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Feature - A Sense of Belonging

A Feature Article by John Last

Adrienne Clarkson and her consort John Ralston Saul are among the most effective patrons of the arts in Canada. While she was the Governor General, this power couple enriched the library at Rideau Hall with Canadian books, graced the walls with Canadian paintings, stocked the cellar with excellent Canadian wines. Moreover Adrienne Clarkson has other concerns besides the arts. She is an immigrant; she immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong as a small child. The social, cultural and emotional impact of immigration to Canada is a major interest on which she has written with greater eloquence than anything she has ever said about Canadian literature. In her 2014 Massey Lectures, Belonging; the Paradox of Citizenship, she examines the ingredients of citizenship, including the impact of migration on the Canadian nation, and the impact of living in Canada on immigrants. She summarizes the substance of her lectures in a brief paragraph:

In what follows, I will explore how a sense of belonging is a necessary mediation between an individual and society. And in belonging to ourselves and to our society, we have the greatest possibility to live full lives, connected to all other human beings.

I have rarely if ever seen an important book’s message summarized with greater brevity and clarity. After she stepped down as Governor General, she and John Ralston Saul established the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. In many ways, her Massey Lectures set out the rationale for this Institute. In an earlier book, Room for All of Us, she described anecdotally and with empathy the immigrant experience of some famous and some less well known Canadians. In her memoir, Heart Matters, she described the impact of migration on herself and her immediate family. She has reinforced the message of Belonging by drawing upon ideas and concepts in those earlier books. This book is about much more than the social and cultural aspect of immigration. It is about citizenship and society. Here, however, I will focus mainly on immigration.


People who migrate from one country and culture to another may experience identity problems. They are perhaps more at risk for these problems if they are insightful and introspective. I observed this when I was a family physician in Adelaide, Australia in the 1950s, about a quarter of my patients were "New Australians" and some of them had problems associated with their split identity and loyalty, partly to their homeland, partly to their new country. I described some of the problems I'd seen in an article in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1960. Then I became a migrant myself, together with my family: we moved to London, England for a year; back to Sydney, Australia for 2 years; to Burlington, Vermont, USA, for a year; then to Edinburgh, Scotland, for 5 years; and finally 45 years ago, to Ottawa, Canada.

Wendy and I and our children all had identity problems, though only minor ones and no associated health problems more serious than allergies. Our children’s accents changed from Australian to London Cockney, back to Australian, then to Vermont Yankee, then to the lovely Edinburgh lilt that Wendy and I would have liked them to keep forever. But to our sorrow this delightful accent was soon replaced by Ottawa Valley Canadian. These were outward and audible signs of their absorption into the prevailing local culture. There were accompanying outward and visible signs, as they adopted local fashions in children’s clothes – from grey flannel shorts and bland shirts to jeans and colorful shirts, back to shorts, then back to jeans again. In addition to these outwardly observable changes, Wendy and I were aware of more subtle changes in behaviour, determined by equally subtle changes in values as all of us immersed in one culture after another.

In Vermont, Rebecca and David became a little more 'pushy' (or more assertive) and in Edinburgh, more polite and considerate of others; Jonathan acquired similar behaviours as he grew old enough to have observable behaviour traits. Perhaps all these behaviours were just age-related, not part of local norms; I'm not sufficiently skilled in behavioural science to tell, but I think it was at least partly, probably mostly, related to the local norms. Values and behaviour, like accent and clothing, are markers of identity. They may have to be modified as identity is molded, as the sense of belonging is consolidated and becomes more confident.

Wendy and I at first regarded living in Ottawa as a temporary interlude, a staging post on our way home to Australia or to New Zealand, we didn't care which, so long as it was the homeland of one of us. That was where we belonged, with bright sunshine and blue skies by day, the Southern Cross and the dazzling Milky Way - much brighter than north of the equator - by night. Only after our children became firmly rooted in Canada, acquired a sense of belonging here, and after we, their parents, had taken on multiple Canadian roles and responsibilities and for me, American ones too, did we begin to feel that we too belonged in Canada. That process took us about 15-20 years, longer for me than for Wendy. A German couple, among our closest friends in Australia, described to us an exactly similar slow transfer of their sense of belonging, from Germany to Australia, long after their children had become 'dinkum Aussies' who felt no ties at all to Germany. My German-Australian friend Harald Ziemer marked the transition of his sense of belonging to the summer in which he first began to follow the fortunes of the Australian test cricket team, and to appreciate the artistry and strategy of cricket played at the highest level. I have had no similar growing interest in hockey, to which I remain indifferent. (Perhaps, therefore, I don't yet fully belong in Canada).

Adrienne Clarkson had minor identity problems, made more obvious in one way by being a member of a 'visible minority' and less obvious in another because her migration from Hong Kong to Canada occurred when she was a small child. The process of taking on Canadian identity, of acquiring that sense of belonging, was made easier too by being devout Anglican Christians. The Poy family (Adrienne Clarkson’s family) arrived in Canada having belonged already for several generations to this intrinsically English (and by extension, Canadian) institution. She mentions these identity problems and the way the Anglican Church helped overcome them, in her memoir Heart Matters. She returns to these problems again in Room for All of Us, and in Belonging.

Describing with warm affection the village in Provence where she has lived from time to time, she mentions a darker side of Christian faith, the vicious sectarian conflicts which ripped apart mediaeval and Renaissance Christendom with repeated wars, torture and persecution, when belonging was more narrowly defined and confined within the boundaries of one sect or another. Sectarian divisions, albeit mostly more muted but still sometimes bloody, remain part of Christianity, and are more pronounced, often much more deadly, in Islam.

