By Ed Wilson, Executive Director
Black History Month—and finally having the opportunity to view "Selma” last weekend—has got me thinking about tolerance of differences in race and religion—my own and our society’s.
As a child, I think I was as tolerant as anyone on the big chunk of rock in Lake Huron I called home (and shared with approximately 10,000 Caucasians and 1,000 First Nations people). I’m thankful for the positive example of my father, who, as best I can recall, didn’t display racist attitudes toward the First Nations population of Manitoulin Island. I remember one conversation with him after he had hired a crew of men from the M’Chigeeng reserve to cut and split firewood for us. After the first week in the bush, the crew approached him for an advance on the pay they would get upon completion of the job. He gave it to them, while telling me that conventional wisdom in our community was that if you gave an advance you might never see your workers again. He wasn’t afraid to reject a cultural stereotype—and was validated when the men came back the next week to fulfill their end of the agreement.
On the other hand, when a Catholic girl started attending our one-room school when I was in grade 7, I joined in with the rest of my Protestant classmates in ridiculing her faith and her Pope, reducing her to tears on more than one occasion. I’m sorry, Marlene. I wish I could make it right with you.
As Canadians, we like to think of ourselves as being more tolerant and open-minded than our neighbours to the south. On Social Progress Index, Canada ranked second in the world for tolerance and inclusion. Is this so? If not, where does racism and prejudice hide? Maclean’s suggests it is hidden deep in the bush. In spite of what we’d like to believe, it was not so hidden for African Canadians a generation or two ago. James Walker, an expert on the history of Canadian race relations, writes "In virtually every one of the areas of life and death [associated with American racial segregation], African Canadians too experienced exclusion and separation from mainstream institutions, amounting to a Canadian version of ‘Jim Crow’” (in "Race”, Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada, 2006).
IJM certainly encounters the effects of racial and cultural prejudice in its work—from the ethnic hill tribes of northern Thailand who routinely face barriers to securing verification of the Thai citizenship to which they are entitled, to India, where at least 95% of the individuals we help rescue from bonded labour slaveryare members of the lowest castes.
If we believe that all are created in God’s image, and all are equal in dignity and rights, we need to root out all traces of intolerance and prejudice in our own hearts and minds. To paraphrase the words of Lyndon Johnson, when he gave his speech to Congress on voting rights in1965: Lack of respect for racial and cultural differences is not a southern problem or an American problem or a Canadian problem—it is a human problem.
The picture the Bible provides us of the ideal Christian community is one of unity within diversity, and our vision for society should be no different. This isn’t the same as pretending everyone is exactly the same; in fact, it requires to us to make room for our differences and celebrate each other’s uniqueness.
As the song "Glory” from the soundtrack for "Selma” says, "the war is not over, victory is not won” but we can all take tentative steps toward greater tolerance and inclusivity by taking the time to listen to the story of our neighbour, even if she wears a hijab or he wears a dashiki. We can recognize that as human beings we share the same hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities, even as we celebrate the cultural differences within the amazing kaleidoscope of humanity that are an essential aspect of this world we call home for now.