Cultural Reconciliation in Canada - questions
Question to the Universal House of JusticeDavid D. Bowie
February 17, 2001
I have been puzzling over a letter dated 5 September 1999 sent to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada by the Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice. The National Spiritual Assembly included a large extract from this letter in its Annual Report to the National Convention last Ridván. It subsequently stimulated a lot of consultation during the Convention.
On 21 November 2000 I raised some concerns about the contents and tone of the letter with ..., a personal friend and member of the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly. I gave her my permission to share my letter with the National Spiritual Assembly if she wished to do so. She almost immediately did.
I originally considered writing directly to you but thought it appropriate first to discover if the National Spiritual Assembly had requested clarification of any of the contents of the 5 September 1999 letter from you.
I recently received a reply from the National Spiritual Assembly dated 1 February 2001 in which they write: "The National Spiritual Assembly suggests that you raise your concerns directly with the Universal House of Justice, if that is your wish."
This letter included an extract from a letter of The Universal House of Justice to a Regional Spiritual Assembly dated 26 May 1993 that explains the authority of letters written by, and on behalf of your Institution. So far that is the only question I raised in my 21 November 2000 letter to ..., and its covering email, that was addressed in the National Spiritual Assembly’s reply to me.
I am, therefore, restating my concerns for your consideration. My difficulty is founded on my perception that the apparent underlying assumptions about the Canadian social scene, on which your letter is based, are not completely accurate.
I will follow the pattern used in my original letter to ..., which was to reproduce your 5 September 1999 letter, interspersed with my comments and questions.
The extract from your letter starts:
"We have been asked to raise for your Assembly’s consideration the appropriateness of a trend that appears to have developed recently in the public information work in Canada."
QUESTION: Does a request by the House of Justice that an Assembly consider something give that Assembly the option of continuing with the action? What is the difference between a suggestion that must be followed and one that need not?
Then the letter continues:
"As is the case with most countries of the world Canada is affected by various social divisions and it is highly desirable that the Bahá'í community should be in the forefront of efforts to promote unity and reconciliation. In Canada’s case, such issues tend to be cultural in nature, particularly those separating peoples of Native and European origin or those between Canadian of French- and English-speaking backgrounds. The rapid changes that are occurring as a result of the long overdue settlement of legitimate Native claims and the emergence of French Canadians into full partnership in the Confederation would seem to represent encouraging evidences of the steady fulfillment of the Master’s moving assurance that, as a result of His visit, 'day by day civilization and freedom will increase.'"
COMMENT: The black delegates at last year’s Convention openly shared their experience of "racism". They spoke directly of racial discrimination suffered by them both in and out of the Bahá'í community in Canada. Very few Native Canadians see the underlying cause of their discrimination as being cultural. Neither do many, if any, Canadian sociologists. Although the current dialogue with the Province of Quebec is certainly culturally based, centering on language, an equal amount of the French – English difficulty has its roots in Catholic – Protestant traditional animosity.
What is the "long overdue settlement of legitimate Native claims"? The creation of Nunavut certainly qualifies. The Nisga treaty is still very controversial and other native land issues are stalled from Coast to Coast. The ... Band recently turned down its settlement because the members did not want to ever give up their tax-free status. Would such a status constitute a "special claim to exclusive rights and privileges" referred to the Universal House of Justice in a letter dated 14 January 1988, and therefore not be a settlement of "legitimate Native claims"? (Compilation of Compilations Volume 3, extract 183). In the Atlantic Provinces the continuing escalation of violence about native claims to exclusive rights in fishing, hunting and logging does not bode well for the Treaty process.
How does the ongoing Party Quebecois and Bloc Quebec agitation for separation qualify as "the emergence of French Canadians into full partnership in the Confederation"? The Meech Lake Accord designed to bring Quebec into full partnership was defeated some years ago, much to the delight of the Native Canadians precisely because their legitimate rights were not considered in consultations leading up to that Accord.
The letter signed by the Secretariat continues:
"The Universal House of Justice questions, therefore, whether the emphasis that appears to be developing in the reports and plans published in Bahá'í Canada on the subject of 'race unity' is an initiative best suited to the needs of your country. The House of Justice notes, for example, that a 'Race Unity Award' has been created, presumably with the approval of your Assembly, and that the American public holiday 'Martin Luther King Day' is regularly listed in the calendar of events in Bahá'í Canada, as is 'Black History Month'."
COMMENT: The statement "presumably with the approval of your Assembly" jarred some delegates because it seemed out of character with the spirit of other communications from the Universal House of Justice. What, I wonder, would cause the House of Justice to think that a major award created and sponsored by our National Assembly, carried out by its External Affairs department and presented by the National Secretary for at least 6 years would have been done without the knowledge and approval of the National Spiritual Assembly?
Surely this award, designed to draw attention to March 21, the United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and successfully soliciting nominations from the non-Bahá'í public, could be seen to be an important part of our response to the Human Rights focus of the House of Justice's External Affairs Strategy.
If we are to follow the Guardian's advice and adapt the presentation of our message to our target population, I think it makes sense to gear our efforts to their priorities. Blacks all over North America celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Black History Month is also a North American observance, officially recognized in Canada by all Provincial jurisdictions as well as Federally. Although, the Canadian nation's historical experience of "the most challenging issue" is not as central as that of the United States it is certainly as long-standing. The fact that the Underground Railroad brought hundreds, if not thousands, of fleeing slaves to freedom in Canada has definitely and inextricably linked the black experience in both countries.
