Controversy in the Canada Day Party: analyzing perspectives for understanding

Differing perspectives are easiest to see when they come into conflict.  As a result, it’s tempting for Theory of Knowledge students to seize on conflicts as topics for presentations — and for us as teachers to use them as class examples to illustrate differences in perspectives. As I’m about to do here!   I worry a bit, though, that, unless we treat perspectives with nuance and some empathy for the people involved, we could end up entrenching a binary vision of the world, and possibly a static one where we don’t reach beyond the conflicts into hope for the future.

A conflict in my own country this month over the meaning of Canada Day is a case in point: a specific event gave the media a story and focused attention on conflicting views. It’s a good example in various ways to take to a TOK class, but only done well if we place the skill of identifying perspectives within the larger TOK and IB goals of curiosity, openness and desire to understand.

The Event. So this is what happened:

As the celebration party came together on Capital Hill, all the machinery of party-time kicked into gear – flags, stages for performers and speakers, portable toilets and film crews. Alas, poor 2017, there was also a security ring that rivaled an airport’s. All of this converged for national festivity over our country’s “birthday”, Saturday July 1.

BUT — but — but not everyone was celebrating. Jubilation over the founding of a nation was certainly not the response of a group of First Nations activists, representing the views of many Indigenous people across the country. For their people, the creation of Canada was an experience of being conquered and dominated, with an ensuing 150 years of horrific damage and cultural suppression. The activists put up a protest teepee on the grounds of the Parliament Buildings on the Thursday preceding the Saturday celebrations. (A teepee is an iconic traditional dwelling for indigenous people of the prairies.)

And conflict ensued. The police insisted they were trespassing, arrested some members of the group, and told them to move their teepee away. (Just doing their job, right, in context of security? According to regulations, the activists should have applied for a permit.) The activists cried out that the police were violent in removing protestors (as they would expect of the police, right?), and that in fact the land was theirs anyhow, never ceded (and why would they need a permit on their own land?). They were entitled to perform their own traditional ceremonies, with a goal they expressed to the media: “the goal of their ‘reoccupation’ of Parliament Hill is to highlight how Canada’s 150th anniversary is a painful reminder of residential schools, the appropriation of land, and decades of government-sponsored assimilation of Indigenous peoples.”

After negotiation, police allowed them to have their teepee on government grounds and to relocate it close to centre stage. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, immediately contacted, expressed sympathy,“I understand and hear very clearly the issues that a number of people, including the individuals who are setting up the teepee on the hill, are expressing.” Ahead of the official event, he said, “As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward for the next 150 years.” On July 1, Canada Day, he also attended the traditional ceremonies in the teepee.

Is this a useful example for a TOK class?

Personally, I think this incident (as is the case with many incidents like it) becomes a good illustration of perspectives within Theory of Knowledge only if we go beyond the immediately contrasting views of the celebration. If we do so, it seems to me to be rich in possibilities for raising numerous TOK questions.

1. As we look at situations or events to recognize different perspectives, where do we place the beginning and end points of incidents?

It’s much simpler for class purposes to clip an event out from its historical context – and my version above is tidily packaged with a beginning, middle, and end – but it would give a much more nuanced treatment of perspectives at least to recognize that the protest can be understood only in terms of the past: it insists that past injustices to indigenous people be recognized in the nation’s version of itself.  The perspectives in the present are understood only with an awareness of the last couple of centuries, and best understood with some TOK awareness of history as an area of knowledge.  Moreover, even though the protest has been successful in gaining attention to its point, its ultimate purpose is achieved only if real action is taken to redress injustice in the future.

Treating an event in the present, one that takes place over a defined three or four days, does help to anchor the whole idea of perspectives. But even if we give attention to the immediate event itself, without concern for the past centuries, we have to enlarge our treatment to take in relevant present background in order to grasp its meaning. A Canada Day newsletter from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives gives a good summary:

“Today, Indigenous people in this country experience shocking levels of poverty, inadequate access to clean water and housing, disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration, unequal levels of health care and education, the exploitation of their resources, and the regular abuse of treaty and land rights. Aboriginal women are murdered or go missing at rates far above any other part of the population.

“In these and other ways, Canada is still a colonial state, a relic of the past. If we can’t recognize this reality on the country’s 150th anniversary, when is the right time? If we can’t use this moment to celebrate the idea of a better, more equal society, what, exactly, are we celebrating?”

 The issue of beginning and end points doesn’t apply just to this particular Canadian example, but to many of the events and situations we might choose to illustrate the way perspectives shape knowledge and knowledge claims. When we deal with real events in the world, we’ll always have to choose the time frame to cut out as we pick up our scissors.

