Fos­ter­ing ‘cul­tural abun­dance’ in the time of Trump

Panel dis­cus­sion at McMaster part of univer­sity’s com­mu­nity talks to mark Canada’s 150th birth­day this year

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JON WELLS jwells@thes­pec.com 905-526-3515 | @jon­jwells

For a brief mo­ment, un­ex­pected late-af­ter­noon rays of sun­light il­lu­mi­nated the au­gust oak-pan­elled con­fines of McMaster Univer­sity’s Great Hall — and yet a ubiq­ui­tous shadow couched the high-minded dis­cus­sion.

The topic was how the academy — higher ed­u­ca­tion — can help build “cul­tural abun­dance” in a di­verse na­tion like Canada.

The panel dis­cus­sion be­fore about 50 peo­ple was the lat­est in Mac’s “Canada@150” com­mu­nity talks, aimed at en­gag­ing the univer­sity and broader com­mu­nity to “en­cour­age di­a­logue and in­spire crit­i­cal thought.”

Univer­sity pres­i­dent Pa­trick Deane opened the event al­lud­ing to pol­i­tics south of the bor­der, where there are “threat­en­ing signs of a move­ment di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to fos­ter­ing cul­tural abun­dance … so this is an op­por­tune time to fo­cus on this is­sue as an as­pect of Canada’s na­tional iden­tity and fu­ture.”

The new U.S. pres­i­dent, or at least the spec­tre of in­tol­er­ance that Don­ald Trump — ar­guably — rep­re­sents, loomed dur­ing the dis­cus­sion on di­ver­sity.

But, so too did cul­tural hard­ships faced by Canada’s na­tive peo­ple over the years.

Vanessa Watts, the aca­demic di­rec­tor of indige­nous stud­ies at Mac, sug­gested that, his­tor­i­cally, na­tive cul­tures were es­sen­tially stomped upon in an ef­fort to im­pose the “ci­vil­ity and sal­va­tion” of Euro­pean cul­tures, and that the univer­sity was of lit­tle as­sis­tance.

“But at McMaster and other uni­ver­si­ties we have seen the num­ber of indige­nous stu­dents in­creas­ing … path­ways avail­able for them (into academia) in­creas­ing.”

Oth­ers on the panel in­cluded Mar­ufa Shin­wari, a na­tive of Afghanistan and long­time Hamil­ton res­i­dent who is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Im­mi­grant Culture and Art As­so­ci­a­tion; Leo John­son, who as a teenager lived in a refugee camp in Liberia and founded the Em­pow­er­ment Squared char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion; and Terry Cooke, pres­i­dent of the Hamil­ton Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion.

Panel­list Anne Pear­son, who has taught re­li­gious stud­ies at Mac and been chair of Hamil­ton’s In­ter­faith Coun­cil, raised an in­ter­est­ing point about re­li­gious di­ver­sity.

She sug­gested the para­dox of faith at the mod­ern univer­sity, where many stu­dents carry strong re­li­gious iden­ti­ties “yet there is a grow­ing dis­trust of re­li­gion in sec­u­lar Canada, and the sec­u­lar univer­sity.”

In­creas­ingly, Pear­son added, stu­dents also iden­tify with ag­nos­ti­cism, or athe­ism or hu­man­ism. (McMaster was founded as a “Chris­tian school of learn­ing.”)

She said one def­i­ni­tion of culture is that it is “coded wisdom,” and the ques­tion for fam­i­lies new to Canada is, how will it be trans­mit­ted be­tween gen­er­a­tions?

“What do you keep, what do you lose?

“That’s one dilemma of this com­plex word, culture.”

Pear­son quoted a Cana­dian prime min­is­ter who spoke at the light­ing of the Cen­ten­nial Flame on Par­lia­ment Hill 50 years ago, of build­ing in the coun­try a “na­tional spirit and pur­pose … an ex­am­ple of what men and women work­ing to­gether can do to build the good so­ci­ety.”

She could speak with some au­thor­ity on the sub­ject: she was ac­tu­ally present when Lester B. Pear­son, her grand­fa­ther, gave that speech.

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