Diversity Week

Diversity Contest: "Why Does Diversity Matter?"

Osgoode Student

As the anthropologist Wade Davis reminded each of us in his delivery of the 2009 Massey Lectures, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit —other options, other visions of life itself.” Davis’ insight is of crucial importance at a time when cultures and languages around the world are threatened with extinction. It is a strange reality that although there is general societal consensus around the importance of preserving global biological diversity, the more accelerated decline of cultural and linguistic diversity has so far generated much less concern.

The continued existence of diverse and robust cultural traditions provides human society not only with stimulation and enrichment, but also with resilience and adaptability to change. Every high school student today is taught that species and ecosystems rich in genetic and biological diversity are better positioned to be able to survive environmental change. A similar proposition exists with regards to cultural diversity but is less emphasized. As a global society we are much better equipped to respond flexibly and constructively to changing social and environmental circumstances when we can draw on the collective wisdom and imagination of a myriad of diverse cultures.

Unfortunately, colonialism and mistaken assumptions of Western cultural superiority have had a devastating impact on humanity’s collective store of cultural knowledge. In Canada, the Beothuk nation became extinct during the colonial period due to violence and disease, and Beothuk culture, including its language, stories, philosophy, music, art, culinary, medicinal and environmental knowledge, was irretrievably lost, with the exception of a single song recorded by an anthropologist.

Although most Aboriginal nations survived colonization, the residential school system and other assimilationist policies took a brutal toll. The residential schools with their explicit objective to “kill the Indian in the child” removed children from their families and cultural traditions, placed them in boarding schools, and beat or otherwise punished them for speaking their Indigenous languages or engaging in traditional cultural practices. The adults left behind were typically confined to reserves inadequate to support the communities’ traditional way of life and had many of their ceremonial practices outlawed, such as the potlatch on the Northwest Coast and the Sundance on the Plains.

Fortunately, although damaging, these violent assaults on Indigenous cultures did not achieve their ultimate goal of cultural assimilation. Thanks to the bravery of children who risked beatings and confinement in order to continue speaking their languages while in residential school and the courage of adults who risked arrest to continue practicing Potlatches, Sundances, and other ceremonies, as well as countless other acts of defiance and strength, Canada’s Indigenous cultures have survived and continue to be with us today. We should not take the continued endurance for granted however.

The celebrated Annishinabek linguist and scholar Basil Johnston has warned that dozens of Indigenous languages within Canada are literally just “One Generation from Extinction”. In many communities, only Elders still speak the traditional languages and unless something is done, the languages will be lost when they pass on. These languages are the expression of the philosophy and worldview of the Indigenous cultures, developed over thousands of years, embodying a particular way of being in the world including unique concepts which may be difficult or impossible to translate into languages. Many communities are fighting to revitalize their languages and pass them on to their children, but lack sufficient resources to invest in training teachers and creating learning resources. Johnston has argued persuasively that the Canadian government (which bears primary responsibility for the loss of these languages), has a responsibility to provide the funds to support language revitalization in Indigenous communities before time runs out.

The threat to cultural diversity in Canada and elsewhere around the world should be of grave concern to us all. The intellectual and cultural achievements of other peoples are just as valuable as our own. To return to the opening quote of this essay, other cultures are “unique manifestations of the human spirit” and represent “other options, other visions of life itself”. At a time when we face such serious social and environmental challenges, we desperately need other options, other visions, other stories, other ideas and other ways of being in the world. Just as the loss of biological diversity weakens our ability to adapt to change, so too does the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. We are supremely fortunate that cultural diversity continues to exist, in spite of the best efforts of some to eradicate it, and owe a debt of gratitude and hope to those who have fought courageously to keep it alive.