“A wall can be a sea, a wall can be a desert, but the most difficult wall is the wall in our hearts. We are all human beings here,” said Regina Catrambone, co-founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station.
This was one of the comments made in a three-day “Citizen Space” convened by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, from September 25-27, 2017.
Led by the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, 26th Governor-General of Canada, and John Ralston Saul, essayist and novelist, the gathering brought together a range of diverse perspectives from across Canada and Europe to reflect on the significance of walls, homes, and bridges – in the search for “new language and new thinking” that can create a “culture of inclusion”.
“The questions asked by the participants in this gathering are the same ones that are on the minds of many people today: how do we create a more equitable and inclusive society, in which all people have a voice and a role to play?,” said Geoffrey Cameron, Principal Researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada.
An aspect of the conference was the participation of a number of “6 Degrees Junior Fellows,” who are supported to carry out projects that foster inclusion in their communities. Among the Junior Fellows this year was Sara Alavian, a medical student at McMaster University and a member of the Baha’i community. She is co-producing a podcast with Skye Collishaw to explore how the environments created by cities affect the health outcomes of marginalized populations.
The Citizen Space began with a community citizenship ceremony, where many conference participants joined new Canadians in affirming their citizenship in the presence of the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLaughlin, Chief Justice of Canada.
Prof. Michael Sandel then delivered the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture on the question, What Ails Democracy? In his celebrated style of audience engagement, Sandel asked whether citizenship should be for sale to the highest bidder, and whether borders should simply be open for all to cross. Employing this method of participatory argument, Sandel invited the audience to consider the full implications of the values and principles they hold for the how societies are organized, and more particularly, whether there should be limits to the use of markets to determine the shape of society and politics.
A participatory approach guided much of the conference, which sought to create a space for conversations that could surface new insights and illuminate diverse experiences about how people find belonging in an age of transition. After a conversation that considered the “walls” blocking belonging and inclusion, Chief Stacey LaForme pointed out that “these are symptoms.” He continued, “we won’t be able to move forward until we see the root of the problem – we need a vision, a world-vision”.
Wadah Khanfer, former Director General of Al Jazeera, noted that many factors made it increasingly difficult for many people to identify “home” only with a geographic place. “This is home – when you become a human being, embedded in a set of values that liberate you from the chains of materialism and interests.” He continued, “We need to save our future from being shaped by the present; we need to have the courage to imagine alternative futures.”
Fabrice Vil, Director of Pour 3 Points, added that we have to recognize our shared humanity as a starting point for bridge building. This sentiment was echoed by Prof Niigaan Sinclair, from the University of Manitoba, who shared that from another perspective, “bridges are not about individual rights and freedoms; they are about family relations and collective responsibilities”. Ashraf Rushdy, Project Officer with the Baha’i Community of Canada, underscored this insight during the “coffeehouse” portion of the conference: “Our public conversation about the future of politics tends to revolve around ‘the right’ and ‘the left’ as if these are coherent positions. How can we build a public conversation that is more nuanced, that does not get reduced to binary distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’?”
During a breakout session on diversity in the media, conference participants asked how the press could more fully reflect their audiences. Eva Salinas, Managing Editor of OpenCanada.org asked, “How do you present people not as subjects of a story, but as agents in their own narrative?” Participants agreed that representation is not enough on its own to accomplish inclusion, but that different voices need to help to shape the public conversation.
In the concluding forum of the gathering, a number of participants reflected on how to advance an ongoing conversation about inclusion that extends beyond the conference. One speaker noted that there was a need to agree on “meta-points” of unity at the level of vision, even though there may be disagreement on how to get there. Rushdy added to this that “we need to widen the circle and broaden the conversation” by “making more explicit the elements of the framework that can help us to advance together.”
This brief storify story shares a perspective of the highlights of the conference.