In Calgary ... Canada
Alberta reminds Canada of its past and its future
In Calgary, we have met the Other
(and found only ourselves)
|Traditional Canadian values: Calgary's mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi in victory.|
|Traditional Canadian values: Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau in defeat.|
On Tuesday, the people of Calgary elected to the mayorship a brown man — the first time a Moslem has been handed the keys to a major Canadian city.
15 years ago next week, the people of Quebec very narrowly opted to hold their province within the Canadian political experiment; the second time Quebecers voted for Canada in repudiation of their homegrown Indépendatistes.
At first glance, you might not think the two events, separated by a generation in time and half-a-continent in space, have much to do with one another.
What does a narrow defeat for the forces of a defeatest tribal isolationism 15 years ago have to with an apparent victory by the forces of tolerance, progress and pluralism today?
Quite a lot, actually.
As has been pointed out by others (see for instance, John Ralston Saul's one-volume proof that Canadian history is actually interesting, Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century — but which bears repeating, in part because our elites and the systems of education built for us are, when not actually hostile to history, at least deaf to its nuances and undercurrents — Canada is not a young country, sprung from nothing in 1867.
In truth, ours is a complex story that began long before Jacques Cartiers sailed into the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River in 1534, a history that happened mostly at the grassroots level and as often as not against the wishes of the kings and priests and businessmen who saw themselves as arbiters of what was and what ought to be.
The Canadian story is as much (or more!) the story of individual people as it is a story of Prime Minister and Peace Conferences, Railroads and Canals. Not to deny or deminish the crimes and horrors that have been committed, it is important also to remember the friendships that were forged between cultures and races from before the time the first Europeans stopped over for a winter and for centuries thereafter.
Those friendships were forged by cooperation on the ground; white men "going native" by marrying into Cree or Ojibwa bands, ignoring priestly or employers' strictures; by embracing a Protestant or Jew; by ignoring language and oughts and working with similarities rather than fighting for differences; all of these quiet knots of creative imagination have built a powerful and resilient culture that is uniquely Canadian and which has been the basis of our history and culture far older than the Canadian state itself.
It is notable that Calgary has elected a brown, non-Christian man as its mayor, but it shouldn't shock us. It is less notable for its novelty than for its conitinuity with the age-old Canadian culture of inclusion and evolutionary change. Canadians have been embracing and becoming "the other" in a creative dance that is older than Confederation, older than European contact, that is a product of a cultural tradition that is older than written European history itself, a recognition of human commonality in people who look or talk a little differently than we do, whose names are "funny" or whose beliefs are not our own but whose values are.
There have been and still are forces at work in this country who fear and loathe that organic community-building. It is no easy task to control people who have not been convinced that what they know from experience, from talking and living with Others, that "they" are not an alien meance to be feared, but rather, are simply new ways of seeing the world, new flavours in a stew of history that is still being cooked.
Not for Canadians a pot ideology or catechism, not when we dare (and work!) to pay attention to the evidence of our senses and experience.
Fifteen years ago, Quebecers were nearly seduced by tribalists who could not realize the victory of their own Quiet Revolution; only by the slimmest majority (buttressed indeed by "money and the ethnic vote"; especially the latter, those new Canadians who recognized the value of diversity from sea to sea to sea) did they choose to remain a part of the experiment their ancestors had joined 400 years before.
This week, Calgarians, voting in nearly record numbers, elected a brown man and a Moslem whom they believed is, first and foremost, a Calgarian — and so, one of them.
Here's hoping Naheed Nenshi become the mayor Calgarians hoped he was when they elected him. Not because he's brown, or a Moslem (I believe most Canadians are or are trying to get beyond the kind of magical thinking that burdens one man or woman with the need to be a "credit to his [or her] race"), but because Calgary needs a good mayor, one who understands that complexity and diversity are strengths, not weaknesses, who recognizes that Canada's relatively peaceable history and long prosperity have evolved in very large part because we have chosen to embrace who we are rather than repudiate it in favour of a fantasy of non-existent "purity" or exceptionalism.
Just as Quebec's separatists have tried to ride to power on a myth of injured impotence and fear, so too do our current neo-conservative masters in Ottawa practice the politics of resentment and baseless fear — fear of a non-existent epidemic of crime, of shorelines swamped by refugees, of an entrepreneurial class that can't compete ... the list is nearly endless.
We know from experience that our streets are (mostly) safe, that our shorelines are (mostly) free of leaking refugee ships and that we even boast some of the smartest, most creative entrepreneurs in the world. And especially, we know from experience, that our experiment in ground-level democracy and constant evolution is one of the wonders of the world, a triumph of hope over fear, and of inclusion over zenophobia.
Calgary has shown us that Alberta isn't so different from the rest of us after all, and that — whatever our current government would have us believe — the Canada we know and love is still here, still strong and still growing through our understanding that we have met the Other — and They are Us.