On the Cusp of Greatness

Yesterday was Canada Day, and a very busy day across the country. I attended community events, talked with strangers, collected some signatures, and most of all, reflected on what I was seeing. I deeply and dearly love Canada, but on a day all about loving Canada, I wondered why. Why do I love this nation? Allow me to explain.

Canada Day is a time for nationalism, sentimentality, and political speeches. At Steinbach’s Mennonite Heritage Village there were speeches from the MP, the MLA, the Mayor, and the Reeve of the surrounding municipality, one after another. Each of them repeated the phrase “Canada is the greatest country in the world,” some with gusto, others with solemnity. I heard the same words from Stephen Harper on the radio afterward, in a clip from the celebrations in Ottawa. I tend to agree, Canada is great – but what does that mean? How are we great?

The thing that caught my attention, that made me question our seemingly obvious greatness, was the comments of a speaker from the Mennonite Heritage Village. He also said that Canada is great, but he said something else that stood out. He pointed out that when Mennonites first came to Canada they were promised the ability to run their own schools and teach their children in German, with their own curriculum. Not too long after that, however, the Canadian government decided that they must use Provincial curriculum, in English. Many Mennonites moved on to South America to maintain their cultural freedom, but many stayed. And in spite of this betrayal by the Canadian government of that day, this speaker didn’t think that any of the Mennonites who stayed in Canada would wish today that they had moved on, or returned to places like Ukraine and Russia. He’s probably right, but I immediately felt that his repetition of the Canada Day mantra, “Canada is great,” was different from the other speakers. They all spoke about Canada today, our position in the G7, the great things our current government is doing, etc., so that “Canada is great” sounded like self-congratulation; he spoke about the past, and in a way that caused his “Canada is great” to sound like a hope, or even a compromise. Like Canada is great because things turned out okay, but it’s great in spite of past double-dealing and conflict.

But not everything has turned out great for all Canadians. Some conflicts continue. Is Canada great for everyone?

Each of the speakers commented on the number of immigrants and new citizens at the event, noting how this Canada Day must be extra special for them as newcomers. I met a man in the park yesterday who is trying to improve his English quickly enough to renew his work permit, so that eventually he can get Permanent Resident status and continue on the long road to citizenship. I know enough newcomers to Canada to know that achieving citizenship is a powerful, joyful event, and that Canada Day has a different significance for someone who cannot take their citizenship for granted. But that’s just it: many newcomers cannot take their Canadian citizenship for granted, even after they’ve achieved it, because of a new law that allows the immigration minister to revoke Canadian citizenship from dual citizens. Also, not all newcomers receive as warm of a welcome as the ones celebrating at the Heritage Village yesterday: the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has been quite vocal in his opposition to the idea that a woman whose face is covered as an expression of her religious beliefs can take an oath of citizenship. Pledging allegiance to Canada is not enough, apparently; new Canadians must also express their faith in ways that align with someone else’s view of what Canadians should do.

That’s now, but Canada’s history of cultural assimilation goes back to before there was a Canada. Several articles online yesterday reminded me that Canada Day is not a day of celebration for our First Nations, whose history predates Canada’s by centuries. Canada is one of the richest nations in the world, it’s true, but our privileges are not shared by our Indigenous citizens, who were systematically stripped of their land, rights, and culture. To them, Canada Day is a celebration of the subjugation and disenfranchisement of their people, which remains an ongoing struggle. Mennonites were once betrayed by Canada, but now enjoy its benefits; First Nations are still betrayed by Canada, subject to the patriarchal Indian Act and the general refusal of the Canadian government to acknowledge and act upon the treaties signed so long ago. Is Canada really great? Were we ever?

