A relentlessly upbeat take on citizenship: My Review of Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship

My review in Embassy Magazine:


Adrienne Clarkson’s Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship is an interesting paradox, in itself, of the theoretical and practical in her arguments in favour of open and inclusive Canadian citizenship.

For Clarkson, the act of imagination, of behaving “as if” people are all good citizens, helps makes this come into being (full disclosure: I am mentioned in the acknowledgements for providing advice and friendship).

Her examples range from the mountain people of the Ik in Uganda whose society fell apart when their territory disappeared; to Eygalières in Provence, France, which won and maintained its independence; the French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre on how identity can be assumed; ancient Greece and the golden age of Athenian democracy; the community strength of the Althing Icelandic gathering of chiefs; the African concept of Ubuntu of connectedness and interdependence; the Asian nation of Bhutan’s gross national happiness; and Canadian Aboriginal circles of the “same rings of being.”

Her basic premise is that humans are hard- and soft-wired towards co-operation as much as competition. She believes that there is such a thing as the common good of society, and that individuals need common rules for living together and contributing to the overall health of their society.

Complementing what some may criticize as being overly theoretical and abstruse, Clarkson cites more concrete Canadian examples. “Pay it forward” at Tim Hortons coffee line-ups, governor-general bravery awards, civic behaviour at a Rosedale four-way stop sign in Toronto, and even “hook-up” sites reinforce her optimistic view.

Her language reinforces her relentlessly upbeat message, almost overwhelmingly so. She concludes, borrowing from Bhutan’s gross national happiness, with the importance of generosity, ethics, tolerance, patience and perseverance as key to success.

Contrast this positive language to the federal government’s scolding tone in its focus on value, abuse and integrity, reflected in many of the recent changes to the Citizenship Act (and elsewhere).

She clearly has little patience for many right-wing nostrums. She takes Margaret Thatcher’s comment “there is no such thing as society” out of context (Thatcher meant that society does not pay for government services, citizens do) to dismiss the conservative focus on individualism as a “simple view suited to simple minds.”

She lambastes “blinkered self-interest” in relation to climate change, finding consensus is drowned out by the “polarizing din of right-versus-left politics.” Cabinet ministers no longer accept responsibility for wrongdoing or incompetence under their watch. Exclusion of health care for refugee claimants means “violating our own values, undermining our own decency, and ultimately working against our own well-being.”

As some critics have observed, Clarkson largely skirts the hard issues that face Canadian citizenship and multiculturalism, whether this is ongoing barriers for some new Canadians, ongoing debates over reasonable accommodation, or the small but disturbing number of Canadians being radicalized, as recent events have borne out.

But she makes the important point in that accepting Canadian citizenship we accept both the good and the bad of our history, that we cannot simply choose as in a “buffet.” She cites a number of the less-than-glorious aspects of our past, from treatment of Aboriginal peoples to immigration restrictions.

In this sense, she is more balanced than many critics of citizenship and multiculturalism (e.g. Neil Bissoondath, Salim Mansour, Gilles Paquet) who often portray the Canadian approach as hopelessly politically correct and divisive.

But it does seem particularly Canadian that many writers on citizenship either see the glass half-full or half-empty, rather than acknowledging that, while overall we have one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies by any measure, there remain, as is natural, serious challenges to address.

Clarkson is strongest in her distinction between friendship and citizenship. We do not need to like or love our fellow citizens. But we have to respect them and engage with them.

Her praise for what the Aga Khan calls a “cosmopolitan ethic,” where we need to continuously engage in conversations with those of different backgrounds, loyalties, religions and ethnicities, further reinforces this need for ongoing dialogue and understanding in a complex multicultural society such as Canada.

Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship provides a welcome antidote to so much of the excessive fretting that occurs around Canadian citizenship and multiculturalism.

But Clarkson’s reliance on behaving “as if” things are working well, wishing it were so, can be as risky as the alternate “as if,” that Canadian citizenship and multiculturalism are not working.

Certainly, compared to most countries, we have been remarkably successful. Political differences are at the margins, we have no political parties opposed to immigration and all political parties actively pursue ethnic community votes.

But we do have serious challenges from the perspective of equity, discrimination and representation.

By provoking discussion implicitly on what kind of “as if” we should employ to help shape the ongoing evolution of Canadian society, Clarkson has posed the fundamental question on what kind of Canada we want and how we should behave to help it come into being.

2 Responses to A relentlessly upbeat take on citizenship: My Review of Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship

  1. Pingback: Adrienne Clarkson on why Canada’s multiculturalism works – And my review from Embassy Magazine | Multicultural Meanderings

  2. Pingback: Christians, secularism, morals and values | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

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