I don’t typically follow American politics but, like most Canadians this year, I just couldn’t look away. I was completely drawn in by the spectacle of a deeply divided America, and then a sobering thought hit me: Canada really isn’t that different from our southern neighbours. We have just chosen a different way of expressing (or rather not expressing) our division.
This thought struck me when late on election night Stephen Colbert, a comedian and political satirist, sincerely begged Americans not to repeat the same fiasco during the next election. He wasn’t talking about the outcome of the election, but rather the “exhausting, bruising” process that pitted neighbour against neighbour. He read from a poll stating that close to 50 per cent of Republicans and Democrats say that the other party makes them afraid. That’s half of Americans who have so demonized those who disagree with them that they cannot find common ground.
Despite our outward friendliness, I believe Canadians are experiencing similar trust issues. Like our American neighbours, Canadians are deeply divided. However, instead of forming two distinct camps to overemphasize our differences, we have chosen to pretend our differences of opinion do not exist. We cheerfully go about our days without talking about sensitive issues and are easily rattled by political conversations, awkwardly changing the topic to make sure no one is offended. But our divisions are still there, and where Americans seem to be preparing for a war, Canadians have started to heavy handedly crush any dissent that would make us feel uncomfortable.
Take for example the case of Jordan Petersen, a University of Toronto professor who objected to being forced to use gender-neutral pronouns. Rather than being given a fair opportunity to voice his opinions, he was publically denounced at an event that was supposed to be a debate on freedom of speech. Whether one agrees with Petersen or not, the use of gender-neutral pronouns is far from a well-discussed topic. Unfortunately we cannot even begin to have a conversation about this and many other issues because we cannot handle the thought that we might disagree.
In an effort to avoid America’s polarity, we are whitewashing our once proudly pluralistic country. However, just because we pretend that there is only one set of values doesn’t actually make it so, and there is a real danger that our political correctness is about to catch up with us. There are stark value differences among Canadians, and we can either hide them and hope they don’t escalate into conflicts, or acknowledge them and find ways not just to tolerate each other but to actually collaborate in finding workable solutions.
Consider the way we respond to the many different approaches to childhood education. On the one hand, we could insist that everyone participate in one uniform public school system to ensure that every Canadian child is treated in an identical manner. Or, we could accept that there are different educational philosophies and build a system that allows parents and teachers to engage in these different philosophies in the manner of their choosing. These systems could be faith-based or secular, focused on fine arts or math and science, co-ed or single sex. What is important is that we are able to respect differences of opinion without taking legal action that demands uniformity from all parents, students and teachers. We can do better than chastising people who disagree with us, or running to human rights tribunals every time we are offended.
To conclude his election night coverage, Colbert encouraged his audience to “kiss a Democrat, (or) go hug a Republican” as part of their resolve to engage in a more respectful election process in the future. Maybe there’s a good New Year’s resolution in that for us. What would happen if each of us made an effort to make friends with someone who does not share our political perspective? I’d gladly join the parish community that organizes a liberal/conservative prayer partner program, if only to find out which side of the political spectrum wants to take on my particular concoction of political views.
Acknowledging our differences of opinion is not “un-Canadian,” but trying to bury these differences under the rug sure is. Our biggest national failures have been times that we have tried to subsume different cultures into one way of thinking, and our biggest successes have been times that we have brought many cultures together under one banner.
As Saskatchewan’s motto reminds us, multis e gentibus vires (from many people strength). Our true strength is in the diversity of our thoughts, beliefs, opinions and values. Let’s make sure we continue to have the space to express this diversity.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She recently attained a PhD in public policy at the University of Saskatchewan.