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 Global Perspective

October 1, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 27

global perspective
Mary Jo Leddy was the founding editor of Catholic New Times, an independent national Catholic newspaper, and is the author of the recently released Radical Gratitude.



Will newcomers from other cultures significantly alter a country's sense of identity? The question is being asked, somewhat fearfully, as the process of global migration becomes more extensive. As societies become more multicultural, is a sense of a common social good still possible?

A northern revelation

By Mary Jo Leddy

TURTLE ISLAND, Canada -- This summer the direction of hope was north. We followed the signs out of the city until we reached what the Anishinawbe people call "Turtle Island." Today's maps label it Manitoulin Island*. We have followed these signs every summer for 12 years -- 45 refugees from all over the world in an old school bus and the Romero House truck.

We go north to a place where the landscape seems less marked by borders and frontiers. On Manitoulin Island, we become more aware of when day borders on night and how each morning becomes a new frontier. We see where the line between earth and sky blurs and billows. There, the fish seek refuge from the heat between the rocks, and the birds fly high above any checkpoint. This is the landscape of hope, and it is here that we all find a place to be.

We leave as a group of refugees and neighbors and we return as citizens of a place called hope.

I have been astonished again at how easily the refugees feel at home in the vast and mysteriously beautiful north. Most of them come from large urban centers such as Bogota or Teheran or Kinshasa; very few of them have lived in rural situations. Nevertheless, they seem to "land" in the north even while they remain unsure of their footing in the city and in the nation itself. They feel they belong in the northern wilderness long before they feel accepted in Canadian society.

As I saw this transformation happen again this summer, I realized how difficult it is for refugees to feel that they are part of a history that they have never participated in. They can become part of Canada's future but they cannot easily identify with its past. Their own political past still weighs too heavily upon them. And so geography, the sense of space and place, takes on an added importance for a new sense of identity.

There are those who wonder if newcomers from other cultures will significantly alter a country's sense of identity. The question is being asked, somewhat fearfully, as the process of global migration becomes more extensive. As societies become more multicultural, is a sense of a common social good still possible?

To respond to such questions, I need only refer back to our experience in the north. The land, the earth, is what we hold in common. This is our common good. This is where we can become good.

I understood this for the duration of one afternoon in the north. On a search for wild mushrooms, two of us had discovered a tiny waterfall on the river that winds through a remote area of the reserve. After we had described this idyllic scene to all the others, we decided to go the next day for a picnic. All 45 of us loaded into the vehicles with coolers full of food and took the bumpy, almost washed-out road to the place that would quickly be named "Baby Niagara."

A wise man once said that we shall be saved by beauty. That afternoon we were saved.

A few of the better swimmers climbed up and behind the waterfall, where they discovered a fifteen-foot rock cliff overlooking the deep, clear water. They vaulted with their knees held in a crouch. Again and again, bobbing up like corks in the water, swimming to the shore and then running up the ragged incline to the top. Glistening, screaming with glee.

Some of the parents found little pools just below the waterfall where they played with their babies. Others sat in the waterfall, showered with ease. Underneath the trees, a couple from Rwanda slept, quietly snoring. Nearby, a mother from Zanzibar dozed on a sleeping bag with her child by her side.

Muslims and Christians, we were side by side and at peace under the trees.

The laughter floated out over the water in waves.

For one afternoon, we looked upon the earth and ourselves and knew that we were very good.

* The official Manitoulin Island Web site describes the island as "the largest freshwater island in the world a unique scenic region, where Native life and legend meld with European history to provide an unforgettable holiday experience. The island town of Manitowaning was the first European settlement, whilst Wikwemikong remains the only unceded Indian Reserve in Canada."
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