct from “the other’” two groups. In 1980 and 1995 deeply-rooted tensions boiled over around the two Quebec referenda to determine independence. Currently, similar tensions are fomenting over Indigenous land claims, oil pipelines and hunting and fishing rights. Can we continue to live together as one Canada while still respecting the uniqueness and partial autonomy of each of its three member nations?

That controversial teepee now occupying a small corner of Parliament Hill over this celebratory weekend will remind us of the longstanding and unresolved place of the Indigenous nation—1.4 million in number, who live within Canada’s borders.

Writing in his weekly column, Ontario blogger James Shelley referred to the work of an American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who presented the 2016 Reith Lecture Series. His topic centred on the “formation of identity”.

In his talks, Professor Appiah described how we can define who we are (identity,) typically based on any one of four factors: 

CREED: Religious differences motivated my much-regretted long ago rudeness, in trying to diminish those Catholic boys. Historically, religion has done much worse; any student of European history can recall decades of warfare between Protestant and Roman Catholic countries, What would the story of Henry the Eighth be without his ongoing feud with the Pope, which ultimately led to the formation of the Church Of England? 

In Canada, our religious differences have created recurring tensions, but not war. Once our nation moves beyond its current celebration, there will still remain the awkward question of maintaining a treaty-sanctioned, separate, parallel school system for one religious group, but not for any others. 
CULTURE: It scarcely needs repeating that we live in a multicultural country, a nation of immigrants (apart from the Indigenous groups.) Each wave of newcomers has, in some measure, brought with them elements of their homeland culture along with their luggage. The dilemma we face is this: how much are we to respect these cultural distinctions, such as veiled faces, versus how much does the dominant culture encourage (insist on?) assimilation? Banning the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation was an obvious and positive start. 

 Viewing persons of a different racial origin as “the other” has led to that overarching American division over slavery and now race relations. Racial profiling and excessive use of police “carding” are more subtle variations on this same theme. Canada’s legacy of Residential Schools reflected a determination by the dominant group to remove “the other” by making their children “more like us.” 

COUNTRY: The most common form of defining “the other” has been in terms of nationality. In Newfoundland this weekend, Canada Day commemorations will take second place to the remembrance of the terrible First World War Battle Of Beaumont-Hamel. On that fateful morning in 1916, 800 lightly-armed men of the Newfoundland Regiment charged a well-fortified line of German defenders. Only 68 exhausted and shell-shocked Newfoundlanders returned uninjured. 

Over the past 150 years, Canada has evolved into an economic powerhouse, taking its place among the world’s leading industrial nations. It routinely ranks among the most desirable countries in which to live. Its success has been fueled by a national identity, common and shared values. 

Any lingering concept of “the other” must continue to give way to the idea of “one another.” We must, first of all, simply be Canadians.