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Excuse me, eh?

November 4, 2015

I’m sorry… pardon me… excuse me, eh? I’m a Canadian going through an identity crisis. I’d like to say that this crisis has existed for just the past ten years, but that would be a lie. The past ten years, under the leadership of Prime Minister Harper have certainly served to accentuate our awareness of what we are not, but we have never been able precisely to pin down what we are as a nation of people. With no defining moment in history (except maybe the 1972 eight-game hockey Summit Series against the USSR, or perhaps the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms), we are not amenable to easy definition. This, in my view, is a good thing.

There are Canadian distinctions, for sure, pardonnez-moi. We tend to apologize excessively, I’m sorry to say. We do say “eh” although I’ve pretty much trained that one out of my vocabulary. We say “prōgress” and prōcess” not “prawgress” and “prawcess”. For the record, we do NOT say “oot and aboot”. That’s just an American myth. We actually say “oat and aboat”. We are a modest people. Our humility, after all, is what makes us better than everyone else, and we’re damn proud of it!

We in Canada are perhaps best defined by our lack of definition. Please forgive us. We don’t know who we are, we resist knowing, and we’re proud of that, too. My contention today is that acceptance of this lack of definition would be a good thing, not just for Canadians, but for every nation, and indeed, for every individual.

Today’s ramble is not so much aboot, excuse me, aboat Canada. It’s not about the renewed hope we feel coming out of a federal election, or even about the ten years lost in exile under misguided leadership of a ‘wannabe extreme, off-the-deep-end-to-the-right conservative’. For my American friends, this means ‘center-left’. The rest of us, you must understand, are apparently raving socialists.


Scandalous electoral behaviour in Canada (see below) only provides me with excellent opportunity to expound the general point, which is: Too often, all around the world, people are led, or they lead themselves, to unnecessarily narrow, confining but convenient, labels and symbols by which to create, promote, and support affiliations for themselves. Over time, these labels morph into defining beliefs, traditions, and values. Over many centuries, these beliefs, traditions, and values have proven very useful in the waging of war. They’ve also proven very unuseful in the waging of war.

Labels and symbols do not define people. They serve only to divide people. In an increasingly small and interconnected, interdependent world, we are not well served by highly symbolic rhetoric that precludes dialogue and sets people in artificially manufactured opposition to one another. Loyal to our exiled Canadian tradition as peacekeeper, I must believe that dialogue is the best path to lasting resolution. My wife is my life partner, but I don’t expect her to play hockey with me. We all have our particular roles and we’re all doing what we can.


Every Autumn, I enjoy a long drive in the country, soaking in the diversity of colours. Not one colour, but many robust colours. The beauty and the strength and the harmony of the experience is in its diversity, captured by no singular definition.

Yet, we continue to narrow, not broaden, our understanding of the world and of people who are not just like us. Where’s the beauty in that? Where’s the strength? Where’s the harmony?

As individuals, we exhibit an internal multiplicity that can never fully be resolved. This is why we talk to ourselves. From within, depending on the direction of the wind, we could go this way on one day and that way on another. In some degree, Canadians are a people uncomfortable in our own skin… and we take no small ironic comfort in acknowledging and accepting, even proclaiming this ambiguity. Self-contradiction as individuals, and acceptance of this unresolved state is almost a pre-requisite for being Canadian… and I would add… for being human.

Internally, as individuals, we are torn and conflicted. Externally, we too often wear the false face of certainty. In truth, we should be certain only that very little is certain. Not quite, but almost everything is negotiable, both within us as individuals and among us as citizens of the world. But, and this is key, we still function. In spite of ourselves, we still discover a path that works. In the presence of such internal personal conflict, why do some people have such difficulty reconciling with the notion of functioning multiplicity within and among nations? This is why we talk to each other… or get bored or frustrated and just start shooting instead.

Diversity is the natural state of a thriving community. Diversity of every kind, but to my point today, especially diversity of religion and race and ethnicity and culture. Not only would life be boring if we were all the same. It would also be very short. Variety is not just the spice of life. It’s also an insurance policy that protects us. Without diversity, the species would not, and could not, survive.

To be clear, our life in this cold corner of the so-called New World was enabled and protected in its infancy by diversity. Newcomers were welcomed, each bringing unique strengths and talents, each making his or her own unique contribution to the salad bowl of Canadian culture. Some palpable measure of success in the creation of an inclusive society has thus far been achieved. At the same time, the prōcess remains and always will be a work in prōgress, never right, never complete, and never without bumps in the road.