2. As we identify different perspectives, how do we identify who holds them?

Is there such a thing, in this example, as a coherent “indigenous perspective”? One justifiable answer is “yes”. To a large extent, the often-brutal colonial experience has forged a commonality of experience among indigenous groups — and thus a broadly common perspective.

But who holds a contrary perspective? In the example of this Canada Day event, Canadians who are celebrating their nation’s birthday – and the values and achievements with which they associate it — do illustrate an attitude toward the day that contrasts that of  the indigenous protesters. Although individuals interviewed in the media expressed a variety of views on what the day means to them, their commonality lies in their coming together in a context of celebration.

Yet the perspective to which the indigenous activists are opposed is, more fundamentally, a colonial perspective on their rights, their land, their lives. It’s much harder to tie a colonial perspective to any group within the contemporary population, but it lives on in the country’s laws and policies and in stereotypes and racism. It may also be argued to live on even in the view of many well-meaning people that indigenous people would be much better off to leave their grievances behind and “get on with life” – that is, implicitly, give up their history and their land claims, be more like the rest of us… and assimilate (at least to the extent others do in a multicultural society).

The ambiguous and diffused location of a body of colonial beliefs and attitudes makes it messy to deal with as an example of perspectives in TOK. However, dealing with ambiguity explicitly in class does perhaps help students recognize that perspectives can be endemic to a society. For contemporary individuals to deny they hold colonial attitudes does not, in itself, deny historical problems and their present legacy.

3. How do we analyze perspectives to understand their impact on knowledge?

I’d want to deal with the two points above – where we put the end points, and how we identify different groups with their perspectives — before tackling an analysis. But then an analysis is essential.  I’ve long argued that perspectives are not simply isolated opinions but bodies of thought, and have suggested in my Theory of Knowledge course book and elsewhere that they are usefully examined in terms of these components:

  • assumptions
  • values
  • selected information or knowledge claims (selected as important according to the assumptions and values)
  • accepted processes of validating knowledge claims
  • implications of accepting the perspective, in terms of further thought and action (pages 28-29)

I won’t repeat here what I’ve gone on about elsewhere, but will simply suggest that, unless we actually see how perspectives work to shape what we know, we’ll not be able to come to grips with why people make their particular knowledge claims. We’ll also miss out on the human sympathy that comes with recognizing, “Hey! I guess what they think makes sense to them, too. They’re not just being contrary!” We might also miss out on seeing how differing theories and other explanations function to gather together coherently the bits and pieces of what we know.

4. How much attention should we pay to extreme views and moments of conflict?

If class time’s short, I’d do no more than gesture toward flash points of conflict and extreme views when treating dominant perspectives. However, if there’s enough class time, specific flash points that catch media attention can be sort of fun. They catch student attention just as they catch media attention, and they almost always illustrate some worthwhile point about knowledge.

For this particular example of Canada Day, I have two favourites, Stay with me through these anecdotes only if you share my interest in communication breakdowns. Otherwise, I encourage you to skip to the end and exit.

One is a moment of indignation and anger. In the protest teepee on Capital Hill, a reporter asks the demonstrators a question. They react with anger and demand that the reporter leave. The reporter, from her point of view, was just asking a question about political responsibility and about the current Prime Minister’s record — a question that would be acceptable in another context.  However, from the point of view of the demonstrators, the reporter appeared to be ignoring what they were there to communicate; she was not listening but instead narrowing to her own agenda. She was also using her terms of reference differently: she was referring to Prime Minister Trudeau as an individual politician in the present, while the demonstrators were speaking of the long term role of the government of Canada, of which the Prime Minister is the representative. Moreover, she was taking an argumentative stance about current politics, while they were speaking personally about painful experience, indigenous knowledge that has been both personal knowledge and shared knowledge. Different assumptions, different historical frames, different goals in communication, different styles of speaking: language as a way of knowing works within a context, framed by a perspective! Caring deeply about what they were wanting to communicate, the demonstrators felt insulted:

On Thursday morning, tempers flared during a news conference held by the indigenous demonstrators after they took offence to a question posed by a CBC reporter; they demanded she leave, then ended the conference.

The reporter had asked the speakers how they felt about Trudeau’s record on indigenous issues. In response, one of the speakers began to talk about a young indigenous person who had died in Thunder Bay.

“But how can he be blamed for that? You don’t think that anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he an improvement over Stephen Harper? Talk about his record,” the reporter said.

“Excuse me? Did I just hear you correctly?” said speaker Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail. “How can he be blamed for that?”

Their anger escalated quickly after the reporter asked them to answer her question. “We don’t want you here. Can you please leave?” said elder Sophie McKeown from Moose Cree First Nation.

