citizenship is on the rocks
For the past 12 years (with one exception), my partner and I have attended a multifaith service on the evening of Dec. 24. Organized by and for Toronto's gay and lesbian community, it's a colourful, unorthodox and highly spirited celebration that fills every seat at Roy Thomson Hall and extends a canopy of welcome to nearly 3,000 souls in exile from more conventional seasonal gatherings of faith and family.
Each year, the service arrives at a moment for remembrance when we are invited to speak aloud the names of loved ones who have died in the previous year. Everyone names someone. Some name many. Names ring out from all around, some shooting like fireworks, some falling like rain. In less than a minute, hundreds of names are offered. Whether by wizardry acoustic or sublime, each name sounds so clear, so individual. Yet it all blends harmonically as one might imagine the voice of the rain forest at dawn. An auditorium filled to capacity suddenly doubles or triples in population, as lives are evoked and honoured.
At Ryerson University recently, I shared the stage with Michael Ignatieff, in an event billed as "an inaugural dialogue on citizenship." My reflections on the theme of citizenship led me to consider that perhaps our daily lives, as citizens, should incorporate some similar gesture of recognition.
Right now, before you read any further, imagine an empty seat beside you. On the bus or subway, at your kitchen table or morning coffee stop, place an empty seat. As you move through life in the week ahead, at the theatre, at worship, at the family table, in the waiting room and the sitting room, imagine an empty seat. An empty seat, separating you from the friend or colleague or like-minded stranger whose presence you might otherwise comfortably feel at your side.
Call it the place of precarious citizenship. These seats should be held for women, men and youth for whom the subject of citizenship is every bit as important as it is to you and me. These seats are vacant for reasons that must haunt us, that we must probe until we squirm in our own complicity.
To whom do these seats belong? Names immediately come to my mind -- some of them names of people I will never know, except through the fragments of story they have left behind. Names like Kimberly Rogers, Stephanie Jobin, John Shach.
Others are names of persons who may survive the perils of precarious citizenship, who may live to claim a place among us if we are quick enough to break the code of what shackles our world and theirs.
How shall we break that code? Only with deep attention to the voices and stories of those who are absent: our fellow citizens. We cannot draw conclusions or even think about citizenship in a manner exclusive to those of us for whom it is a settled state.
As we follow the reports of the inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers, who died in her Sudbury apartment during an excruciating heat wave in the summer of 2001, halfway through a six-month house-arrest sentence for welfare fraud, we hear the deadly drone of bureaucracy; we know this is not the way it is supposed to work.
The social workers, the adjudicators, the advocates, the physician -- we relied on them to take proper care. But was there a place for Ms. Rogers at the table when notions of "proper care" were negotiated? The truth is that our social contract -- Canadian society's system of rights and responsibilities -- failed us. And its failure begins in its fundamental design, in particular, the cornerstone presumption that citizens enter into and participate in this contract only as the self-directing captains of our own individual ships.
The social contract ideas in which we have invested so very much faith are premised on the fiction that we are, as John Locke argued, "free, equal and independent." Was Kimberly Rogers free, equal and independent when she entered into her contract with Ontario's social services system?
This notion of so many freewheeling captains aboard so many seaworthy ships leaves just about everyone I know marooned at least at some point in their lives. In its basic formulation, our social contract erases not only childhood and elder-life states, but also a great deal of significant living in between.
People with disabilities have started to talk back (those of us who can). In the past 20 years in Canada, along with women, aboriginal people, racial and cultural minorities, gays and lesbians, we have wrestled our way into the social contract, negotiating terms and conditions for the "equal" part of that "free, equal and independent" triad. We coaxed and cajoled, we politicked and picketed, we marched and marshalled.
Before they knew what was happening, all those captains in all those ships were headed straight into the vortex of what Michael Ignatieff has so aptly called "the rights revolution." It was no small feat. To quote Dr. Ignatieff, "The notion that human rights are universal . . . has had to make its way into our hearts against [the] much more intuitively obvious notion: that the only people we should care about are the people like us."
Substantive equality -- a splendid idea, worthy of revolution. A jewel in the Canadian crown. A jewel that activists and jurists and scholars have polished until it gleams. For all of their faults on the ground, our human-rights laws and Section 15 of our Charter brought us up a notch or two on the scale by which great civilizations are measured.
As a disabled woman who came to political consciousness during that splendid revolution, I shall never forget my first taste of rights. For me, rights ignited the spark of entitlement, the spark without which any human being, disabled or not, is merely adrift in a harsh and uncaring sea. Entitlement is the force that propels us toward that which we most desire in life; it is present when those dreams and desires are first conceived, and it stays with us and protects us for the duration of the journey.
