Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Saving Room with Adrienne Clarkson

The evening started with the recurring yet enduringly moving tribute to a dissident writer – whose photograph, mounted on a frame lay still and intact on an otherwise empty chair – by Andrew Cohen on behalf of PEN Canada. The ever-active Adrienne Clarkson had written another book, and on this last pre-festival event before the flood (which is the upcoming fall edition of the festival).


 I had the chance to speak briefly before Mr. Cohen about Adrienne Clarkson’s impact on me. I have read both her memoir Heart Matters and her biography of Norman Bethune; both beguiling and personalised works. I like her. Which is why there was a tinge of disappointment in what I felt. Despite cogent points and interesting narratives, a certain blandness persisted when it came to the discussion of identity, immigration and citizenship.


Ms. Clarkson is accomplished by almost anyone’s standards. There was ringing praise about her unique trajectory which caused her to search out and present a selection of similar paths taken by fellow sojourners in Canada. The result is the profile of eight prominent Canadians who have more than climbed atop the pole; grease notwithstanding. Her criterion seemed to be those who ended up in Canada by fate: thrust out by dispossession and loss. One can certainly agree that this is the script of many new Canadians, particularly refugees. Yet this also excludes the greater number of economic migrants who desired and endeavoured to arrive in Canada, met the criteria of the ‘points system’, waited however long it took and made their way. In the same way that business class investors, also claim their place by choosing to put their money where their person hopes to be. These people will certainly not wish to be nor consider themselves to be “losers”. It is true that historically Canada was not the play-field of the privileged, that it gave many who had nothing except potential to actualize it. However, these weren’t the sole actors occupying the stage. A more nuanced perspective of the actual role of “elites” with backing from the mother country could have distended the storyline.


It was heartening to hear Ms. Clarkson offer a paean to both families and public schools as the pillars of success. The egalitarian model which public schools served which then propelled the talented and industrious, seems muted to a contemporary casual observer of public schools today. A call for strengthening the system which seems beset with eroding standards and lack of results, apparent.


“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent,” said Carl Jung, whom Ms. Clarkson quoted. The sense of expectation in parallel with fierce, unwavering parental support is what buoys many an immigrant (or professional athletes in sports such as golf and tennis where skill – acquired only through early and expensive training – take precedence over sheer athleticism). While this debate on parenting style has been set afire last year with Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there is no question that parenting itself plays a primary role in an individual’s success. Ms. Clarkson drew attention to the renewal of community and family as key lessons immigrants have to teach Canadians.


The success of Ismaili-Canadians were deserving of special mention – Naheed Nenshi, the intrepid mayor of Calgary and Nadir Mohamed, the CEO of Rogers Communications both being featured in Room For All Of Us.


Canadians have a reputation for possessing an air of dignified modesty, yet it breeds a strange and not all too unfamiliar sense of smugness especially when making comparisons vis-à-vis our American counterparts. For instance, Canada has been touted as having the highest citizenship uptake in the world, at 80%. On the surface, this is marvellous. But questions abound as to how many stay and contribute after acquiring said citizenship. This was brought to the fore when the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 lead to the (re)prominence of the term “citizens of convenience” when many Canadian citizens residing in Lebanon seemed to not have any real ties to Canada apart from their documents. The aforementioned demographic would an interesting statistic to consider. Moreover, the anecdotes of frustrated immigrants choosing to leave Canada after not being able to find an occupation in their field, doesn’t embellish the picture. It’s more important to consider not how many people become citizens, but rather what happens to them after they do. Racism is also seen as of different notes in Canada while being more of a primarily black and white issue in America due to their heavier burden of slavery. Yet this does disservice to the gradations of variety, even in the spices of racism in America. The discrimination of the Irish (and Catholics by extension), Italian and eastern Europeans in the early twentieth century and Latinos today indicate a complex racial jungle inhabited by the Americans as much as Canada ever has.


Ms. Clarkson’s exhortation to “not forget where we come from” is a sincere reminder to not relinquish our generosity and it is a point noted. As a new Canadian myself, insisting that “we’re all immigrants...except for the Aboriginal peoples” by extension, muddles the contemporary challenges facing identity in that it implicitly implies there is no such thing as a Canadian since even generations of presence in this country still means that one in an immigrant in perpetuity since somebody, somewhere got here from somewhere else. If one extrapolates this notion then no one could ever become a Canadian. If Ms. Clarkson simply wants to revive empathy for newcomers, there are other avenues to do this effectively than to flag the flimsy trope that “we’re all immigrants”.


A sense of weariness seems to have befallen Europe with its own experiment with multi-culturalism with several of its leaders, most notable British PM David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel describing it as a “failure”. Ms. Clarkson clearly miffed at this supposed eye-roll inducing notion, declared “they (Europeans) don’t know what it (multi-culturalism) means!” It would be beyond the scope of this blog post to detail the changes, concerns and standings of minorities in the Old World. But this castigation is less than fair. Ms. Clarkson has no qualms with having a Citizenship Exam and imparting Canadian values of parliamentary democracy, freedom of association, religion and the legal system (values, ironically we inherited from Europe – although John Ralston Saul in his A Fair Country persuasively argues that Aboriginal culture’s influence on these very European ideals finally shaped the distinct Canadian one). In this case, there is a sense of wanting to ensure that immigrants can “integrate” (that lifeless word again) but that can only happen if there is a distinct value system to partake in at all. The lack of civic literacy is an issue which plagues the population at large – perhaps new Canadians can remind older ones of their need to remember both their history and values, if only to be able to tell it back to them.


Stories resonate with us as few other modes of literature do. The profiles are sure to be engaging and a valid testimony to the various lives it witnesses to, as well as countless others which it doesn’t feature. Ms. Clarkson’s message of inclusion, that “no one is more human than anyone else” has a spiritual depth and origin which resonates. A caveat emptor acknowledging that the book and message stand well on its own merit; that simply stretching it to make wide-ranging pronouncements become problematic, needs to be understood. This would be a wonderful place for a perspective of the life, times, trials and triumphs of immigrants to start, but it should not and cannot be where it ends.