The ideas and values that shaped Canada grew from rocky soil, long cold winters, clouds of mosquitoes, dense stands of timber and volumes of water. Ideas about getting along and helping each other out. About appreciating our modest place amidst Creation’s infinite grandeur. About living in harmony with each other and the natural world.
A unique species of inclusion grows particularly well here. Inclusion as a two-way path expanding to changing circumstances. Inclusion that is comfortable with diversity. Accepting of our mutual dependence. Confident that our ‘soil’ is rich enough for everyone to thrive.
Without these foundational Indigenous concepts, settlers would not have survived winter. Neither would successive waves of immigrants have been warmly welcomed. Think of it. We are the only country in the world to have persuaded our government to create a private citizen-sponsored stream of refugee sponsorship. An idea that majestic didn’t grow out of thin air.
Our ingenuity, caring and hospitality is linked to our geography. Adversity could have torn us apart. We could have harvested fear and anguish. Instead, we harvested peace and fairness. Granted not nearly as well as we should have. Fortunately, we can do something about that.
My wish is that we become more deliberate about tending to our garden – to those values and ideals that grow well here.That might mean paying less attention to what is growing in gardens elsewhere. And being extremely careful about what we transplant from them.
Here are ten writers and their books that have shaped my understanding of Canada’s garden of values.
The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier: The Arctic is the earth’s early warning system for climate change. The health of the Arctic and its people is connected to global well-being. “The environment and climate I grew up in was indeed rich in lessons, and not just those that build character or help us on a hunt. Our intense affinity with the land and with wildlife taught us how to live in harmony with the natural world.”
The Long Walk by Jan Zwicky: This is an indispensable book for those haunted by despair and worry. Her poems bear witness to what is painful but necessary to look at – our tendency to destroy our environment, our values and each other. It also offers wisdom for finding beauty in unexpected places and for getting our souls in order.
A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul: An eloquent description of Canada as a Métis civilization more influenced by Indigenous concepts of egalitarianism and mutual dependency than by ideas brought here by settlers and immigrants. John quotes novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe that Canada has “a subconscious Métis mind.’
Becoming Human by Jean Vanier: One of more than thirty books written by this philosopher, theologian, and peace-maker. “Becoming Human” is about the liberation of the human heart from chaos and confusion. Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize, one of the world’s richest, for his “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimensions.” The citation read “this extraordinary man” whose message of compassion for society’s weakest members “has the potential to change the world for the better”.
L’Agora by Jacques Dufresne: One of the biggest handicaps of not reading French is not having access to the writings of Jacques Dufresne. Described as the Socrates of Quebec he and his wife Hélène Laberge maintain the on-line L’Encyclopédie de L’Agora and produce a regular journal of ideas and debates. Fortunately, Jacques is a friend so I enjoy both his company and his wisdom. Here is a profile of Jacques by L’Arche Canada and links to a joint project we worked on, the living ties of Belonging. The wisdom on the website is all Jacques.
Gentlemen Players and Politicians by Dalton Camp: This book helped me appreciate where the unique and important Red Tory stream in Canadian politics came from. It is also a political romp providing a front row seat as Camp helps John Diefenbaker become Prime Minister and then lead a grassroots campaign to oust him because of his erratic and autocratic nature. Camp’s political smarts were one of three good reasons why Ottawa (and many of the rest of us) stopped every week to listen to CBC radio’s Morningside three wise men – the “Kierans/Camp/Lewis” political panel.
CBC Idea Programs by David Cayley. Cayley was the pre-eminent writer, broadcaster and producer of the CBC “Ideas” radio shows for more than thirty years. He was a pattern recognizer, spotting issues, challenges, perspectives and solutions that eventually became mainstream. He is the only journalist who the great thinker Ivan Illich would grant extended interviews to. Cayley’s book The Rivers North of the Future is about Illich and his ideas. Cayley is now releasing his documentaries as podcasts. No need to go to university if you subscribe.
Mother D’Youville by Albertine Ferland-Angers: Mother D’Youville is best known as the first Canadian-born saint and founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity, popularly known as the Grey Nuns. She should also be acknowledged as one of Canada’s original social entrepreneur. She created a health and social care system without the support of New France’s military government, the active opposition of her in-laws and while raising her children as a single parent. Smallpox epidemics, poor harvests, famine, and war meant that the Grey Nuns had to find inventive ways to survive. Mother D’Youville knew how to turn everything into a profit for her cause: needlework, mending soldier uniforms, making tents and sails, curing tobacco, producing lime, renting plots of lands, growing food, milling flour and selling bread.
The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map: To many, pacifism seems too mild or naïve a response given the brutal forces on display in the world today. We succumb to the argument that threats can only be met by military might and more arms production. Even though military interventions escalate rather than dampen armed conflict and breed more fear and violence. Ursula Franklin’s writings provide practical directions for cultivating peace and justice. Here is her challenge to the social inventors out there: “Within the framework of our search for the structures of peace, we must document those peaceful situations around us that do work….We should try and learn why they work, what it is that makes them peaceful and effective, and how we can extend these processes–on what scale and under what conditions of time and place.”
Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs: Jacobs is the ultimate passionate amateur who revealed how cities work, why they thrive, and why they fail. Her renegade theories about urban planning eventually became conventional wisdom. She should also be remembered as a great democrat. Cities were her laboratory for dealing with the fragilities and intricacies of democracy. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
A nation without publishers loses the ability to define itself, and is destined to be defined by strangers and, ultimately, ruled by them. Stephen Henighan