When towards the end of my summer internship at the World Youth Alliance office in New York, Casey (the North American Director of WYA) assigned me to organise and facilitate our Emerging Leaders Summit in Toronto, I was excited! Finally, I thought, I get to actually showcase the World Youth Alliance in the old, cold North, where I go to school.
What I had not anticipated was that this would be such an immense learning experience, not just in helping to organize a conference in a foreign country on a bare bones budget but in understanding how this new country’s people thought of themselves as far as national identity was concerned. It also made me wonder about my own experiences in the murkiness of national identity.
In settling on the topic, Casey had emailed some of our Canadian members and finally decided based on the response that it would be useful to consider as the theme for the Emerging Leaders Summit in Toronto, the relationship between Dignity, Multiculturalism and Diversity. The topic was one about which many in Canada pride themselves, being a multicultural and open society. And, while this is good, it often comes with a few costs of its own, such as a little confusion over the exact nature of the country’s national identity. It was this issue we would discuss, what Canada’s multiculturalism meant for its national identity.
After some research and deliberation, we managed to line up four rather impressive speakers for the one day event: Leo Johnson, Mary Jo Leddy, Steve Jalsevec, Randy Boyagada. Leo Johnson, a former refugee from Liberia shared with us his experiences as someone who was working to empower people in a community. Tracing the history of his organisation Empowerment Squared (which was formerely called CURE Canada), he told us about his organization’s work in empowering young people to positively impact their societies. What was particularly interesting about his talk was his unique emphasis, not on what his organization was doing but on how they were doing it. According to him, what was important in empowering people was providing them the opportunity to take the initiative they needed to tell their own stories.
Following Johnson was Mary Jo Leddy, the founder and director of Romero House which is a house that temporarily hosts Toronto’s newcomers.Her talk was particularly inspirational because she went into the specifics of the problems refugees face and she showed how these problems reflected on Canada’s immigration system in particular. One of the most touching points she made was that Canada’s immigration policy does not value children as much as it should. In illustrating this point, she told us the story of a refugee woman she took to her interview. The woman was asked as one of the last questions for her interview, “what do you have to contribute to this country?” She replied “my children” and then he proceeded to deduct points that would determine whether or not she could stay. It was a very sad and touching story, one that illustrated the evil of immigration policy devoid of an acknowledgement of human dignity.
After Mary Jo Leddy spoke, we took a short break and went for lunch. After lunch, we had a very convincing fiery presentation by Life Site News Managing Editor, Steve Jalsevac. Going back into Canadian history, he showed us the different ways that bad social policy making had contributed to Canada’s loss of identity, which was that it was a Christian country. One thing that particularly stood out in his talk was his detailed analysis of how the Charter of Rights and Freedoms championed by Trudeau had worsened the current problems associated with multiculturalism in Canada. One could see by the end of his talk, how important social policy is to setting the tone in determining a country’s identity.
We had a very short break before we settled down to hear the final talk and the keynote speech by Randy Boyagoda, author of Governor of the Northern Province and professor at Ryerson University. He gave a talk called “The Measure you Give Will Be The Measure You Get Back: the Cultural Politics of Personhood Versus Identity in Contemporary Canada.” In his talk, he covered a range of issues including his experience as one of the drafters of the current citizenship manual, balancing the expectations of the different forms of identity one could identify him with, and growing up as an immigrant kid in Canada. He also talked about how Canada had become fond of defining itself in simple opposition to America. Amidst the several funny and important points he made, one stood out to me. It was his conception of seeing people as persons as opposed to just identities. He made a distinction between persons and just identities by highlighting that a person has a lot of identities.For example, he was a professor, a father and a successful 2nd generation immigrant.
Those were his identities. However, all of these combined to form the person of Randy Boyagada that the world had come to know. His point was that instead of viewing people in a singular fashion as just identities, it was more helpful to consider them persons and view them as such. At the end of his presentation, he did a short reading from his book, Governor of the Northern Province and answered questions from the audience.
In the end, I came away with the general impression that Canada is in a special place. Admittedly, the many questions about its national identity are far from settled at this point. Nevertheless, it has the opportunity to uniquely define itself in the comity of nations as a country of persons, as opposed to being defined by some singular characteristic as people find it easy to do for other countries.