AuthorsRebecca Hagos & Phoebe Warren

The Couchiching Conference aimed to tackle what Canadian identity means, bringing together a vastly diverse group to Geneva Park Conservation in Orillia, ON, giving them the opportunity to connect, discuss and learn. The weekend was filled with workshops including: “Rights & Responsibilities”; “What It Means To Be A Canadian Citizen”; “Muslims in Canada”; and “Commonality and Diversity: Has Canadian Identity Changed?”. These workshops enabled participants to discuss what Canadian identity means and what this identity is beginning to look like

As 2015-2016 Mosaic Institute Fellows, we were invited to attend the annual Couchiching Institute Conference. The entire weekend was interesting, but we were particularly interested in the discussion on Saturday afternoon. The discussion which resonated with us the most was “Commonality and Diversity: Has Canadian Identity Changed?”. This panel discussion was led by Sara Ozgül, Desmond Cole and Ingrid Mattson. The description of this segment questions, “Do younger Canadians view identity and autonomy different than their elders?” In particular, Desmond Cole brought up thought-provoking points surrounding identity politics and marginalized peoples in Canada.

We were intrigued by a comment made by one of the panelists that unity can be divisive. Some of the older crowd in the room looked confused while the young adults nodded their heads in agreement. This comment, stated in the presentation, was trying to demonstrate that pushing all Canadians to identify with a national identity, can lead to more harm than good. This presentation also challenged the notion of a Black Canadian national identity, urging to not be seen as a monolith but to acknowledge the different diasporas, including the Black loyalists who have been present in Canada for hundreds of years. This presentation urged Canadians to acknowledge the issues and intolerance at home before being quick to admonish issues in other countries.

Photo by Ikem Opara

Photo by Ikem Opara

Out of the many things we took away from this conference, we left with the realization that Canadian tolerance is often measured in comparison to intolerance in other countries, painting itself as untouchable. This was challenged heavily throughout the panel. “There is a particular kind of anti-Black racism that relies on being as bad as it is in America,” remarked Desmond Cole. This statement shifted the way in which we had tended to view Canada’s capacity for inclusion and really brought up the point that to shift Canadian policies and ways of thinking, we must acknowledge the issues that Canada has to fix. The discussion afterwards tackled how this method of Canadian exceptionalism erases the experiences of those for whom Canada has not always been exceptional. This was comforting to a large group of participants who seemed frustrated by the Canadian exceptionalist preachings that was present throughout a variety of the weekend’s discussions.

Throughout the weekend, Black, Muslim, and Indigenous Canadians spoke about their lived experiences and came together to discuss the underlying similarities in their stories. Upon reflection, it has become clear to us how incredibly important it is to show up to the table and be willing to listen to experiences that might be drastically different than our own. This is the way to establish the necessary trust for genuine and sincere dialogue. It was a privilege to have been invited to attend the Couchiching Conference and to be involved in these tough but vitally important conversations. Perhaps most importantly, as people who hope to see positive change in Canada, we must ensure that these are indeed conversations. The Couchiching Conference has branded itself as a civil place to disagree, to which it stayed true. It is up to us to continue having these tough but necessary conversations in order to continue working towards justice for all.

Rebecca Hagos (York University) & Phoebe Warren (McGill University) are UofMosaic Alumni. Rebecca is completing a double major in Communications and Human Rights and Equity studies. Her research interests in sexual health, sexual identity and health equity in the African diaspora have been inspired by her experiences as the youth program ambassador for the AIDS committee of Windsor. Phoebe is majoring in Political Science and History at McGill University. She previously served as an intern at Liberal International in the United Kingdom and is currently a foreign exchange student at Durham University in the north of England.