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What happened to respectful debate in Canada?

Erna Paris's book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History, was a direct inspiration for the 2008 Government of Canada apology to survivors of the Indian Residential Schools. She is a former Chair of the Writers' Union of Canada.

Will Trumpism come to Canada? When asked over the past year, I've said no. Canadian respect for diversity, an economy that has stayed afloat and our reputed politeness have made such an evolution improbable – at least in the near term.

That's still true, but we're seeing ground-level challenges.

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Yes, Ezra Levant's hateful website, The Rebel, fell into disrepute after its coverage of the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August. Yes, the federal NDP has elected a Sikh man as its leader. And yes, the recent outing of men with a history of predation may actually kick-start change to the oldest status quo in history: the demeaning of uppity women who think they're equal.

But, starting with the kerfuffle at The Writers' Union of Canada last May, there have been troubling signs – not because the concerns being raised are inappropriate, but because of the way they're being handled.

In an issue devoted to Indigenous writing, the editor of the house magazine, Write, said provocatively that he believed in cultural appropriation. Writers must be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities, he explained, before flippantly calling for an "appropriation prize."

Those of us who hope to build a new relationship with First Nations peoples recoiled at his insensitivity, but the brouhaha that followed, including his immediate firing and a public apology on the part of the union erased his central point: that it is the work of writers to imagine and interpret the world.

This used to be self-evident. Was E.M. Forster appropriating Indian culture when he wrote A Passage to India? Did this year's Nobel Prize winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, appropriate British culture in The Remains of the Day because he happened to be born in Japan? Was I wrong to circle the globe to write Long Shadows, a comparative look at how different cultures re-imagine their history after times of crisis? Limitless vision used to be the hallmark of good writing. If this is now being contested, the editor's remarks ought to have triggered a serious public discussion about the nature of writing itself. This didn't happen. The Writers' Union correctly took action, but it simultaneously curtailed the conversation.

Another distracting development has been the self-serving effort to redefine common words, such as the term "racist." According to a teenager of my acquaintance, some Ontario teachers are using the word to apply uniquely to those who are presumed to hold power, meaning that only white people can exhibit the flaw. It has been a near-universal understanding that anyone, regardless of skin colour, can harbour hatred and hold racist views. How will children learn to think with nuance about difficult questions if their teachers eschew history, context and moral complexity?

Last month, another indication of the emerging zeitgeist took place at Dalhousie University when its student union condemned Canada 150 celebrations because of the country's exploitative history with Indigenous people. After a student launched an obscenity-laden tweet in support, engendering a complaint, the university decided to investigate, but withdrew when mounting anger seemed to preclude a mediated solution.

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There was much that was disturbing about the Dalhousie affair. The student motion was certainly open to debate, but the tweet was not. It was, on the contrary, an attempt to silence speech in the name of free speech. The second problem was the capitulation of authority when faced with intimidation. The retreat of the university leadership sent a message that balanced discourse on a sensitive matter would not be possible, leaving everyone without recourse. The third concern was gross incivility in the public sphere. How many will risk engaging publicly if their interlocutors are more likely to hurl insults rather than debate the issue?

Because Canada is a diverse society largely sustained by historical compromise and the goodwill of its citizens, it will always be a fragile place, one that needs vigilant oversight. We must accept the anger that has been released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and listen with respect to unpleasant truths. We must also have a respectful national debate on the complex historical issues being brought to light. At the same time, we cannot lose sight of the larger picture – the flawed beneficent country that sustains us.

Video: Opinion: What is cultural appropriation? (The Globe and Mail)
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