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From the Second Storey: Does oneness trump diversity?

From a celebration of many things Canadian to a one-note presidential inauguration
U.S. President Donald Trump takes the oath of office at the White House on Jan. 20, 2017. White House photo

Who do we want to be?

In this 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, the year will bring numerous events marking the relatively brief history of this nation.

Brief, that is, if you start counting from the time when our founding fathers met in Charlottetown or Quebec City in the 1800s.

We’re also hearing plenty of reminders about a much longer narrative — or a set of narratives — of this land.

In Guelph, this past weekend’s ArtsEverywhere festival highlighted the presence of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, and our unfinished business of reconciliation.

It also reminded us — or me, at least — of the richness and diversity of those stories that help to define who we are.

The centrepiece of the festival was the Guelph Lecture: On Being Canadian, now in its fourteenth year. This year’s literary guest was Ann Hui, the national food reporter for the Globe and Mail.

Friday night at the River Run Centre, she took her audience on a cross-Canada tour with an unusual ethnic twist. Name the true pan-Canadian food, she said.

Not maple syrup: that’s an ingredient but not an entrée.

And not poutine or cod tongues.

Those are regional dishes, not necessarily favoured across the land.

The real Canadian food? Chinese food — or at least our versions of it, cooked up in restaurants across the country. Hui drove from Victoria, B.C., to Fogo Island, Nfld., and found Chinese restaurants everywhere she went.

Those places were opened often by Chinese immigrants, who borrowed whatever ingredients were at hand to create “Chinese” dishes for Canadian palates.

Hence Chop Suey Nation, the title of her pending book about what she learned and experienced during her travels.

As she explained the other night at the River Run, it’s less about the food, and more about the communities and the families.

MidnightShine-hires-165Members of the band Midnight Shine are pictured in this handout photo

That’s also the key point for Midnight Shine. Fronted by Adrian Sutherland, the foursome were the musical portion of the Guelph Lecture program.

They hail from three First Nations — Attawapiskat, Moose Factory and Fort Albany — scattered along the west coast of James Bay.

The members of Midnight Shine have their own stories to share, including the challenge of navigating between traditional practices and contemporary norms. They also face the self-imposed task of sharing those stories with southern audiences often conditioned to equate First Nations with troubled lives.

During a radio interview with me last week from northern Ontario, Sutherland acknowledged difficulties in his community of Attawapiskat and hinted at challenges in his growing-up years and in the lives of his own four children.

He hints at those particular trials in his lyrics.

Still, he says, the bigger impulse is to underline universal themes, wherever we happen to live in Canada.

“I’ve always wanted to share some of my background and beliefs through music. Everybody has a story and I think it’s important for First Nations people to shed positive light on our culture and values.”

Both Hui’s and Sutherland’s stories highlight the value of our multicultural approach to relations with one another.

It takes rules and rights — and responsibilities — to enable varying cultures to exist together in one place, even in as roomy a place as Canada.

More than rules and regulations, it takes respect for one another. Respect, as well as a will to bridge differences between us, and a belief in the value of the varied stories we all bring to this “chop suey” nation.

I wonder whether it’s not that fundamental ingredient — mutual respect — that is lacking in the stew pot of the United States today.

During his presidential speech on the same day as the Guelph Lecture, Donald Trump emphasized the oneness of his nation.

Singularity of purpose is one thing. But lacking in his remarks (besides the absence of poetic grace) was any real acknowledgment that the rest of the world exists in any kind of richness or diversity.

His is a prosaic, cramped view of the world and of his nation’s place within it. I’m reminded of another president’s “with us or against us” rhetoric from a few years ago.

To hear Trump tell it, other places beyond his borders represent nothing but competitors that are already overdrawn on the good graces and patience of the American people.

Lacking in nuance, Trumps sounds less like a statesman than a businessman, as though he’s been elected to serve as his country’s CEO rather than its president.

Maybe that’s what they elected him for.  But is that all the country aspires to be?

Surely a great nation has room for more richness and diversity, and multiple narratives, and, yes, messiness than that.


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About the Author: Andrew Vowles

Andrew Vowles writes on arts, culture and connections in Guelph. He has written about science, environment, arts, culture, health and travel.
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