Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Origin Stories Illustrate We Are All Related

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, February 6  / 17

Zack Gross

The challenge for many people these days is to find a way to respond to the division and violence in the world, that both expresses our true feelings and is appropriate to the situation.  There are both encouraging and discouraging signs that people are “responding” – Mr. Trump banning refugees coming from Islamic countries (that don’t do business with the U.S.) and a Quebec man killing people while they peacefully prayed.

Encouraging are the number of people who stood with Muslims when their travel rights were curtailed and then their place of worship was attacked.  Our Prime Minister is being hailed for his welcoming remarks and show of solidarity with Muslims and other migrants seeking a new life in Canada.  As the Washington Post said, “Trump Sews Chaos, Canada Picks Up the Pieces

As most Canadians live in a relatively privileged position, they cannot always know personally the experience of facing discrimination, whether the harm is done emotionally and/or physically.  As a member of the Jewish faith, I have encountered anti-Semitism (and sometimes just insensitivity) occasionally throughout my life, but not at the level that elder generations suffered through the Holocaust and generations, before and afterwards, of “otherness” at the hands of majority populations.

The posters that people have been holding up at supportive rallies across the country say “We Are All Immigrants
,” that is “walk a mile in their shoes and you will know what they are going through and remember that you or your family members were once immigrants and needed help and a place in the world.”  In the past year, I’ve learned what I would call four “origin stories” that seem to fit this theme.  Four friends have told me that you don’t always know who you are, so you might be oppressing or ignoring your brother or sister.

A Christian community, the Mennonites, relocated to Manitoba to escape persecution in Russia many years ago.  That “origin” has been a big part of the consciousness of a friend of mine, who is a prominent member of that community, all his life.  Recently, in examining his own family lineage, he realized that his grandmother likely was Jewish.  As someone always wanting to learn, he embraced this as a way to see how diverse, interesting and strong his background is.

A professor in Winnipeg I worked with who clearly has a Spanish name and is a member of the Catholic Church, recently told me that in doing research, she came to realize that a part of her family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism to escape the oppression of the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago. 

Meanwhile, another friend of mine, whose father and mother immigrated to Manitoba from England when they were young, found out that his original English family had adopted a certain very Anglo last name in their home country because, of all reasons, many generations ago, they had purchased a business with that name and saw this as a way to legitimize the purchase and promote their store.  When he asked elderly relatives about this, they quoted the real family name which they think was German, maybe Jewish, both of which might not be so popular in Britain.

Finally, laughing, an Ontario relative of mine told the story of her best friend whose father was as vocally anti-aboriginal as a person can get – a redneck, as they say.  That is, until Ancestry and DNA proved that he indeed was part aboriginal himself!

I find the Ancestry web site a great way to discover one’s origins and the implications of that.  Many people today are a “dog’s breakfast” of backgrounds:  British Isles, Western and Eastern Europe.  With the great migrations that have happened, not just since last year, but over the last fifty years, and the changing attitudes as people get to know one another, those origins will become more mixed and more global. There are more and more families that have mixed religious and racial backgrounds and, in Canada, many that don’t recognize any particular faith. 

Reading Manitoba history, whether of Brandon, Winnipeg or smaller towns around the province, also shows us that what is happening now has also happened in the past.  Neighbourhoods that housed poor immigrants from Eastern Europe a hundred years ago often now house immigrants arriving today.  Negative comments about ethnic groups coming to our country a hundred years ago are now repeated, and sometimes by the descendants of the groups that immigrated and were misunderstood or mistreated then. 

The trends in today’s world, the population movements and coming together of different cultures cannot be stopped but can be made easier if embraced by all.  This is not just our common humanity but as my stories illustrate, our common origins, many of which are still hidden from us.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s The Marquis Project.

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