Recently, new newcomers have not been so welcome, and that is both sad and unfortunate. When a country is founded on the welcoming of diverse new peoples, something very central is lost when newer, still diverse populations are no longer welcomed.

Our outgoing Prime Minister campaigned in the recent election for the protection and support of what he called “old-stock Canadians”. Somebody should let him know that Canada is still a baby and there are no old-stock Canadians, unless we’re talking about the First Nations or Inuit, and they didn’t call themselves Canadian before the rest of us got here. Many of them still do not, nor would they under Stephen Harper.


Harper railed against what he called “barbaric cultural practices” and even promised to create a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. To me, this sounds a lot like the Star of David being painted on doors. In particular, he focused his Canadian Crusade against the wearing of the niqab, a veil of modesty for a very small number of Muslim women in Canada, and pledged, if re-elected, to introduce legislation to ban the niqab among public service employees and also for those seeking to access government services.

If Stephen Harper had been re-elected and followed through with his barbaric cultural practices hotline, he most assuredly would have received many unexpected calls, including for: pants that are belted four inches below the point of no return; body piercings and tattoos; circumcision; rap music; fear-mongering by politicians; the necktie, reality TV; mowing the lawn; and of course, hockey, one of the most barbaric (and wonderful) cultural practices ever to have been established. Really… how many of these are less barbaric than a simple veil of modesty? Surely the immodesty we see in the streets every day would find a place in many definitions of barbaric cultural practices. The most barbaric cultural practice to report would be the creation of a barbaric cultural practices hotline. The moment we undertake scrutiny on everyone else’s cultural traditions is the moment we take a big step down a very slippery slope. History has shown us where that leads. Let’s not go there.

Knowing that a majority of Canadians were not in favour of the niqab being worn during a citizenship ceremony, Harper opted in this election to alienate a very few in a strategic, high-stakes play for the majority vote. He even tested the issue in a poll before going public with his strategy. Estimates vary, but I’ve read that the number of women wearing the niqab in Canada is measured in the low hundreds. Huh? I mean, huh, eh? Give me a break. Here’s a Prime Minister willing to distract the entirely population of 35 million people by placing front and centre in a federal election a few hundred women because they have chosen to wear a veil of modesty.

Here’s where he missed the boat, politically. Clearly, Harper does not understand our entrenched position in Canada on the rights of the ‘other’. Maybe he’s never read Voltaire – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Apparently, he has not read the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms either. With notable historical failures, Canada does strive to be an inclusive society, not one of imposed conformity. It’s not perfect. Far from it. We are a work in prōgress. The scales in the October 19th election were tipped in favour of the Liberals when Harper’s aggressive stance on the niqab backfired. In ice hockey, believe it or not, Canadians generally reject abusive behaviour. In politics, this rejection is unqualified. For those not following Canadian news, he also lost the Federal Appeals Court battle to ban the niqab during citizenship oath-taking.


This is a nation of immigrants, a nation that, for the most part, welcomes people from diverse backgrounds. Assimilation into Canadian society has not, so far, been a dominant force in the path to our successes. Assimilation is not the Canadian way. Those beliefs and traditions and values to which we should all subscribe should be small in number (very small, I would say). The litmus test for inclusion should be: Does this belief or tradition or value restrict the beliefs or traditions or values held by another person? If yes, then I’ll be the first to send in the troops. “Just watch me.” If no, you’re more than welcome here.

In 1968, then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau declared, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Likewise, there’s no place for the state in governing small ‘b’ beliefs, small ‘t’ traditions, or small ‘v’ values. The articulation of shared beliefs, traditions and values, carried beyond very basic rights and freedoms (and, of course, a requisite and barbaric love of hockey), becomes that very slippery slope of intolerance and exclusion. I’m sorry, but let’s not go there.

With no apology, we gave Stephen Harper aboot, or was that aboat? In any case, he’s resoundingly oot… out, and in my view, that’s a good thing. Today, Justin Trudeau will be sworn in as our Prime Minister with the mandate of a strong majority. Going forward, I’ll be watching with great interest to see if he can match his father’s courage in the face of the persistent far right. In 1982, his father delivered our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Here’s hoping the son will honour us by standing strongly behind that Charter.

Change is messy. Change is stressful. Change is definitely not easy. Few things worth striving for are easy. If it were easy, anyone could do it. We're all doing what we can.

With respect, excuse me, eh?


Kevin Graham

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