On Thursday I worked as a poll supervisor for Elections Ontario. I have joined election teams for the last couple provincial and federal elections. I cannot fully explain my enthusiasm for working election days. The days are long and mentally exhausting, and yet strangely rewarding and enlightening.
To be a poll official is to spend a day devoted to serving your neighbours — and a day focused on the technical challenges that arise when serving so many fellow citizens in a friendly and efficient way.
Elections are political. The act of voting tends to stir convictions with cortisol. When my focus is on my ballot, my attention is wrapped up with ‘my side’ winning the election. But the work of elections staff is very different: it is all about neutrality, accountability, and customer service. Assuming this role makes for an entirely different way to experience and participate in an election. ‘Winning,’ for a poll official, means making democratic participation as accessible as it can be for as many people as possible.
I think everyone who lives in a democracy should try serving their compatriots at the polls. Try it at least once in your lifetime. The concern for elections staff is executing the practical logistical requirements of a functioning democracy, and in this context you find yourself working alongside people of every political ‘colour’ who come together and set everything aside to get a job done.
Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?
The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.
Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.
I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.
I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.
One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?
Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?
Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.
I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.
However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.
Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?
Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.
The last few years aligned a series of events, the sum of which have yielded unsettling realizations for many Canadians.
A brief account: On June 11, 2008, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Indian residential school system. The emergence of the Idle No More movement in 2012 (and onwards), the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015 (and the subsequent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls later that year), and several on-going, high-profile water and resource disputes, have collectively culminated in a significant shift in the way that many Canadians think about the history of colonization. Self-awareness of the doctrine of discovery has been, well, rediscovered. Most recently, this growing openness to learning about the history of the indigenous experience squarely collided with the celebration of Canada 150, forcing the cognitive dissonance into personal reckoning for many of us.
Sprinkled throughout the last paragraph is also an account of my journey over the past few years as well. My perspective and awareness have been evolving alongside and with my compatriots. At present, however, I find myself struggling to determine what to do next. I strive to understand what ‘reconciliation’ means for me in practical terms. Maybe it is a problem of semantics. Perhaps it is a problem of definitions. This post is about wrestling with next steps by wrestling with the term ‘reconciliation’ itself.
In common parlance, it appears that the word ‘reconciliation’ has at least two working definitions in Canadian society. The first and primary usage of the word is (and must be) wholly political. Let’s call this national reconciliation. In this sense, we speak of reconciliation as an intentional shift towards equity and reparation, manifested principally in formal negotiations between the federal government of Canada and autonomous, sovereign First Nations, Metis, and Inuits. The national reconciliation agenda involves honouring and enforcing past treaties, politics of recognition, restoring resource and land rights, and so on. National reconciliation, therefore, must involve band councils, politicians, and lots and lots of lawyers — all collectively navigating the thorny moral and legal landscape created by the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent policies enacted in its wake.
Whatever ‘reconciliation’ is, exactly, it seems evident that it must be grappled with here — at the level of federal negotiations — first and foremost. At a minimum, if reconciliation doesn’t happen at this level, it seems unclear that any other activity could be considered ‘reconciliatory’ in the long run.
Simultaneously, this concept of national reconciliation is often mentioned in parallel to some notion of personal reconciliation. This version of reconciliation begins with consciousness-raising about the historical sins of our forefathers but quickly moves to an understanding of privileges that non-indigenous people hold today that come at the expense of the people we have colonized. Here, ‘reconciliation’ is where I confront my individual, internalized racism, stereotypes, prejudices, and bigotry. When Canadians talk about reconciliation in these personal terms, we often seem to imply nurturing and building interpersonal and communal middle ground. We employ lots and language about ‘understanding’ and ‘bridges.’ There’s much said about ‘learning from the other.’
I think a difficulty for non-indigenous Canadians — those of us privileged to enjoy existences and identities that are not seen as a perennial ‘problem’ for the government and ‘mainstream’ culture — is understanding how reconciliation can be both personal and political, simultaneously. Those of us who can conveniently separate our ethnicities, identities and politics into separate categories risk underdeveloping or under-imagining our sense of how others might feel and find ‘belonging’ in society.
It seems to me that we must define reconciliation as both a national and personal endeavour. If we define reconciliation primarily as a process of political reparation, it might seem to absolve everyday citizens of any and all personal responsibility. Of course, this is false, as we are all political — no less so even in our political apathy — with respect to holding our elected leaders accountable to concrete action on reconciliation. But if reconciliation is only the work of politicians and band councils, the onus for making lasting change is only as strong as an election cycle, at best. Surely, supporting the cause of reconciliation means something more than casting a ballot once every four years.
As a result, it seems incumbent upon everyone to adopt and internalize a pursuit of personal reconciliation. How do I, as an individual, act in such a way as to thwart the centuries-old inertia of racism that hues the psychology of a nation? But wait! Reconciliation must remain much, much more than white folks contemplating their colonial privileges and writing blog posts about it — getting ‘woke’ does not, on its own, restore land treaties or clean up industrial mercury spills. Perhaps we should say that ‘personal reconciliation’ is not truly enacted until the personal becomes political. Until your reconciliatory kumbaya becomes political action, don’t think of it as anything more than guilt-happy, liberal feel-good.
I was recently chatting over coffee with Joe Anton, a friend of mine from the Oneida Nation of the Thames, who currently works as an addictions counsellor here in London. I shared my struggle to forge ‘personal’ and ‘national’ reconciliation into coherent personal activity. After a moment, Joe responded, “Reconciliation is what is going to emerge — it is a new reality that we are going to create together.” These words might be one of the most decisively wise nuggets of insight I have heard in a long time
Let’s not get so caught up in all the ways that we can define reconciliation as a verb that we forget the ultimate goal: reconciliation as a noun. A state of things. A different order. A relationship. A rearrangement of power. A generative way of being together and learning from one another that leads to a reality that is different than what we know at present. It’s personal. It’s political. And it is unknown: it is a future that will only exist if we make it.
Perhaps there are two definitions of liberty?
The first definition asks: if liberty does not protect me from the power of others over me, how can I be free?
The second definition asks: if liberty does not protect my right to amass power for myself, how can I be free?
In the first case, liberty is protection from external subjugation.
This is equity through legislating shared access to power.
This is liberty as the antithesis of being oppressed.
This is freedom in the sense of living among equals.
Here, freedom of speech protects the voice of the minority speaking truth to power.
In the second case, liberty is the right to consolidate power.
This is equality in the license to centralize influence.
This is liberty in the sense of rising above the crowd.
This is freedom in the sense of opportunity to become greater.
Here, freedom of speech turns into a monopoly on rhetoric, brandished by the power majority.
Critics of the first definition ask: does defining ‘liberty’ as ‘equitable rights afforded to everyone by an institution more powerful than anyone’ leave anybody free?
Critics of the second definition ask: does defining ‘liberty’ as ‘equal opportunity to take advantage of one another’ leave anybody free?
What does liberty mean to you?
If your definition of liberty culminates in restricting the freedom of others, how do you distinguish between your definition of ‘liberty’ and your concept of ‘oppressor’?