Family Reads: Belonging by Adrienne Clarkson

 Welcome to October’s Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship is the 2014 entry in CBC Massey Lectures Series. I have a small familiarity with the series. I had read Winter by Adam Gopnik; I want to read Thomas King’s lectures. I selected Clarkson’s book because I want to explore the Massey Lectures further. I picked out one this one because I fancied I might work backwards through the lectures, because the subject seemed pertinent (I’m studying to teach ESL in Canada), and because I thought it might interest Mom as something for Family Reads. 

Mom: I had read another book in the Massey Lectures series – Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill. I also wanted to read another Canadian author. Reno suggested this book to me and I thought it sounded interesting as I had never really thought much about being a citizen.

Mom and I both give it 3 stars. We both found that Clarkson had us thinking about what it means to be Canadian in a context we hadn’t considered before. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book. Here is our discussion on citizenship, Athenian democracy and belonging and being Canadian.

Without participation, our society will not progress. We will lose all sense of of being a civil society. (90)

On Citizenship

Reno: I really liked how Clarkson breaks down the meaning of citizenship, like what it means to have citizenship and what responsibilities go with that. For example, she talks about being a citizen in the context of other citizens. I like this bit – “Then, of course, you participate as a taxpayer, as somebody who can enrol in swimming classes or join the YMCA. That is what makes you feel a part of your immediate everyday surroundings. It implies that we are citizens within the contexts of other citizens” (77). Going back a step… this topic is interesting for me because I’m learning how to teach English to new citizens, immigrants, or refugees. People who are becoming citizens and finding belonging in Canadian society. It’s a process.
Mom: And in this process, you don’t have to give up everything from before. Where you come from, who you were ‘before’, becomes part of your Canadian identity.
Reno: There was a piece about melting ice cubes, that hits on what you’re talking about. I can’t remember what page. Instead of Canada being a melting pot or a mosaic, it’s more like a bunch of melting ice cubes (granted, this is not as poetic a metaphor…), where a person can come to Canada and belong in Canada but still keep their shape as they do so. I liked that; I should have bookmarked it!

On Athenian Democracy

Mom: I found this subject interesting because I learnt about the evolution of citizenship from its infancy.
Reno: Yeah, if we consider Athenian democracy… another interesting point Clarkson made for me is how you can kind of see remnants of that time (where everyone was able to speak whenever) in the crazy Question Period we have now. It did come from somewhere! Even if it’s devolved a bit.
Mom: Now I understand the history behind it. I still wish people didn’t have to be so rude! They’re entitled to speak but it doesn’t mean they have to be rude about it.
Reno: Yeah, now there’s just too many people. Certainly there are millions more people than when they were practicing democracy in Athens. At first I thought all this political discussion was a bit disconnected from the citizenship topic. 
Mom: But you have to go farther to see how politics brings citizenship together.
Reno: Right. Which is a big part of Clarkson’s argument. Being a citizen means being politically active basically. Would you agree?
Mom: Yeah, but your level of activity isn’t defined. You can choose. You’re obligated to take part, that’s part of being a citizen, but that level of engagement varies. It doesn’t mean everyone has to become a citizen. It might just mean voting. This time it was easy to vote [Canadian Federal Election 2015] but sometimes it’s very difficult. You can’t just not vote because it’s a tough choice.

On Belonging and Being Canadian

Reno: Clarkson’s overall argument is that to be a citizen is to belong to each other.
Mom: To actively belong.
Reno: You have to engage with other citizens and help other people.
Mom: To contribute to something greater than yourself.
Reno: And that’s where that Ubuntu concept comes in. Being a citizen is not an individual activity.
Mom: Everyone contributes a bit for you to become who you become… Citizenship is an important concept when I think about my father, who was not born here. This country gave him an opportunity for better life and so he came here. He started donated blood because he wanted to give back to his country. Giving blood is a big part of being a citizen for him, of belonging in the context of other citizens.
Reno: That’s a great illustration of what Clarkson talks about. I love that she tackles what it means to be a Canadian citizen, because it used to be such a hard thing to define but now it’s becoming defined largely by this sense of belonging, I suppose? For example, she contrasts with how France and Germany have such particularly defined identities. That’s why I enjoyed the last two lectures the most. Clarkson discusses ‘being Canadian’ which is generally hard to define. She takes the time to really try to delve into this topic, this topic that can’t be defined in a couple of sentences. This particular concept of belonging is pretty unique to Canada and it’s so natural or ingrained for those of us who were born here that you don’t even think of it as being a defining Canadian characteristic.
Mom: People who become citizens, who go through the process of immigration, have a better awareness and knowledge of this concept because they really have to experience and learn about it.  People who become citizens are more knowledgeable because they have to learn about it

Belonging is an easily digestible read on a highly relevant subject. Have you ever thought about what it means to be a citizen in your country? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.