Or so it seemed to me, projecting outward from the good life I enjoyed. But what about Stephanie Jobin? Our Charter was seven years old, the rights of disabled people well-entrenched, when Stephanie was born. Still, life was difficult for her. Her sole-support mother hadn't been quite "free, equal and independent" enough to provide the care that Stephanie needed, as a child with autism.
So, when she was 10, Stephanie moved to a residential group home. On her 11th birthday, Stephanie's mother, whom she loved dearly, dropped dead during a visit to the group home. Staff turnover was high at this home -- in a three- or four-month period, as many as 35 different workers rotated through Stephanie's not-so-private life. When Stephanie talked back, it wasn't called activism, it was "behaviour." What Stephanie had to say, when she was agitated, found expression not in the language of rights, but in kicks and scratches and bites.
One night, when Stephanie was 13 and expressing the chaos of her fury and pain, something monstrous happened. In the name of "restraint," one staff member held down her feet, while another sat on a beanbag chair, placed on top of Stephanie's chest, until Stephanie stopped breathing. That was the end of Stephanie Jobin's precarious citizenship.
Rights do matter. We must never underestimate their emancipatory power. But rights are the progeny of reason and language and, in the inarticulate swirl of human flesh and passion, they are without purchase. To speak of rights in response to Stephanie's deep torment is to gloss over her anguish -- a fathomless anguish of the kind described by Jean Vanier as "a taste of death." Unencumbered by human relationship, was Stephanie free? She was free only to fall into the unspeakable terror of absolute isolation.
Relationships matter every bit as much as rights. Citizenship means having rights, but it also means belonging. Belonging in schools and universities, in places of work and places of worship, in politics, art and commerce; belonging in family, community and nation.
Our rights as equal citizens, arguably, should get us in the front door. But once we are inside, our citizen's place of belonging assures us (or ought to) that we will be valued and heard.
For many of us, this dimension of citizenship can be taken for granted throughout most of life. There are people who know our names -- friends, colleagues and acquaintances who know something about who we are, what we are like, what we have to offer. Without any conscious effort, we spin this protective web of recognition as we go about our ordinary lives, communicating in the way that feels most natural to us.
In precarious citizenship, however, this process is disrupted by the foreclosure of opportunities to "go about ordinary life" -- rights violations that greet us at so many front doors. It is also, and more dangerously, disrupted by our collective failure to embrace a full range of human communications. Stephanie was doubly vulnerable -- exiled from her home and community, and with only a few shreds remaining of her web of recognition.
Hearing one another matters. In the public sphere, in constituency offices, in town halls, on radio call-in shows and letters-to-the-editor pages, hearing and being heard is what keeps democracy alive.
In the private sphere, and in private encounters with public agents -- such as police, doctors, caseworkers and caregivers -- hearing and being heard may well be what keeps citizens alive.
John Shach wasn't heard. John, another precarious citizen, died last month from burns sustained when he was placed in a scalding hot bathtub by a staff member from his group home. As we consider what it means to be a citizen, let's not fall into the trap of believing that the tragedy of John's story is that he could not bathe independently, or that he could not cry out his pain. In our search for an explanation, an account of what went wrong, let's not accord credence to the argument of circumstance -- that on this day, John was away from the protection of his group-home bathroom, where water temperature is regulated to lukewarm by an electronic device. It was not technology that failed John. It may, however, have been citizenship.
Was no one listening to John? Was John, body and spirit, entrusted to the care of one who was not fluent in his language? Does a similar fate await those of us who will find ourselves at some time without spoken language? Or will our capacity for human communication evolve, as a priority of citizenship, to what Maria Agnes Mikelic has described as "embodied language"?
In her master's thesis, Speaking through Stone, Maria describes slowing down to hear her brother: "Listening to Lark is a wonderful experience: Every part of my body engages with him as I listen intuitively, as I listen with my eyes, my body, my mind, my soul, and my ears."
Hearing the voices and stories of precarious citizens isn't easy. It takes time. More time than we can spare? I don't know. But I do know that not hearing robs citizenship itself of integrity and meaning.
To be candid, I've never felt too easy with the idea of citizenship. Even the word sounds so upright, so sure of itself, so disembodied. Can we rescue the word, infuse it with meanings of vulnerability and imperfection? What do you, my fellow citizens, think?
Catherine Frazee is co-director of the Ryerson RBC Foundation Institute for Disability Studies Research and Education, and former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.