Church can help open up space for dialogue

Photo: Munk School of Global Affairs/University of Toronto
Photo: Munk School of Global Affairs/University of Toronto
Published March 2, 2015

(A shorter version of this interview appeared in the March issue of the Anglican Journal.)

As the new director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Stephen Toope stands at an interesting spot where academia intersects with the public square. This son of an Anglican priest arrived here by a fascinating road that took him from his hometown of Montreal, across Canada and around the world.

After graduating from Harvard, McGill and Cambridge as a lawyer, he helped to create the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in Canada in the 1990s, and later, to prove that Canadian citizen Maher Arar was unjustly tortured in a Syrian prison. From 2002 to 2007, he also represented Western Europe and North America at the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Most recently, he was president of the University of British Columbia. Toope has also devoted time to the Anglican Church of Canada as a member of a task force working with then primate Archbishop Michael Peers, considering the church’s future and relevance in an increasingly secular world, advising the diocese of New Westminster on canon law as it considered blessing same-sex unions, and as the chair of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) Committee.


How are you feeling about this new position?

I’m very excited by it. The more I learn about the Munk School, the more opportunity I think there is for it to really play a role as one of Canada’s principal interlocutors in global affairs, outside of government.


Are there new directions that you’d like to see for the school?

I’m always careful when I go into a new job not to purport to know more than I do before I get into it. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that things have to change radically. In fact, I think that this school is on a great trajectory. There is one program area where I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I was hired was to explore this further. There’s a program called Global Justice, and so far it’s focused a lot on international tribunals, criminal courts…There’s a shared desire to expand beyond that and to be thinking more expansively about what it means to try to conceptualize justice at a global level. Does that mean institutions? I think it does. But does it also mean policies that actually try to pursue more just outcomes for people who have been marginalized? There’s some real opportunity to think more creatively in that space. It relates to another question, which is religious intolerance, religious extremism. I would broaden that out to say deep cultural difference. How do we navigate in a world of extraordinary cultural chasms that have opened up? Do you simply accept that? It’s all very well to say we need more dialogue. But how do we accomplish that in an institutional sense at an international level? What are the roles that civil society organizations can play?


Is there a freedom being in the school, as opposed to the UN or a government body?

I remember Michael Peers used to describe the Anglican church as a place for people to be together. I think that’s true. What he was getting at was, “Well, we don’t all have to have exactly the same belief structure on every doctrinal issue.” You could have differences, but we wanted to be together. I think that a place like the Munk School is that, in a secular sense. It is a place…that can convene across great differences because we’re not representative of any particular ideological view; we don’t have a political position; we’re not a governmental organization.


Are there some big-picture things that you think are important for the church and organizations, like PWRDF, to think about now?

One of them is this question of how to facilitate cross-cultural connections. We are creating terrible divisions that seem quite impenetrable at a political level, so finding ways within civil society to create open spaces for people to connect [is vital]. I remember one of the first trips I did with PWRDF-there was a session in Thailand for Singhalese Buddhists and Tamils to get together in a safe space, partly supported by the Primate’s Fund-to be part of that creation of open space for some dialogue…Another area that strikes me as increasingly important is income inequality. How do we get societies to be thinking about the unfairness of ever-increasing Gini coefficients, where you’ve got the bottom part of the population having access to almost no resources and the top one per cent-10 per cent, 20 per cent-having access to almost all resources?

You helped advise the diocese of New Westminster on canon law as it considered allowing same-sex blessings. Now the national church is considering the question of allowing same-sex marriage. Would you have any advice for the church in terms of handling a potential conflict?

I was not, happily, involved so much in the small “p” politics of it because we were brought in to give our interpretation of what was allowed and what was not allowed under the rubric of the diocese, and what were the bishop’s powers, and all those things.

What I was struck by, and it made me quite sad, was the number of people who, I felt, exhibited no generosity of spirit. If I had any advice, it is to say that people can legitimately disagree on these issues…you can have a more fair-minded discussion if people enter not with the presumption that the other side has some evil intent, if I may put it that way…And maybe I’ll say something slightly provocative: I think that the bishops have a very important role. If [they] model discourse that is not exclusionary, I think we have a better chance.


Your father was an Anglican priest in Montreal?

He’s from Newfoundland, so he studied at Queen’s College and then came over to Bishop’s University to get his university degree, which is where he met my mother, who is from Montreal. They lived in Newfoundland for a number of years after they were married, on Change Island-which is a little island off the north coast of Newfoundland-and small places.


Did his influence or your family’s influence send you in the directions that you have gone in your career [your interest in justice]?

I think so. They must have had an effect. It’s always hard to tease out where these things come from, but both of my parents-the church was their life. My mother was the parish secretary…I always sang in the choir; it was always part of daily life. The values you imbue, they become part of you.


You never considered becoming a priest?

No. If you listen to what’s said in church every week, the values around sharing, values around justice, values around inclusion seem to me to be pretty powerful.


Are there ways that you taken those values into the public square?

I’m very careful not to-I’ve always operated in secular institutions. I’ve been in public universities my whole life, so they’re not religious institutions, and I don’t think they should be. My own personal value sets, I think I bring to whatever I do, but I don’t articulate my engagements in terms of my religious sensibility.


What was your role in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples?

I actually worked in creating the Royal Commission. I was not part of the process. … I was working with former Chief Justice [Brian] Dickson who had been asked to do that by Prime Minister [Brian] Mulroney. We met with indigenous leadership from across the country to find out what the major issues were that they believed had to be addressed by a royal commission. We also talked, obviously, to a lot of other people-experts, sociologists, legal experts, etc.-to shape the mandate so that the royal commission could be, we hoped, effective.


