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
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.