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Reis Pagtakhan: In the fight against racism, tolerance is not enough

Reis Pagtakhan: Should we really be just ‘grudgingly enduring’ our neighbours?

By Reis Pagtakhan, for CBC News Posted: Nov 19, 2014 8:34 PM CT Last Updated: Nov 20, 2014 6:45 AM CT

When discussing issues of racism and discrimination, governments, academics and civic leaders often promote “tolerance” as a way to combat these problems. As the argument goes, if Canadians tolerate people of different races, religions, sexual orientations and backgrounds, Canada will be a much stronger society.

A number of years ago, I read an article in which someone argued that merely tolerating someone else is an extremely low bar. By definition, when a person has to tolerate someone or something, that person has to endure or accept someone or something they find to be, at best, unpleasant.

People tolerate things ranging from pain, abuse and depression to minor annoyances such as boring movies, noisy neighbours, insects and inclement weather.

Have standards slipped so much in our society that when we deal with persons different from ourselves, the only expectation placed on us it that we are to tolerate them? Should we really base our societal value of multiculturalism on a goal to make sure everyone “grudgingly endures” one’s neighbour?

When it comes to being a contributing member of society, being able to merely tolerate another person is not particularly noble. I have always been perplexed as to why grudgingly enduring someone has been considered such a laudable goal.

When I go to work for the day, I do not kiss my spouse and children goodbye and say, “I tolerate you.” I say, “I love you.” When people ask me what I like about my friends and co-workers, I do not say, “It is the fact that I can tolerate them.” I say, “It is because I enjoy their company and the opportunity to work and collaborate with them.”

In fact, I do not even merely tolerate total strangers. While I may not know anything about these individuals, I respect that they have the same rights I do and deserve the same opportunities I enjoy.

As Canadians, we can and must do better than simply preach tolerance. Instead, our goal should be to understand and celebrate the differences of others, co-operate with those who are different from us, and collaborate with people of all backgrounds to build a better society.

Each of us has responsibilities to stand up against racism and other forms of discrimination. While no one is necessarily asking that every Canadian be a hero, smaller gestures, such as speaking up when a person makes a discriminatory comment in a conversation, is something all of us can do.

Over 40 years ago, an American by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what many considered to be the major speech of the U.S. civil rights movement. In that speech, King spoke about his dream. A dream that included living in a nation where individuals are not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gen. David Johnston, speaking on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said we need to do much more to be more tolerant and eliminate racial discrimination.

While this is certainly true and the Governor General was clearly sending a message that discrimination is not OK and must be dealt with, I prefer the vision of King’s dream.

In 2015, the federal government is planning to bring in between 260,000 and 285,000 permanent residents into Canada. This is on top of the tens of thousands of foreign workers, students, and visitors who will come to Canada to live, work, study and visit.

Instead of merely tolerating the people who will be our new neighbours, co-workers, employees and classmates, it is time that we get to know them, welcome them and integrate them into our society. It is time that we all attempt to understand not only newcomers to Canada, but those who are already here.

Instead of telling Canadians that we must tolerate each other, we should preach the value of judging people by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin.

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