Monday, August 22, 2011

salut, Jack

I'm thinking today about Jack Layton, dead at 61. I watched him on YouTube, touring Rick Mercer through his Toronto home, chatting in Cantonese with his mother-in-law. I found myself grinning at the photo of him cycling with his wife, Olivia Chow, in Toronto's Gay Pride parade. I read his open letter to Canadians, written a couple of days ago when clearly he understood he was nearing the end of this particular walk.

There's a lot of strength in this man--strength & candour & good humor. A lot of us have taken him to heart because he just feels so authentic--and authenticity is an increasingly rare commodity in public life.

Advertising guru Terry O'Reilly had a segment on CBC recently about how sharply tuned we humans are to authenticity. When something sounds contrived, we are quick to reduce our expectations about the truth factor.

Authenticity is at the heart of what writer/researcheBrenĂ© Brown calls whole-heartedness. The people who live the fullest lives with the greatest resilience and impact on their world have this one quality in common: they engage their lives whole-heartedly, embracing their mistakes, celebrating their successes, & appreciating the value of every moment, no matter how trivial.

Jack Layton certainly lived whole-heartedly, and judging by the open letter he wrote to us all a couple of days ago, he lived that way until he died. Here's his parting wish:
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Here's a story I did not know until this week: on August 1, 1834, slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire, almost three decades ahead of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Which means that in many Commonwealth countries, August 1 is Emancipation Day.

Here's an interesting side note: Upper Canada (now Ontario) was even further ahead of the pack. Our first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, was an ardent abolitionist. His determination & dismay fuelled the passage of an Act Against Slavery in 1793, with complete abolition legislated by 1810, a quarter century ahead of the rest of the British Empire. Which explains why, as of 2008, August 1 is Emancipation Day in Ontario too.

Emancipation. It's a big word, & like most political efforts, it's a complex tangle of ethical & commercial interests. It was a complex tangle, I mean--but history is also the network of stories we tell ourselves in the present, so how we tell this one shows us who we wish to be as much as who we are.

It's heartening to know that this country was an early defender of the civil rights of every person. I admire our first leaders for taking a stand against such a barbaric practice, & offering protection & freedom to persecuted people. But I also know that the powerful ideals were often frail & fragile by the time they reached ground level. There was as much fear, aggression, & bigotry among early Canadians facing an incursion of people who didn't look like them as there is today. You can find evidence in the records, but you can also see it in the ongoing pressure on black communities & prejudice against black & mixed race people in our towns & cities.

In honour of Emancipation Day, I'm taking some minutes to consider the portraits that have shown me both the foresight & blindness of my own nation, & of the other nations/companies/communities in the world which have participated in enslaving others. Here are some that have particular resonance for me:

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill - the long life story of Aminata, from her childhood abduction in Africa to her eventual freedom in the Loyalist settlements of Nova Scotia, the resettlements in Sierra Leone, & in abolitionist England. Powerful voice, a sweep of history I knew far too little about.

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis - a gripping story of a young boy who makes it to Canada through the Underground Railroad, & settles with his family in southern Ontario. It's history with flesh intact--frightening, heart-breaking, inspiring.

George & Rue and The Execution Poems, both by George Elliot Clarke - in a novel & a collection of poems, Clarke tells the story of George & Rue, brothers from Nova Scotia who committed a violent robbery & were the last Canadians to be publicly hanged for their crime. Their lives went off the rails less than a century ago, but the violence & sorrow that scarred them reaches back generations.

I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, by Karolyn Smardz Frost - an archaeologist/historian's recovery of the extraordinary lives of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, fugitive slaves who escaped to Canada, then supported countless other runaways from their small Toronto house. A remarkable story, even more remarkable research that recovered it.

Five Thousand Years of Slavery, by Marjorie Gann & Janet Willen - a potent & chilling exploration of the various incarnations of slavery, from ancient Egypt to the forced labor or trafficking of children & adults in many parts of the world today.

A friend of mine observed, a few years back, that it's easy to talk a good line about tolerance, & quite another to live it out. My kids have peers of many ethnic & linguistic backgrounds, but many adults are still able to move within very predictable & monocultural circles. That hardly fosters understanding & appreciation for other histories & experiences.

When every single one of us can say that we know & care for someone who doesn't look like us or didn't grow up in a community like ours or lives most fully in a language we don't know, when we seek out their company because it's mutually enriching rather than a chance to help or an opportunity to confirm our biases, we'll be a little closer to Emancipation Day, I'd say. 

Attitudes can continue to enslave us, even when the external trappings of slavery have been burned away. Emancipation is a big word--& an ongoing effort...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

thinking about heart

Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human "brain" with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human "heart" with compassion.
   --Dalai Lama