Strong Enough To Be Kind: Canada Day, 2016

This is the first Canada Day after the fall of Stephen Harper.

It’s a day on which we get to be proud of our home, our heritage, the soil that gave us life. It’s a day we get to truly take pride in ourselves. For the first time in the adulthood of many young people I know, we can also take pride in what we stand for on the international stage, and in what we offer to the rest of the world.

That’s a funny word, pride.

It’s significant in many ways that Canada Day coincides with the wrap-up of Toronto’s massive LGBTQIA+ Pride festival, with others still to come in other cities all across Canada. The queer community does not hold a monopoly on small-p pride, of course. But it has been doing pride right for a long time, and has a lot to teach straight Canadians about what it really means to be proud.

National pride isn’t about about simple stupid patriotism. It’s not about unthinking obedience to whatever rich guy in a suit ascends to Sussex Castle, no matter whether his chief vice is too much love for himself, or too much hatred for others.

Pride is never unthinking. Pride must never be unthinking. Pride is the perfect union of thinking, and feeling, and judging what is thought and felt to be good. Pride is in the valuing of the self; and this social kind of pride—the kind felt by the queer community in their parades and celebrations, the kind felt today by the whole “community of Canadians”—is in valuing above ourselves alone those best qualities that we share in common with others.

It’s worth thinking why we’re proud today, and what we’re proud of—and how close we came to losing it. It’s worth thinking about what we can do, and what we must do, to preserve all that is important to us: the strength we show through our kindness. The ferocity of our gentleness. The defiance of our love.

To be Canadian is not just to be “nice.” It is to cling to an essential human compassion so strongly that only the bravest women and men can maintain it in this broken world of fear—compassion that the worst cowards within Canada and without abandon too casually, too quickly, amid the misguided lunacy that we cannot afford it, when in truth we cannot and will not go on without it.

Canada is not strong, not a leader in this world, because it has the biggest armies, or the most money, or the largest collection of nukes. We are not strong because we command the most land (though we’ve got plenty) or brew the best beer (we do) or play the best hockey (OK; scratch that; Canada is strong because we play the best hockey).

No, Canada is strong because we have kept our grip on something more important than money or weapons: values. We are world leaders because we are admired, and we are admired for fearlessly carrying the principles that others are quick to drop when threatened, quick to barter away in exchange for bedtime stories about greater security.

We are strong world leaders because when people are in trouble we open our doors instead of closing them.

We are strong because we see the good in others and invite them to make us stronger. We are strong because we do not atrophy behind walls. We are world leaders because we enter the world and lead it, not because we hide behind our militaries and our fortunes and insult it.

We are the promise to the ravaged corners of the world that we hear their cries for help more loudly than their battle-cries. We are the promise to the world that the perilous powers of development and prosperity need not be abused. We are the promise that it is worth suffering to be good. We are the promise that there is always a better way.

This is the first Canada Day since the fall of Stephen Harper. It’s not the end of racism and xenophobia in Canada. It’s certainly not the end of hate crimes. But it is a period in which we have determined as a nation not to legitimize these blemishes on our beautiful but imperfect democracy with the tacit support of our national identity. It is a period defined across a variety of fields, by what we have determined is acceptable, and what is unacceptable. It is a period in which we must consider the mistakes we could have made—mistakes that are so very tempting and sweet-sounding, in a frightening world of uncertainty and terror—and take pride in how very few of them we chose to make, how fewer still we choose to go on making.

This is the day we speak with understanding rather than hostility to the people of the world, inside our borders and out, who are not truly Canadian. I’m not talking about immigrants: I’m talking about those on all sides of all conflicts who are too wounded by fear, too helpless against the shadow of otherness, to hold to the valorous compassion that defines our Canadian spirit. This is the day we reach out to them, not with guns, but with friendship. This is the day we tell them, and tell ourselves, the words that DO define us Canadians in all things:

“O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
We’re with you. We’ve got your back.

With all the kerfuffle (there’s a good Canadian word) over the other lines of the National Anthem right now, we forget all about this one. We stand on guard for thee. We assume, because of the singular “thou/thee” and the grammar of the past lines, that we’re referring to Canada herself as the object of this sentence. But are we? Doesn’t Canada stand on guard for everyone, in our own way? Isn’t that the whole meat and drink of what we do?

We care, and we help; and we have the strength to keep on doing them both after everybody else quits. Let the Americans stop caring, if they want, about their own mass shootings; let their Congressmen’s secretaries mumble thoughts & prayers for the victims onto their Twitter feeds while they court the NRA lobbyists behind closed doors if that’s what floats their boat. Let Britain gamely skydive of any partnership it wants, and take the Pound Sterling with them. If you’re too afraid of your neighbours now to go on being good to them, it’s no business of ours, eh?

But I am proud to be part of the country that keeps on being kind and generous in the face of fear. I am proud to be Canadian in a world that needs Canada more than it ever has, because so many good folks out there have lost that little piece of Canada in themselves—that little piece of courageous compassion that belongs to all humans no matter where you were born.

We’ve come a long way for a country  about  aboot to embark on its 150th year. To England, to China, to India and Russia, we’re the virtual babies of the globe. But as a species, the project of building Canada has taken the human race so much longer than that to accomplish. The many diverse people who have come to Canada over the last thousand years has helped us build this precious, extraordinary thing—especially, of course, those First Peoples who were here all along, and on whose land we have done all the building, and whom we could and should make a more active part of that project. But even with their input, we remain a settler nation, an immigrant nation, and maybe for the rest of the world that’s a good thing: we are leaders in the world because we are of the world: we come from all across it, we find our roots all over it, we still care about it, we still live in it, it nourishes us, it has sent us the very best people from all over the world, and it continues to do so. We are in England’s debt, and Europe’s, and Asia’s, and Africa’s, and the debt of many other places besides: we are a patchwork quilt in whose blocks all the colours of the world can be seen, and for that we remain in debt to them—every nation in every place.

In part, what makes us Canadian is that we have not forgotten that debt. The world has lent us its virtues, and we are Canadian only insofar as we reflect and return those virtues when they’re needed most. Prime Minister Trudeau’s “Sunny Ways” mantra may be easier said than done, easier framed than implemented; but while our politicians bicker, as politicians always do, over the best ways to achieve our noble goals for ourselves and our global neighbours, that bickering is barely relevant: what’s important is that we mean to do right again, in all things. It’s only natural in a complex cross-cultural global community to disagree over what that actually means.

I’d like to take this occasion to offer, again, this definition of what it is to be spiritually Canadian; it’s a definition that will catch many people who were not born here, and many more who have never even set foot here:

Canadians are strong enough to be kind. They are brave enough to be compassionate. They are fierce in their gentleness. They are defiant in their love. They have your back. They are the last to give up hope, the last to fall prey to fear, the very last people to let terror turn them cruel. And they’re damn good at hockey, besides.

I’m proud to be Canadian today, even though I don’t know a slapshot from a toe drag. It’s a day I’ve waited a long time for.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a two-four to divvy up with my fellow Canucks, eh?


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