About systemic abuses of indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools, Michael Peers, archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, was teary eyed and deeply remorseful. “I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family,” he once said.
Michaëlle Jean, former governor general of Canada, has lambasted western culture in general and Canada in particular for its rape culture on college campuses. She claims it not only exists as a systemic norm but is ever more pervasive.
We have been slow to react to these and other abuses. But today, identity politics and increasingly angry activism have activated the feminist movement, and other groups like Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community. Those factors have also encouraged the work of bodies like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which examined residential school abuses.
The goal is to right past abuses and systemic wrongs.
Regrettably, the negativism has become so pervasive in Canada that, as we prepare to celebrate the nation’s 150th birthday, many young people are shrugging their shoulders. “How can we celebrate a nation that’s so deeply flawed?” they ask.
Given this perspective, you might image nobody would want to live in this country.
Yet in stark contrast to this internal pessimism, half-frozen refugees struggle to enter Canada by walking across the U.S. border. They cry for joy as they’re met with warm blankets and open arms.
Certainly Canada, like all of western civilization, is imperfect.
But the West has raised humanity and improved the art of living over the past millennium in ways that are often underappreciated.
As bad as rights abuses are today, consider that a thousand years ago westerners didn’t have any individual rights. All real property, political and civil rights belonged to all-powerful kings or emperors.
It might sound strange to us but each right we enjoy today – to own property, to vote, to live freely and choose our religious beliefs – was once controlled by powerful sovereigns.
Over the past millennium, the West has done something no other great civilization has even attempted: it’s radically democratized its systems of power. Progress has been a long, difficult process of devolving the rights, power, privileges, and responsibilities enjoyed by monarchs outward to more and more people.
This process could have been – and maybe should have been – fatal to social cohesion as it worked its way through successive revolutions. But it wasn’t because western society was buttressed at each transition by the opposite of oppression: increased social co-operation.
As the West evolved over the centuries, society moved with it. Increasing trust and collaboration in western societies supported much broader political participation and the growing tolerance for diversity – of social standing, gender, nationality, religious affiliation and race. And that helped, over many centuries, to ease new classes of people into the governing class.
It’s certainly not finished, but ultimately social co-operation was vital for the evolution of western society from the depths of feudal despotism to the relatively representative democratic societies we live in. It would never have happened if the governing mindset had not become ever more open.
So what’s the miracle of the West?
Western society has succeeded where other civilizations have failed by being generous and inclusive, taking everybody on the road to progress.
Yet today, we face challenges that threaten the peace. They include massive concentrations of wealth in the one percent and civil society fracturing along religious, class and ethnic lines.
Increased social co-operation is essential to reverse these threats. Societal change doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a dynamic process that requires higher orders of social co-operation.
That’s the only way Canadians will sustain their peaceful order.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.