She describes with greater affection her school years in Ottawa, the years that gave her a deep and profound sense of belonging:

When I was growing up in Ottawa, I attended public schools that were named after the streets on which they were located – York Street School, Elgin Street School, Kent Street School… I would walk twice a day, ten blocks or so each way, through winter and summer, picking up my friends at their houses along the way. The neighbourhoods varied: some friends lived in houses, some in duplexes, and some came from a part of town called LeBreton Flats… [T]he geography of my public education was my first acquaintanceship with true democracy, with what it meant to lead a democratic life and belong to a democracy. The way I grew up assumed equality among us children. We would all be imparted the same knowledge, along with the same benefits that come with that knowledge. The fact that we might or might not have meat every night for dinner, or only on Sundays was not material. We all attended the same school, we all sang “The Maple Leaf Forever,” we were all examined for head lice, and we were all Canadians.

Belonging is a meditation on the complex interaction between individuals and the society of which they are parts. Adrienne Clarkson does not share the Weltanschauung of Margaret Thatcher who infamously remarked that there is no such thing as society. It is integral to the political philosophy of Thatcher and her soulmate Ronald Reagan that the world is made better by individuals striving to beat everyone else in a perpetual competitive struggle to acquire wealth, possessions, larger homes with more land around each, bigger, faster cars, and other evidence of ‘success’ in an acquisitive world. Adrienne Clarkson salutes instead a world in which individuals belong to mutually supportive and collaborating groups – to families, neighbourhoods, associations and clubs, communities, ultimately nations and the global community of all people everywhere, all respecting a benevolent system of governance that achieves success by collaboration, by helping one another, not by repression or ruthless confrontational competition.

Voluntarism is an integral part of this vision of the ideal society:

… [In] Canada, voluntarism is the ultimate expression of civic virtue. It is considered a public good, and to be a volunteer is to be a participant in the creation of that public good… the Caring Canadian Award… honours people known in their communities for spending time with others for the benefit of others. The … result is the creation of civic decency and mutual help that have the intrinsic virtue of being personal, direct and consistent… The variety of work done by volunteers in Canada is enormous, and it is quite rightly heralded.

The proudest moment of my life came when Governor General Adrienne Clarkson presented the Caring Canadian Award to my late beloved wife Wendy, recognizing her many years of dedicated volunteer community service. Incidentally that community service did much to give both Wendy and me a strong sense of belonging to Canada.

Much more could be said about ‘belonging’--cultural identity versus alienation; what’s being done; what more could be done to make newcomers feel at home and welcome; the difference between the US ‘melting pot’ concept and the Canadian ‘mosaic’; multiculturalism and the risk of developing ethnic/cultural enclaves that can become ghettos; and sundry other problems.

There are problems aplenty along the way towards development of harmonious, fruitful interactions between individuals, families, and the society of which they are component parts. Problems arise for instance, in our multicultural society when immigrants and members of cultural groups fail to acquire a sense of belonging to the larger society that comprises Canada, or the even larger society that comprises western civilization. This can happen when adolescent children of immigrants from certain ethnic and cultural groups rebel against the traditional values and customs of their parents. I saw this occasionally in Adelaide in the 1950s when girls from peasant Greek or southern Italian families, educated in Australian schools, mingling with girls from more enlightened backgrounds picked up some of these enlightened values, rebelled against arranged marriages that had been customary in their parents’ families. An Australian-born teenaged girl whose parents came from Greece went home from school one day to find a middle-aged man just arrived from Greece, to be confronted with the news that he was to be her husband. She fled to my waiting-room and implored me to help her evade this fate. I interceded at the cost of her estrangement from her parents. Today the same problem sometimes occurs among South Asian families in Canada. In its most extreme form it can lead to 'honour killing' - an oxymoronic name for a disgustingly dishonourable custom.

Another problem has taken on great urgency in light of recent episodes of extreme violence and murder perpetrated by immigrants or by young men who have adopted the antisocial, murderous ways of terrorist groups, in recent examples, associated with perverse interpretations of the teachings of Islam. We had a dramatic experience of this in the assassination of the young sentry at the National War Memorial in Ottawa and the assassin’s assault on Parliament. Soon after this came the blood bath in the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Unfortunately the perpetrators of these and several other terrorist onslaughts have all been killed. We need to keep them alive so they can be studied by sociologists and psychologists. We need to find out more about the antecedents of these acts, how and by whom they were fostered, and what motivates the perpetrators, so that we can develop strategies and tactics to counteract them and prevent such heinous acts of violence.

About 30-35 years ago I recall reading reports of work along these lines that had been done on terrorists associated with the Basque separatist group ETA, and the IRA. Those terrorists, called freedom fighters by their supporters, usually were motivated by ethnic nationalism. Similar studies are needed on terrorists linked to this perverse variant of Islam. Obviously these terrorists lack a sense of belonging to the countries and cultures against which their acts have been aimed. In light of the recent violent terrorist acts perpetrated by young men who have lacked this sense of belonging, more in-depth sociological and psychological studies are urgently needed, to find out more about why these young men (and occasionally women) are attracted to beliefs that induce them to engage in such violent antisocial conduct. That is our best hope in searching for ways to put a stop to this kind of behaviour once and for all.

In Belonging, Adrienne Clarkson has examined the social and cultural consequences of the tension in personal identity that immigrants may have to confront. Her Massey Lectures are a very well written, insightful and sympathetic analysis of this phenomenon. This book is a lovely tribute to all who make the successful transition from one culture to another. I strongly recommend it to all who have migrated, and all who are here to greet the migrants.

Belonging is published by the House of Anansi.

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