Reasonable accommodation? Private vs public

May 29, 2008

Of the countless adjectives associated with the much-acclaimed work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, “stupid” is what we would expect from someone who has not read more than a paragraph of Taylor’s cautious, thought-provoking and thoughtful writing.

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Lakritz, Naomi. 2008. “Canada Great the Way It Is.” Calgary Herald. May 28. A20.

Of the countless adjectives associated with the much-acclaimed work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, “stupid” is what we would expect from someone who has not read more than a paragraph of Taylor’s cautious, thought-provoking and thoughtful writing. But then the slow reading of political philosophy just does not fit into the tight time-constraints of the demands of everyday life where text-messaging, character-reduction, the quick read and the fast response are the only way to keep up the pace.

The lengthy, robust, inclusive and mature consultative process behind the report on reasonable accommodations resembled the pioneering participatory research methodology used by Chief Justice Thomas Berger and I predict will also become a made-in-Canada model used globally as a way of delving into the most complex questions of our time, such as, social inclusion in highly pluralistic communities.

At first the media portrayed these open, inclusive forums held across Quebec, as a place where xenophobia was welcome, but it was soon revealed that racist viewpoints were in the minority in Quebec. The final report reflects the potency of this complex methodology especially when enhanced with guidance and input from the most well-trained minds (Bouchard and Taylor) engaged in inquiries into the complexity and richness of modern identity in Quebec (and some might argue in Canada).

We are fortunate in Canada to have human and material resources available to us that allow for such groundbreaking studies to inform public policy. It is unfortunate that so few people will read the final report and will rely solely on a few words or sentences quickly written filled with knee-jerk reactionary emotions and not much careful thought. So far the Calgary Herald has responded to this report by publishing a letter to the editor by someone who is grateful to be in Canada and an opinion piece by Naomi Lakritz. Neither of them is concerned by any form of social exclusion in Canada (access to housing, health services, education or employment) or conversational racism (the colour of racism in contemporary Canada) based on class, religion, race, gender, ethnicity, culture, accent. While it always feels good to know that some individuals have been untouched by discrimination (a privilege status not enjoyed by everyone equally in Canada), the mandate of the research on reasonable accommodation, was not intended to preserve a sense of home and familiarity to those who already feel it. The goal of this report is to extend a new form of hospitality within a renewed democracy that is urgently needed in the highly complex social reality in which we live.

The rich social history of Quebec is only partially reflected in unique cultural-religious (Catholic-Christian), highly-treasured artifacts from the baroque (17th century) period onwards. But over fifty years ago Quebec’s social history timeline took a sharp turn away from blind acceptance of what was being done under the name of Catholicism in Quebec, particularly in regards to local, regional and provincial politics. Gradually as a result bans on “indexed” books in universities were lifted, for example, and an era ended. (It is interesting to note however, that the philosophical journey undertaken by Charles Taylor has been at times indirectly informed by spiritual teachings of Catholicism although not directly cited.)

Even when we invite guests into the privacy of our homes, hospitality includes glancing around our spaces to see how we can decrease our guests’ discomfort to make our guests really feel welcome (within reason). Sometimes by looking at spaces we occupy through the eyes of others we learn something about ourselves that can reasonably be changed to accommodate others. Maybe it is something so familiar to us that we no longer see it for what it represents and it no longer reflects who we have become. Or maybe it does still reflect who we are but not in the way that the symbol is usually interpreted so the object-symbol needs to be contextualized so as to not misrepresent our contemporary values and beliefs. Some parts of our authentic selves need to remain. And this is only in our private lives.

Cultural symbols are not innocent or frozen in time. They become symbols because of long and deep histories and their meanings are acquired. They can be taught as part of public curriculum but first they have to be chosen by mutual agreement. Symbols displayed while in municipal, regional, provincial or national public office and/or spaces representing governance cannot be compared with symbols that give us a private sense of identity and belonging. Public symbols in these spaces of governance are purposefully selected to convey collective values and beliefs. Individual and communal values and beliefs change. As we become aware of dissonance between our present and past values and beliefs, we discard traditions that do not successfully cross generations, and in the case of a nation-state planted on First Peoples’ traditional lands and farmed by immigrants, successfully crossing cultural borders. Museums and galleries are filled with cultural symbols highly-valued as communal heritage. These icons cannot be compared to hockey or the colour of your living room walls which are part of popular culture and are probably more informed than we realize by market trends than by national identity or even personal tastes.

And in 2008 in this highly pluralistic nation-state Canada just who is the “we” who “owns” these shores? And how exactly did “we” get to “own” this nation-state?

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