Imagined Territory

Adrienne Clarkson Speaks on National Unity, Cultural Difference

Covering nearly one million square kilometres of the globe, the geographical vastness of this country alone is enough to put a strain on the quest of Canadians for national unity. But adding hundreds of cultures, religions and social values to the mix poses an even greater challenge for Canadian democracy.

This was the topic of Adrienne Clarkson’s lecture given last Thursday at the latest Concordia Student Union Speaker Series. The former Governor General spoke of the importance of a cohesive Canadian culture in maintaining a functional democracy; a feat, she says, that will not be accomplished through coercion, but rather imagination.

“We live in an imagined land because we can only know a limited number of people in our lives,” she told a mixed crowd of students, faculty and community members.

“What is important is that we imagine that other people are part of the same country that we inhabit. To a great extent, we can imagine what it is like to be a Canadian in Yellowknife or Winnipeg or Bonavista Bay […] It is our imagination that allows us to feel that we are all part of the same country.”

Clarkson said that through imagining the “other” as ourselves, there ceases to be separation between human beings, despite even the most profound differences.

“We are able to think of the other as somebody outside of ourselves,” she said. “If we develop the right attitude, we will be able to say that it doesn’t matter whether the other is an Inuit or a Croatian. Those origins lose their electricity because the imagination should be great enough to comprehend all the people, even the ones we can’t visualize.”

Citing Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, Clarkson warned that fragmentation, in which people take refuge in smaller groups and become less capable of carrying out a common purpose, is the largest threat to democracy we face.

This is why, in 2005, she created the Institute for Canadian Citizenship as her legacy project. The institute works on projects to assist newcomers in being integrated into mainstream Canadian society within the first years of their arrival.

Yet despite advocating for a national identity, Clarkson held firm to the belief that we must encourage difference and accept as many people into this country as we can.

“I’m always concerned when I hear people talk about pulling up the ladder,” she said, referencing the Tamil refugees who arrived this summer. “We all came here on boats.”

According to an August, 2010 poll, 60 per cent of Canadians feel that the 492 refugee claimants from Sri Lanka should be considered criminals and sent back. Clarkson said that such attitudes are damaging to our psyches, since the country was founded by “poor, wretched, and rejected” immigrants.

“Once we have closed down our imaginations, nobody will belong to this country,” she warned. “Not even us.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 19, published January 18, 2011.