Yet I have hope. Several years ago, the Prime Minister issued an apology on behalf of the government for enacting the Residential School system that took so many Indigenous children from their families with the goal to “kill the Indian in the child.” Recently the Premier of Manitoba apologized on behalf of the Province for the “Sixties Scoop,” in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted by white families in Canada, the US, and the UK. And we’ve also recently celebrated the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued a powerful report about the extent of the abuse that First Nations have suffered at the hands of colonialist Canada. Survivors have had a chance to tell their stories, and we’ve had a chance to listen, and mourn with them.

Sharing stories gives our Indigenous people a chance to heal, but it doesn’t change the current situation. Apologies are an important symbolic step, but they haven’t led to any changes in the status quo. On one hand, they’re even quite negative: they remind us that, from the perspective of our vulnerable people, Canada has rarely been anywhere near “greatness.” But reports and apologies are incredibly important, because they give us a glimpse of what Canada could be. They give us a glimpse of Canada’s true greatness.

We are on the cusp of that greatness.

Canada is not great, but we’re so close that we can taste it. We’ve always been there, on the brink, able to see and celebrate the best in us even if it’s just out of our grasp. The Canada I so deeply love is not the Canada that was, or even the Canada that is (though they each have their moments), but the Canada that may yet be.

We’re not perfect, and we never have been. We’ve been downright awful at (far too many) times, but we’ve always been just a choice or two away from doing the right thing. We signed treaties, some of them in bad faith and some of them in good faith, and either way we have failed to honour them. But even to this day we remain just one or two good choices away from doing the right thing and making good on our old promises. We can honour the treaties, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

We pride ourselves on multiculturalism, but we press our newest citizens to conform to our ways of life and dress. We can be a truly multicultural nation, welcoming outsiders and celebrating difference, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

We pride ourselves on our international reputation as peacemakers and peacekeepers, yet we’ve reduced our involvement in the UN (we invented UN Peacekeepers, and used to contribute up to 3,300 at a time; now there are 34) and increased our involvement in NATO and interventionist wars on the other side of the world. We’ve pulled out of climate treaties, and frustrated the processes of international climate talks so much that we’ve been the repeated recipients of the ironic “colossal fossil” award. Our reputation has become more tied to the oil economy than to the natural beauty, conscience, and compassion that once defined us around the world. Yet we still have a place at the international table, we still have the ability to be leaders in peacemaking and care of the earth, and doing so would make Canada truly great.

I could go on. We are always, and have always been, at the cusp of greatness. I can see what it would look like for Canada to truly be the “greatest country in the world” as so many politicians said yesterday, and it’s because of that vision that I love Canada. It’s because of that vision of peace, justice, compassion, and honour that I continue to work toward those good choices, to try to bring out the best in our nation, to unlock that greatness. We’re not that great, yet, but we could be.

Today is the day after Canada Day, the day after the celebration of our greatness. Let’s make it the day we get to work, to build a better Canada that builds on the wrongs of the past by righting them, so that we can someday earn the title of “the greatest country in the world.”

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon


Ted Talks: Niqab, and the Great Honour of Canadian Citizenship

In his most recent column, Provencher MP Ted Falk applauds Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “taking a strong stance” on the issue of whether or not a Muslim woman who wears a niqab should be required to reveal her face during a citizenship ceremony. The title of his column is “No place for the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.”

I met Mr. Falk recently, and he struck me as being a nice man with good intentions and a genuine concern for his constituents, including a concern for religious freedom. As Ted and I are both Christians, we were able to discuss our faith and how it relates to our desire to serve the people of Provencher. Also, Falk is a Mennonite surname, so Ted should be more familiar than most Canadians about the experience of religious immigrants (I’ll talk more about that below). So I trust that Ted is simply unaware of the incredible hypocrisy of his column.

