'Divided is the place where we start on the road to united': Hope for our future lives on library shelves

Our very Canadian fear of conflict and division is often a barrier to social progress.

Canadian fear of conflict and division is often a barrier to social progress

The breadth of topics covered in non-fiction by Canadian writers offers a path forward for our divided country, says Trevor Herriot. (CBC/Leisha Grebinski)

When a government with the lowest share of the popular vote in Canadian history takes office — a government two-thirds of voters did not elect — we get headlines telling us that "Canada Is Truly Divided Now."  

Even before the election The Walrus was already asking "Is Canada broken?" Afterward, the blaming began.

Premier Scott Moe used his Twitter finger to point at the Prime Minister. Others pointed at Quebec, or Toronto, or those tree-huggers in B.C. Now the Russians are getting their share of the blame, with researchers arguing that the Kremlin used propaganda to promote Wexit and divide Canadian voters. 

The week the writ dropped I was busy trying to figure out how to cast a different kind of vote — one I like to imagine has some potential to unite Canadians. I was having trouble sleeping, as were the other two writers serving with me on the jury for the 2019 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. That week we were to choose one book from among the five finalists we had winnowed out of an initial list of 99 titles. 

That was two months ago. A couple of days ago the winning book, Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related by Winnipeg writer Jenny Heijun Wills, was announced at the awards ceremony in Toronto.

Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related is a memoir by Jenny Heijun Wills. (McClelland & Stewart)

As I took another look that night at the boxes of books sitting in my office, it struck me that I had spent my spring and summer reading about issues that some would say are divisive but that, over time, could bring us together. 

Many of the most compelling books submitted this year dive right into subjects that make some people uncomfortable: intergenerational trauma, cultural genocide, the legacy of residential schools, colonial systems that persist, addiction, sky-rocketing rates of suicide, depression and anxiety, climate change, people fleeing war and environmental destruction.

Recounting lives set adrift in the wake of these massive forces, writers provide us with new takes on both colonial history and the more recent history of injustice, war, exploitation and global capitalism.

If this is a trend in Canadian nonfiction, it's a powerful one.

Progress requires bravery

Just scanning down that list of topics is enough to make most of us retreat to the biases we like to see confirmed. That usually means we disagree, dividing into camps. But is that a sign of a broken nation or one in the throes of important transformation?

Should we hide from conflict in favour of a harmony predicated on privilege and national lies, and held up as Canada's summam bonum?

Our very Canadian fear of conflict and division is often a barrier to social progress.- Trevor Herriot

That might seem a comfortable way to live — to continue in our bubbles of denial, pretending that in Canada things like climate change, biodiversity collapse, racism, homophobia, sexism, economic inequality and colonialism are not a problem — but if we set aside the deniers as people who, for various reasons, cannot face reality, what we have been calling division begins to look much less daunting. 

The history of social progress — from the anti-slavery movement to women's suffrage to the rights of LGBTQ people — makes it clear that divided is the place where we start on the road to united.

Even something like universal medical care, so widely embraced now in Canada, began in great upheaval. It took more than forty years of struggle from the earliest stirrings of the idea to Saskatchewan passing Canada's first medicare legislation in 1961. Major newspapers in the province opposed the idea vehemently, denying there was any need for universal medical care and siding with the doctors, 90 per cent of whom went on strike when the new law came into effect.

Our very Canadian fear of conflict and division is often a barrier to social progress. It supports a status quo that has no real downside for elected officials who would rather not have to face the harsh realities that drive the marginalized to call for change.

Many members of the public came out to the meeting where the Regina Public School Board voted down a motion that would have allowed schools to decide how they want to celebrate Pride. (Emily Pasiuk/CBC)

Recently, the Regina public school board tried to dodge controversy by voting against a motion "to recognize and support the celebration of Pride and fly the rainbow flag at school facilities each June" and found itself at the centre of a social media fracas. Then a couple weeks ago, Saskatoon city council passed a new policy prohibiting the city from flying "controversial" or "political" flags at City Hall, following the lead of Yorkton where town council banned all proclamations because they can be so "divisive."

For government leaders to make progress on climate change, safe-injection sites, Indigenous sovereignty and the legacy of colonization, they will have to be brave enough to face what many would have them deny, then act upon that courage.

Tragedy and shame brought forth with honesty

Toward the end of the summer, with the shortlist deadline looming, I would often read while walking along Wascana creek near our home. More than once I was stopped in my tracks by a young writer's voice — moved by their capacity to stay honest in facing their own weakness or complicity and to hold the tension of opposing truths entangled in a story. I say "young" because right now there are so many younger writers who have a particular gift for unearthing national lies, hidden tragedy and historic shame, bringing them forward into public consciousness with that kind of honesty.

As a minority government takes office in Ottawa the nation will undoubtedly be distracted by the hostile voices of many who continue to turn away from the realities that our youth and Indigenous people would have us face. Those voices will provide little in the way of consensus on how our governance should address the most vexing issues of our time.

But there are other perspectives deserving our attention. They are waiting for anyone who cares to read the best of the year's nonfiction. Book after book published in this country contain the insight that could help take us beyond our regional and ideological divisions, from fractured to united.

It's right there in black and white.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Trevor Herriot is a prairie naturalist who writes books, essays, and radio documentaries about the intersection of culture and nature on the northern Great Plains


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