By: Madeleine Thien
For the last week, on Canada C3, I have been moving between wonder and sorrow. A ship, even one as hopeful as this one, is part of the present reality, a present that, after 150 years, has challenged itself to look at our shared history because we know that the status quo is not moral or just, and is no longer acceptable. We are not yet in that place of reconciliation, and my time on the C3 has shown me that before we can even begin to examine the idea, truth must come first.
“Every society,” wrote the great American writer, James Baldwin, “is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception.” The time has come, he says, for us to examine ourselves, and to free ourselves from the myths of our country and find out what is really happening here. This was part of a passage that I read while facilitating a writing workshop in the Legacy Room. The fog outside was thick, beautiful, full of textures of folding light.
During the workshop, we were concentrating on language. We looked at three words: story, possession, shoes, setting down our own working definitions of each. They varied as working definitions often do. The word story, for instance, was defined by one participant as something with a beginning, middle and end; by another as something passed from hand to hand; as a tale or something imagined; by another as a way to think truthfully; by another as desire.
The idea was to glimpse how every word has a slipstream, and when we individually put our words together, we are tapping into meanings that carry history, hidden assumptions, cultural norms, philosophical ideas and moral codes. The conversation that ensued was a profoundly moving one, in which many people trusted one another and showed both vulnerability and strength. And it was also a conversation that revealed, to all of our surprise, that the inequities and the deep untruths of our larger society do not disappear once we step onto a ship in the Arctic; we bring them with us, consciously or not, and they set down roots in this new space.
In the wake of the aftermath of that conversation, which caused complex emotions in many people, including discomfort, self-examination, denial, anger, liberation, sorrow and hope, I came to feel that we were a microcosm of a Canada struggling to see itself clearly.
We learned, after leaving the Legacy Room, that the landscape of fog where we had dropped anchor is known by the Inuit of this region as the Place of Tears. How apt and strange it felt, to have had the landscape work on us and between us. By afternoon, the fog had lifted, and the world of the C3 was awash in metaphors of having, thankfully, reached clarity, and come into the light. But this was not so. The fog, too, is part of our world. It is a richness, a world of particulates that reveals the atmosphere that allows us to breathe and survive, and without which we cannot flourish. Fog, I have since learned, is made up of water vapour that can no longer be held by the air (having reached its capacity, its dew point), and therefore condenses into water droplets.
The Canada C3 project could easily be a journey of breathtaking landscapes, a ship of southern optimists proudly delivering gifts to small northern communities, a bringing together of celebrity Canadians who have made an individual mark on their fields, of photo opportunities and selfies with icebergs or archaeological sites, of dinners served under the night-time sun. To me, all those things have been done before.
For honest dialogue to be had about two of the ship’s four themes – diversity and reconciliation – the ship itself must be diverse. And if reconciliation is sincerely a piece of the puzzle of this Canada 150 journey into the nations that make up Canada, then we must, together, try to accept certain painful truths as true. To hear these truths is not easy. Canada, as a participant finally said aloud on the last night of Leg 8, is a genocidal country. The word is not used lightly; it is a finding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, based on a sustained and detailed analysis. This is an enormously painful, unreconciled part of who we are.
The ambition and beauty of the C3 expedition is that it aspires to more. The difficulty of reaching that aspiration is a struggle that should be shown, not hidden. For this country to grow, I hope for something more.