After the reporter refused to leave and another reporter from CTV asked a similar question, Wabano-Iahtail accused the reporters in the room of showing their “white privilege” and “white fragility,” and eventually ended the news conference.

“You can’t take our truth,” she said. “Look how many people came to bat for you, white lady. And you’re a guest here. Without us, you’d be homeless. This is over.”

The second example that catches my attention has similar echoes. The writer feels insulted by apparent assumptions made about him and others like him, and defends himself indignantly:

By the same token, aboriginal activists should try to remember that the Canadian public to whom their appeals for reconciliation and justice are ultimately addressed, often in peremptory language, is not a faceless line of Jeffrey Amherst clones [Amherst gave blankets infected with smallpox germs to indigenous groups to kill them] and abusive residential school staff. A great many of us, or our ancestors, came here fleeing oppression and sometimes encountered it on arrival too, and have long tales of historical woe of our own about which nothing can ever be done.

I speak not only of non-white Canadians. What of Canadian descendants of survivors of the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Armenian genocide or even just French religious persecution?

This complaint will resonate with many people who feel that they have been implicitly accused of terrible things they have never done. We non-indigenous Canadians are not our ancestors, and our ancestors weren’t all murderers and child abusers! And some of us don’t have ancestors in this country anyhow.

Yet we have to be able to talk about the injustices of the past and the continuing problems of the present. In the process, the people who have benefitted from the legacy of the past could well preserve their patience with those who have been damaged by it. The word much bandied about these days is “privilege” – and it can be invisible to those who have it.

Moreover, it’s useful to recognize a feature of language as commonly used. It’s a convention to use the pronoun “we” in identification with a group to which one belongs, even historically: “When we [our country] entered the war…” “We [citizens and owners] have great natural beauty in Canada.” “We [all people] commonly think that…” The very notion of a national identity, celebrated with flags and fireworks, encourages people to think and talk as “we”. It’s easy to fall into this usage with thoughtless nationalism — or to resist it cynically as creeping ideology. In any case, it’s a feature of language of which we could encourage our students to be aware, since it’s such an identifier of perspective and the collective that’s assumed.

Who, after all, is the “we” who speak? For indigenous groups, the “we” does include different experiences, collectively and historically, from the rest of Canadians. “When we were taken from our parents by order of the government and placed in residential schools….” Acknowledging this experience is a basic part of the process of truth and reconciliation process that Canada has undertaken. And the indigenous “we” does suppose a “you”; cultural suppression didn’t “just happen” but was done to them.

We benefit from recognizing that language, combined with an assumption of historical continuity for groups, does let people fall into a way of talking that carries generalizations, often hurtful. For all of us to learn to use “we” and “you” with greater awareness of collectives, assumed continuities, and stereotypes — and less clumsiness in stumbling into insult — is another step in reconciling.

Conclusion

When we try to apply TOK skills to the real world, one of the hardest things, I feel, is to walk the path between too little and too much detail. Clearly, we need to keep our focus on features of knowledge – in this case, perspectives that bind together whole bodies of knowledge claims – and not get sucked into the details of an example. But as we trace a path, we want to acknowledge, at the very least, some of the nuances and ambiguities over which we are stepping, or which lie just off to the side.

I tried not to write about this particular example because I didn’t think I could do it justice. And I haven’t.

I remain hopeful, though, that, as one Theory of Knowledge teacher to others, I will find a sympathetic audience in my efforts to figure out the best ways to apply the thinking skills of our course to the real world. It’s such an important educational goal! If we can achieve it, to the greatest degree our circumstances allow, perhaps our students can learn to be more open to alternative views and kinder in their response. The point of recognizing perspectives, surely, is not just to list differences but to grow in our understanding of how knowledge is created and claimed, in very human ways.


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References

Alex Ballingall, “Teepee erected on Parliament Hill highlights pain of Canada 150, activists say”, The Star, June 29, 2017. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/06/29/canada-150-protesters-erect-teepee-on-parliament-hill.html

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, newsletter. July 1, 2017. https://t.e2ma.net/message/d0iem/tsfnib

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013. page 28-29 https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737/?region=international

Maura Forrest, “Trudeau calls for understanding after tempers flare during indigenous ‘reoccupation’ of Parliament Hill”, National Post. June 29, 2017. http://nationalpost.com/news/politics/indigenous-protesters-shut-down-news-conference/wcm/8fe4de3c-92ad-45e1-a39e-99cff8019cb2

Leah Schnurr and David Ljunggren, “On rainy 150th birthday, nation celebrates the meaning of Canada”, Reuters. July 1, 2017. http://in.reuters.com/article/us-canada-politics-idINKBN19M3KA

“Teepee put up near Parliament as part of Canada Day protest”, Toronto Star. June 29, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uHZ–KPAPo

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