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The politics of equal dignity
Haroon Siddiqui

Haroon Siddiqui, The Star's Editor Emeritus, gave this speech on Friday at York University where he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

This article was published in the
Toronto Star on Nov 6, 2001
In these times of trouble, in the midst of a war when our spirits are low and our fears high, when we feel as one with our American neighbours in this hour of our common grief, I wish to rekindle our core belief that Canada is a beacon to a troubled world. It is not that we are perfect. The battle for equality and fairness never ends. I earn part of my living waging it.

But I tell you, from the perspective of one who has seen the world, that Canada is as close to heaven on Earth as it gets.

A common definition of a Canadian is that she is not American. But we can come up with a more positive formulation, one that goes well beyond simply saying that we have universal medicare and they don't.

The first thing to say is that we share a common border but not a common history.

American author Francis Fukuyama has said that there is a big hole at the heart of the American liberal democracy: Based as it is entirely on the principle of individual rights, it does not recognize collective rights. But Canada does, dating back to the 1867 British North America Act.

A very Canadian balance between ballots and bullets
The Fathers of Confederation struck a fine balance between individual and collective rights. They extended a collective identity to our 600 First Nations. They codified the compact between the French and the English. They entrenched the Civil Code in Quebec. They enshrined educational and linguistic rights to the English minority in Quebec and the French minorities in English Canada.

This subculture of mutual respect led us to the desire to declare Quebec a distinct society. Both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Constitutional Accords failed, but something remarkable happened along the way.

Quebec's two referendums, despite giving us palpitations, strengthened our democracy and spawned a new political culture of peaceful dissent, unique to Canada.

Instead of jailing separatists, we now put them on our payroll in Parliament.

There is also national consensus that we will not use force to hold the Quˇbˇcois in Canada against their democratic will, expressed clearly on a clear question. The Clarity Act is a revolutionary doctrine that strikes a very Canadian balance between ballots and bullets, between the right of secession of a distinct people on the one hand and the territorial integrity of the nation on the other.

Parallel to this development has been another great Canadian achievement: The 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms made Canada the only constitutionally multicultural country in the world.

Along with the Multiculturalism Act that followed, our law accepts what Charles Taylor, our foremost philosopher, has called the politics of equal dignity for all cultural groups.

The most defining feature of Canada today is its staggering demographic diversity. While 1 in 10 Americans are foreign-born, 1 in 5 Canadians are. In fact, Canada today makes more citizens through immigration than through net increases in the domestic population.

Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world. More than 150 languages are spoken here. About 54 per cent of Torontonians are immigrants. The comparative figure for New York is only 40 per cent. Toronto is the only urban centre in the Western world where a majority, 51 per cent, are visible minorities.

Only institutions that best reflect this demographic reality, as York University is beginning to, are assured of a bright future.

Across Canada, visible minorities now total about 4.5 million.

Both sides of every international issue are present in Canada, especially Toronto - Arabs and Jews, Serbs and Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, Serbs and Kosovars, Indians and Pakistanis, Tamils and Sinhalese, mainland Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese. The list is long.

But don't fret, Canada has always been home to all the old country troubles: all the bickering nationalities of the British Isles, plus the English vs. the French; Catholics vs. Protestants; Greeks vs. Macedonians; Greeks vs. Turks; Hungarians vs. Russians; Russians vs. the Czechs. The old list was long as well.

It is the genius of Canada that all such groups have almost always kept their rivalries within the rule of law. They have done so either by living in splendid isolation of each other, even while being good neighbours; or they have done so by simply agreeing to disagree.

Never before in the history of humanity have so many different peoples come together in such a common bond of peace and tranquility as under the broad canopy of Canada.

Unlike many nations that approach diversity as a problem, Canadians embrace it - in law and in day-to-day practice. For us, diversity is not a problem. Rather the problem is the occasional prejudice that greets it. That's why we worked our way out of anti-Catholicism; we fought anti-Semitism, and still do; and, since Sept. 11, we have been busy battling anti-Islamism.

Another very Canadian formulation is the late Pierre Trudeau's practical implementation of Marshall McLuhan's theory of the global village. Canadians no longer have the conceit of a fixed culture. Canadian culture - informed by our honourable history, with no colonial past and no present geopolitical desire to dominate any people anywhere - is a living, breathing entity that evolves every day. Every generation feels free to rework it, reshape it, improve it. In that sense, you have the chance, perhaps more than any other young generation anywhere else in the world, to remould the country in your own image.

It is the same spirit of flexibility and of cultivating a culture of human rights, at home and abroad, that Canada has distinguished itself elsewhere. It was a Canadian, John Humphrey, who wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The nation that produced him also introduced the policy of giving refugee claimants the right to due process of law.

The nation that invented the idea of peacekeeping has led the way on the international movements to ban land mines and the use of child soldiers.

The nation that created the National Film Board, the CBC, the Canada Council and Telefilm to reinforce a Canadian narrative is producing objective journalism on this current war, as opposed to CNN jingoism.

Fair coverage to all our minority communities
The nation that incubated the idea of "Medium being the message" is pioneering what I have called the Equality of Citizenship in Print and on the Airwaves. To paraphrase Prof. Taylor, we at The Toronto Star are trying, in our modest way, to provide the dignity of fair coverage to all our minority communities.

African Canadians are not merely entertainers and sports figures. Sikh Canadians are not just people with beards and turbans. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Tamil Canadians belong to the Tamil Tiger movement, any more than all Catholics ever belonged to the IRA.

Canadian media are beginning to portray members of minority groups in all their humanity, in all their complexity, glory, success and failure. They deserve no less as the first-class, taxpaying Canadian citizens and consumers that they are. They are entitled to have their voices heard, on domestic and on international issues on which they hold very definite and sophisticated views.

It is only by attempting to understand each other, here at home and in Canada's many extended families abroad, that we can begin to find our common humanity.

These twin themes - protecting the rights of minorities and hearing out all viewpoints in our broader public square - become more important, not less, during times of crisis.

This is a very Canadian view, which you have chosen to honour today by conferring this honorary degree. More than me, or even The Toronto Star, you are celebrating Canada - our home and native land.