The Calendar of Events in Bahá'í Canada includes the statement that these are "Yearly dates to consider in planning proclamation, collaboration with other organizations, etc." Rather than an unsuitable emphasis, I think the many "reports and plans published in Bahá'í Canada on the subject of 'race unity'", could be presented within a framework of indicating that we are successfully addressing the needs of an important and often ignored segment of the Canadian population.
The letter signed by the Secretariat continues:
"Racial discrimination is an almost universal affliction, and obviously Canadians can neither ignore any of the forms it takes nor fail to enrich the life of the Cause by attracting into it representative elements of your country’s rich ethnic diversity. In Canada, however, there are long-standing conflicts that weaken the country’s basic social fabric. The Canadian Bahá'í community is blessed in having available to it explicit guidance from both the Master and the Guardian on the vital importance of integrating Native Canadians as a creative segment of the population and of overcoming the barrier between English - and French-speaking Canadians, a barrier which the Master himself rejected so emphatically rejected in His historic decision to visit Montreal. It would be unfortunate if this emphasis were to become, however unintentionally, diluted by imposing on the situation in Canada elements from another country that do not precisely fit it."
COMMENT: The rejection, alluded to above, is from the Tablets of the Divine Plan.
"Before My departure, many souls warned Me not to travel to Montreal, saying, the majority of the inhabitants are Catholics, and are in the utmost fanaticism, that they are submerged in the sea of imitations, that they have not the capability to hearken to the call of the Kingdom of God, that the veil of bigotry has so covered the eyes that they have deprived themselves from beholding the signs of the Most Great Guidance, and that the dogmas have taken possession of the hearts entirely, leaving no trace of reality." (1977 edition, p. 85)
My reading of the above is that 'Abdu'l-Bahá is directly addressing religious bigotry. For my whole Bahá'í life in Canada this passage has been interpreted as referring to French cultural and linguistic barriers. The passage in the Tablets of the Divine Plan makes no reference to language or culture.
The editors of the first edition of Messages to Canada made a similar interpretation of the 14 December 1956 letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. The letter is three paragraphs long. In the first, we are urged to teach Catholics. In the second, French-Canadians are used as an example. And then in the third paragraph we are again directed to teach Catholics. When Messages to Canada was first printed the heading given to that letter was Teaching French-Canadian Catholics. This significantly altered the emphasis given by the Guardian’s secretary by narrowing the focus of the advice from Catholics in general to French-Canadian Catholics in particular. In fact, had we as a national community focused on teaching Catholics we would have reached almost every minority group in Canada.
The letter signed by the Secretariat concludes:
"This question is really a matter of emphasis and priority rather than one of exclusivity. The imagination that your National Assembly – and indeed the Canadian community generally – has shown in the area of public information is gratifying indeed. These are thrilling times for your country, and the House of Justice will pray ardently in the Holy Shrines that your Assembly will be confirmed in your ever-broadening efforts to provide the spiritual illumination that these great changes require."
I understand, and the delegates at last year’s National Convention understood, that your focus was on emphasis and priority, and that you were not suggesting we ignore racial matters in Canada. However, on the last day, during the Convention’s approval of the message to be sent to you, the black delegates had to tearfully and repeatedly ask that their presence be specifically recognized, as was the Native and French Canadian participation, rather than subsumed under the catch-all "others".
I wonder how those same black delegates now feel when they see that all reference to their culturally important days has been struck from the Bahá’í Canada Calendar of Events. The only "racially" designated day now listed is the UN observance on 21 March.
I cannot imagine that these same delegates feel embraced by the Canadian community when they observe that the Race Unity Award slipped into oblivion this year. Not only was it dropped; it was dropped with no explanation from the National Spiritual Assembly to the community. It just ceased to exist. Neither does the traditional exclusion of race as a factor in determining the results of a tied vote in Bahá'í elections speak highly of Canada’s respect for the long-standing black minority within its community.
On the basis of the following guidance:
"If you feel that any communication is unclear, or if you have reason to feel that the information supplied to the Universal House of Justice was incomplete or erroneous, or if you note that conditions have changed since the question was posed, you may always write again and raise the issue for clarification." (The Universal House of Justice to a Regional Spiritual Assembly dated 26 May 1993)
I respectfully submit that the information about the Canadian society supplied to the Universal House of Justice was incomplete and erroneous and ask you to clarify the intent, and reconsider the observations about culture and race made in the letter of 5 September 1999 letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada.
With warmest Bahá'í greetings,
Response from the Universal House of Justice7 March 2001
Mr. David Bowie
Dear Bahá'í Friend,
We have been asked to respond to your email letter dated 17 February 2001 regarding our letter of 5 September 1999 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada. You raise two points in particular: a) your concern for appropriate attention to issues relating to race, in addition to those that are essentially cultural in nature; b) a query as to the degree of freedom enjoyed by a National Assembly in responding to concerns or suggestions shared with it by the Universal House of Justice.
In the matter of the Bahá'í community's need to ensure that racial issues are addressed along with all other forms of prejudice, you express the view that: "I understand, and the delegates at last year's National Convention understood, that your focus was on emphasis and priority, and that you are not suggesting that we ignore racial matters in Canada." The House of Justice assures you that this understanding on your part is correct, and it is happy to note that this interpretation was given to the letter by the Convention delegates.
In respect to the second of the two matters you raise, the intent of the House of Justice in writing to the National Assembly was to draw attention to a subject it felt needed serious reconsideration, rather than to dictate any particular course of action. This appears to have been the spirit in which the National Assembly responded, and you should feel confident that it has acted fully within its prerogative in the matter.
Thank you for raising your questions frankly with the House of Justice, which assures you of its prayers for Bahá'u'lláh's continued confirmation in your efforts to serve the Cause
With loving Bahá'í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat