By Gary Mason, Toronto Globe and Mail, July 16, 2010)
Today, Ms. (Adrienne) Clarkson is committed to helping new immigrants learn as much as possible about the indigenous foundation upon which their new country is built. And she is promoting a project in Vancouver she believes will help develop a deeper and healthier link between Canada’s past and its future.
Much of the Aboriginal-New Immigrant Initiative is carried out through “dialogue circles” in which native leaders sit with new Canadians and tell stories about their families’ past and their tribes’ history. The tales are fascinating, sometimes funny, often sad. Afterwards, Canada’s newest citizens can ask questions, or talk about a shared experience.
While it seems like a modest endeavour that wouldn’t lead to a seismic difference in society, Ms. Clarkson would disagree. She thinks it’s vital that immigrants, the fastest growing segment of the population, understand the aboriginal experience. Only then will they appreciate and begin to comprehend the debate that continues to swirl around so many aspects of native life in Canada. But she also thinks the dialogues will help create a bond between those coming to Canada and those who have lived here for hundreds of years.
“And that makes for a richer, more complete nation,” said Ms. Clarkson, who was in Vancouver this week to attend a dialogue circle. “While so many countries have spent the last hundred years eradicating their aboriginal past, it’s important that new Canadians understand that we don’t believe in that here.”
Her husband, a cultural historian, has also written, "A Fair Country," in which his thesis is that Canada does not and should not replicate a European, hierarchical culture, but rather one with three legs to the stool, English, French and First Nations, the latter being the originators of the "circle" archetype which merely opens more and more widely to welcome newcomers.
Saul has also stated publicly many times that he believes that the best and brightest young leaders in Canada today come from the aboriginal groups across the country. They have earned university degrees, are taking their rightful place as leaders in their own community, and he speculates, will come to take a lead rightfully in their native land of Canada.
Integration into the Canadian culture is a subject about which Ms. Clarkson is more intimately familiar than most, given her own history of being herself a Chinese immigrant, living and learning in a foreign land called Canada, and wondering out loud why there was no thought by her teachers to have her grade six class visit a native community only forty miles outside Ottawa, rather than prepare projects depicting their culture and history for her classmates. Also in her addresses to the many new immigrants, she informs them that now that they are part of Canada, our history, both good and bad and that includes the awful residential school history "that makes you want to vomit," is their history too. So she rejects the notion that "I wasn't here when that happened so I am not responsible for it" as a way of escaping its influence on their lives.
Still leading, still thinking and acting positively on behalf of the present and future country, in helpful, insightful, creative and compassionate ways, Ms Clarkson and Mr. Saul are role models for many.
When meeting a relatively young 40-ish man on the weekend, I was reminded of how deeply words still seep into the consciousness of individuals when my new acquaintance quoted from Saul's Unconscious Civilization as part of his conversation. And both his and Ms Clarkson's vision for our country are gifts for which we will never be able to fully thank them.