If you live in this area and haven’t yet visited the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Steinbach, I highly recommend it. I visited there on Canada Day last year (and I saw Ted there, so I know he’s been there too), and learned a lot about how Mennonites had been persecuted in Europe for the past four hundred years because of their religion. Anabaptists (the larger group of which Mennonites are a part, including Amish and Hutterites) believe in a separation from the world and staunch pacifism, which historically led them to refuse military service, oath taking, and any outside interference in their lifestyle. Whenever their communities were pressed into military service or other disruptions, rather than fighting back they would move on in order to maintain their pacifism. So while they were originally largely from Germany and mostly still speak low German, there are different strands of the Mennonite heritage from Ukraine and Russia. They moved to Canada when the Russian government went back on their word to respect the separation of Mennonites from their society, including the refusal of military service. When they moved to Canada, they made prior arrangements with the Canadian government to ensure that their religious requirements would be respected: they were exempt from military service, public schools, and taking oaths (they were allowed to give an affirmation rather than take an oath).

I taught a theology class of undergrads about the Anabaptists a few weeks ago, and I asked them how many were from Mennonite heritage; more than half of the class raised their hands. Of those, about half are currently attending Mennonite churches; most attend evangelical churches. Of the entire class, only two were pacifists, and both of them were from Paraguay (where Mennonites settled after Canada began to require that their children attend public schools in English). So I get that Mennonites in this area are often very far from their heritage. I even had a friend of Mennonite heritage tell me, regarding this issue of the niqab, that he found it frustrating when immigrants come to Canada and try to demand special treatment, saying “the Mennonites didn’t do that.” I had to gently remind him that, yes, Mennonites more than any immigrant group in Canada’s national history have received special privileges which were guaranteed to them before they became Canadian citizens. My friend immediately and a bit sheepishly withdrew his statement, realizing his mistake. It appears that many Mennonites now identify so strongly with Canadian evangelicalism that they’ve forgotten their religious immigrant roots. I don’t in any way mean that as a judgment on them, it’s just an observation of an unconscious psychological phenomenon called in-group bias. But that doesn’t change the fact that they, and perhaps especially Ted Falk (because he’s an MP), should know better.

Pacifism and refusal to take oaths are often referred to as matters of conscience, and our law generally respects matters of conscience unless they endanger others. For many Muslim women, wearing a niqab is a religious duty, and therefore a matter of conscience; to reveal their face to a man, much less in public, would be shameful and degrading, comparable to stripping someone else naked in front of others but with more profound religious implications. So when Ted Falk says “We believe that everyone, out of respect for their new home country, must show their face during a public citizenship ceremony,” he’s revealing either a complete ignorance of what a niqab is to those who wear it, or a complete disregard for their conscience and their religious rights. He’s effectively saying that Canada disrespects new immigrants in the very act of demanding respect from them; and as a Mennonite, he’s saying it from the privileged position of someone whose immigrant ancestors were exempt from swearing at that same ceremony. And as someone whose ancestors were exempt from military service, he’s implying that wearing the niqab is a threat to public safety (“in matters of public safety”).

Mr. Falk, I urge you to reconsider your statement. There are already existing procedures and mechanisms in practice in Canada to allow women who wear the niqab as a symbol and requirement of their faith and conscience to reveal their faces in private to a woman in order to verify their identities. There are places where verification of identity while still respecting a woman wearing a niqab might be a problem (a traffic stop, for example), but the citizenship ceremony is not one of them.

I would also like to affirm your last two paragraphs:

Although Canada is a country built on immigration, I believe that all Canadians, including new citizens, have a duty to protect and adopt the values and freedoms that make our country great. The freedoms that we enjoy are what make Canada so attractive to people from countries across the globe.

We live in the best country in the world, and while we must continue to work hard to respect the diversity of all Canadians, including our newest citizens, we must also always strive to uphold our common values, identity and way of life.

Canada is a country built on immigration, and the respect for religious freedom is one of those common values that makes this country great. Fairness is another. You cannot defend the right of Mennonites to religious education and expression while denying the same to Muslims and still claim to uphold those values of freedom and fairness.

Provencher, let’s keep Canada great by keeping it fair and free.

Your candidate,

Jeff Wheeldon

Jeff Wheeldon