Wrap-up Comments by Sandra Massey

We shared an interesting and challenging day, giving us much to think about as we wrap-up. It usually takes me several days to process information after attending a particularly rich event such as this so for now I will simply reinforce some of the key messages that have been explored throughout the day.  

Canada’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation calls on the Government of Canada to develop a national action plan, strategies, and other concrete measures to achieve the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Calls to Action also include skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism. In addition, Canada’s legacy of protecting and promoting the value of cultural diversity through the Canadian Multiculturalism Act continues to inform our conviction that multiculturalism is a defining aspect of Canadian identity. Canada is a pluralist society, demonstrating to the world that a shared future can be negotiated in peaceful, democratic ways.

When we first began planning for this event, we talked about the sense that Canadians are actually becoming less tolerant than we used to be, and more than a few suggested that we should aspire to do better than simply tolerate one another. On the other hand, some thought, to be realistic, perhaps tolerance is the best we can achieve in the great experiment that is Canada today. We talked about the culture of fear that seems to be spreading like a contagious disease. The subject of how communications technologies enable people to share whatever thought comes into their head without any thought of repercussions came up. Some seem to think they have a right to say whatever, whenever, wherever they like siting freedom of speech. Not sure where they get that idea. We talked about how many Canadians don’t really know their own history.  And, we talked about the need for cross-cultural training and skills development. There was general agreement that cross-cultural understanding begins with knowing your own history, and being willing to talk opening and honestly about it with others. This in turn, will lead to greater awareness and understanding of the inter-generational impacts of colonialism and the multicultural nature of the Canadian society we have inherited.

This brings me to the importance of understanding Living Heritage - the values, beliefs, and ways of living that inform our own daily choices. Living Heritage is shaped by the landscape of our physical environment as well as our emotional and spiritual experiences. All human / individual development takes place within a cultural context and our sense of identity, belonging and place in the world, initially shaped at home by parents and grandparents, is also influenced by others: teachers, coaches, friends and colleagues. Embracing diversity begins with understanding our own Living Heritage; what motivates our own behaviour. We cannot hope to understand others if we are unwilling to recognize our own biases and prejudices; our own world view. We are all a product of our time and place.

Sharing personal stories is essential to the building of relationships and friendships. When we share personal stories, we share a part of ourselves with others. When you are given a glimpse of the human side of another person, your relationship with them is irrevocably changed. An acquaintance becomes a confidante; a fellow employee becomes a colleague. A shared story creates families and communities. The intimacy that comes when stories are shared with others gives us a sense of belonging and strengthens our sense of individual and collective identity and place. Building healthy relationships: with ourselves, within our families, and with others gives each of us the confidence and courage to contribute in positive ways to the greater good. Or not!

For some of you, this may be the first Living Heritage event you have participated in. For many of you, today’s conversation is only one of several opportunities you have pursued. No matter where or when you join the conversation, your contribution is needed and valued. As we share personal stories, as we have today, we connect our individual experiences with others and in the process create meaning in our own lives and as we listen to the stories others tell, we share in our common humanity. Personal stories help us to make sense of our own lives, and listening to the stories of others can help us understand and know them better as well. Learning to listen to the stories of others and having the confidence to share our own, enables us to relate to others in a variety of circumstances.

As we seek to balance cultural continuity with change and integration, sharing experiences through personal stories allows us to imagine what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes, so to speak, or consider different ways of living. Although we cannot change the past, we can change where we stand when we view the past; we can in fact choose to continue on the same path, using the past to establish continuity with our predecessors or we can choose a new direction using the past as a point of departure; choosing as we grow and learn, what to hold on to and what to let go of.

In addition to the power of personal stories it is also important to be aware of the power of fiction. Jonathon Gottschall (2012), in his book, The Storytelling Animal, suggests “Fiction is an ancient virtual reality technology that specializes in simulating human problems.” Gottschall believes “. . . nature designed us to enjoy stories so we would get the benefit of practice.” As children, fairy tales and legends (every culture has them) provide our first opportunities to try on different roles, to discover who we are and the kind of person we want to become. As adults we read books and watch movies that provide similar opportunities to imagine ourselves in another role, place and time. This leads to empathy and the theory of mind; our awareness and understanding of another’s mental state.

Storytelling in all its’ diverse forms, is a pan-human activity. It is as natural to humans as eating and breathing. It is also a creative process. However, even fiction is created from the wealth of real life experiences and emotions. Whether written or verbal, stories grow out of our values and beliefs, customs and traditions: in other words our Living Heritage. Gottschall, suggests that, “. . . stories are working on us all the time, reshaping us in the way that flowing water gradually reshapes a rock.” A good story engages us at an emotional level and that is why they are so powerful.

Gottschall also acknowledges the impact of digital technology and how it has changed the communal nature of story, however he is not concerned that story will cease to play an important role in our lives rather he says the real threat is that, “story will take it over completely.” In other words, there is a danger in letting our emotions and our imaginations take over all aspects of our lives. Just because we can say whatever, whenever, wherever, doesn’t mean we should. Civil society depends on our ability and willingness to slow down our emotional response and consider social issues and the greater good.

Todays’ conversation will continue as we seek opportunities to build better relationships between and among all those that call Canada home. Adrienne Clarkson (2014), in her series of Massey Lectures, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, identifies “the need to engage in a conversation with another citizen whose background, loyalties, religion, and ethnicity may be completely different . . .” She acknowledges too, “This kind of discourse requires considerable effort, continuing education, and thoughtful sensitivity. But it is the only way in which we can discern the difference between personal beliefs and public engagement.” She goes on to suggest, “The world of culture, the world of the mind, and the examination of the spiritual are all parts of that central movement defined by As If. When we behave As If we care about each other, As If we encourage everyone to be part of the group, As If we are all equal, we are actually living a metaphor. . . operating on the principle of As If has led to the creation of the Canadian citizen.”

Creating opportunities for public conversations about our values in the sense of morals, principles, or other ideas that serve as guides to action, and ensuring safe places for the sharing of personal stories is a way forward. In Clarkson’s words, if we act As If, then individuals and groups can create sustainable, inclusive communities that ensure a good life for all. Understanding how Living Heritage shapes present circumstances is where we start to negotiate and build a shared future.

Thank you all for coming today and spending this time sharing with others.