What should we tell learners about Canada?

Here's an example. It's an easy example - I'll be cheating if I don't offer some others - but it will help explain what I mean.

Earlier this past year, I began helping an immigrant to Canada prepare to take our citizenship test. It was a good fit, since she reads at very low level, and the story of our country is one I never tire of telling.

Our guidebook was a citizenship kit titled Discover Canada: The rights and responsibilities of citizenship. (By the way, this book is freely available on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website - both as a pdf file and as an audio file.)

I had some doubts about the document. For example, I don't get how the Métis get to be called an aboriginal group when the Acadians pre-date them by about 100 years. It's true that Métis culture differs from that of, say, the neighbouring Cree. But so does Haida or Maliseet culture. Why don't those groups get distinct status? The answer, of course, is the politics of an ages old quarrel between Ontario and Quebec (or Upper Canada and Lower Canada, if you will). As a Maritimer, I don't care. It's just a little disappointing to see it paraded in front of guests like this.

I also disagree with the claim that medicare arose as the result of liberalised trade policy - it didn't, it was the power of the unions and farmer co-ops in the West - and was taken aback to read the recruiting advert for the Canadian Forces. But, again, these are little things over which Canadians can easily disagree.

Then the G20 came along.

I'd been reading Gary Mason's Globe & Mail columns (example and summary piece here) for some time, tracking the total collapse of integrity of the RCMP and local police forces in British Columbia, and feeling thankful I didn't live there. (I wrote about one story in January of 2008.) I remembered there being old time trouble between the Sûreté du Québec, Quebec's provincial police force, and natives - are they past that yet? - as well as between Montreal's police and much of that city's black community (see this or this). But I hadn't expected anything like the way various Ontario police forces embraced a sudden and - as it turns out - illegal suspension of Charter rights in the city of Toronto. Nor had I expected the terrific violence some officers resorted to, and most officers turned a blind eye to (the real scandal highlighted by Rosie DiManno here and here), in the course of securing a half dozen downtown buildings.

I hadn't expected so many police to care so little about the rule of law.

You know, I have this booklet, from who knows where or when, about the 1982 amendment to the Canadian constitution. (For those who don't know, the original 1867 constitution, the British North America Act, gave us most of our current structure, but left trade and defense under London's control. That changed in 1931, when the Statute of Westminster, an act of the UK, drastically limited that nation's powers over Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland. Westminster made Canada a more sovereign nation. However, it wasn't until Prime Minister Trudeau brought the constitution home in 1982 that we became fully independent of the UK and added, among other things, a Canadian charter of civic rights and freedoms.)

In this slight pamphlet, there is a section on rights which includes a vaguely 70's watercolour of youthful protesters. Protesting, at least in some form, is apparently a Canadian right. But the events this past summer demonstrated our government(s) willingness to suspend those rights for a day or a week in favour of increased order, security, civility. Worse, any Canadian expecting to exert his or her rights at the wrong moment can expect to get beaten and arrested (with charges dropped just prior to court.)

Which is why I stumbled when my learner and I reached the practice test question (p. 53): In Canada, are you allowed to question the police about their service or conduct?

The correct answer is yes. The real answer is, it depends.

Of course, shortly thereafter the Stacy Bonds story broke, and we learned what can happen when a woman chooses to question the police about their service or conduct (November update here). Since then, there has been the story of the groundskeeper who, wrongly suspected of vague endangerment with a weapon and complying too slowly with police requests to lay prone on wet pavement, was kicked full in the face by an RCMP officer (early video stories here and here). There's more, but I want to stop now.

I don't troll for these stories. I don't frequent "cops gone crazy" websites or anything. And I generally trust and appreciate the police. I'd have to say I trust them a good deal more than I trust the media. But, then, I'm a clean shaven, middle-aged, educated, employed, diminutive, English-speaking white guy, wearing neither ponytail nor bling, born in Canada, and well versed in go-along / get-along etiquette. My learner is a woman of colour who was born someplace else and maybe doesn't know the social ropes as well. She certainly doesn't have as much social capital. Question the cops? Don't be crazy! You do exactly what they tell you, without question, and you get yourself and your kids inside as quick as possible. That's the information she needs.

But what kind of Canada is that?

And what kind of lesson?

Do we pretend the cops aren't dangerous, and help our learners - those who are women, those who are coloured, those who belong to a religious or linguistic minority, those from away - to believe in the existence and merit and authority of our rights and freedoms. Or do we tell them the truth?

What's our obligation - as citizens and facilitators - to our learners, to our employers, to our ideals and ourselves?

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