Looking back on it now, do you see progress?

Not enough. I find it shocking, I’ll be frank, that we have known of the issues for a long time. We know the sociological problems; we know the legal problems. I think we know the structural problems-the existence of the Indian Act is an anachronism today, and it’s been clear to most people who think about these things for a long time, and we seem incapable of making the decisions to move forward. I say publicly, internationally, that I think that the failure of Canada to create a relatively healthy environment for indigenous peoples is our great human rights failure. It’s important to acknowledge that, especially when we are in other parts of the world, critiquing the way people behave. We have to understand that we, too, have failed. It’s unacceptable, where we are.


What was your role in the Arar inquiry?

I was the fact-finder at the Arar inquiry. What that meant was I had to advise the commission on whether or not Mr. Arar was telling the truth about what had happened to him, which was absolutely…I mean, what an extraordinary privilege and also a great responsibility. That was one of the most moving things I’ve done. I had to meet with him, meet with his family and meet people who had worked with him. But I also had to interview other people who had been detained in Syria who had been treated very, very badly-tortured, in some cases. What I was trying to do was, in a sense, correlate-to be able to say, well, [what] Mr. Arar describes makes sense because I can say that five other people described the same sets of experiences with the same anecdote or the same memory of the physicality of the place or the people they dealt with. It was very much really establishing credibility in Mr. Arar’s story.

I also had to go into a lot of top-secret material where people were asserting things that Mr. Arar may or may not have done. And then take all that and try to figure out what I did believe, what I didn’t believe, how credible Mr. Arar was ultimately.

And so I was able to determine that Mr. Arar was telling the truth, that he had indeed been tortured in Far’ Falastin, this particular prison in Syria. It was up to the commission to determine whether or not the Canadian government was in any way responsible for that and whether there should be any compensation. Ultimately he was awarded compensation. It was an extraordinary experience because I’ve done a lot of work in human rights over the years, but this was so visceral. It was also about my own country and what had happened to this person who, as we now know from the conclusions of this report and from the agreement that was reached with the federal government, really did not deserve to have this happen to him.

It’s a very instructive experience for a country like Canada or the United States, what we’ve just seen on this [CIA] report on torture-none of which was new, by the way; all of it had been revealed by good journalists over the last decade. But I think what it says is in times of fear, people will make bad public policy choices. We have to have systems that expose that and try to create some self-correcting mechanisms to override the fear. It’s not the first time it’s happened in Canadian history, right? Japanese internments. German internments. Ukrainian internments. There are lots of these moments in our history where we get nervous about something, and for good reason. And there’s good reason to be fearful of state-sponsored terrorism, absolutely. We’ve seen it and it’s horrible. What happened in Australia, what’s happened here, and even just individual people who take it upon themselves to behave in bad ways. So there’s a reality to the fear but you have to find ways of disciplining public policy so we don’t lose our own values in the times of fear.


How have these experiences changed you?

I’ve always thought of life being a constant time of learning. I think I’m being changed all the time by these experiences. I feel very privileged to have had some of these experiences; the Arar Commission [of Inquiry] was one.

When I was chairing a UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, we made a visit to Nepal, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We actually went into prisons and found people who had been disappeared for five years, seven years. Their families hadn’t known where they were. The prison services were disorganized; I was surprised they actually let us in, but they did. We were able to report on the fact that they were alive, because no one knew where they were, and then there was the possibility of seeing whether you could ultimately get them freed. They’re political detainees, in fact. It just struck me as an astonishing opportunity for any human being to be able to concretely do something that actually changed the course of someone’s life in front of you. That’s how remarkably much of a gift that is. That certainly changes the way you think about the world. For both good and ill, there’s something arbitrary about that. Yes, there was a whole system in place through the UN that allowed us to be there, and there was a lot of work in planning this, but then to actually have that moment in a prison in terrible conditions where you find someone and you say, “Are you so-and-so?” and the answer is a yes, and then you can do something about it. That’s also, however you want to describe it, God’s will, serendipity, luck. It’s not something you can plan.


Is forgiveness something that Christianity has a particular angle on to offer in the global realm in conflict?

I’d like the answer to be yes. I would hope so.


Not that the concept doesn’t exist in other religions, but in Christianity’s focus on it?

It is certainly a defining figure of the Christian story…The reason I hesitate is [that]…I think you have to go into a situation with a perspective of modesty in order to actually generate the possibility of forgiveness. Arguing for forgiveness from an immodest position strikes me as inauthentic. That’s a complicated way of saying it. What I mean is that I sometimes worry that we’re very good in the Christian world at saying that our message is one of forgiveness, that it has to be done, but if we go into situations believing in our superiority because of that message, I actually think the message loses its value and loses its ability to convince. So I do worry sometimes that we’re not so good at understanding that we do have something to offer, but it’s part of a richness that other people have things to offer as well. So yes, forgiveness [is] hugely important, but I go into the situation understanding that there are other gifts, too.


Desmond Tutu has talked about what a necessary ingredient it was in South Africa, though not necessarily only from a Christian perspective.

It’s a very complicated issue, as you well know, and there’s a lot of discussion, especially about truth and reconciliation. Yes, you have to expect people to forgive and hope that they will forgive, but there has to be some asking for forgiveness. If it’s just forgiveness and people haven’t understood that they have committed wrongs, you actually can be developing continuing tension in the society. I think that South Africa’s a pretty good example of getting it overall right, but there are other truth and reconciliation processes which haven’t gone so well, where essentially what we were doing was evading responsibility and saying that the people who are victims have to forgive. Fair enough, but the people who were perpetrators have to ask for forgiveness and understand that what they did was wrong. There was just a big report issued in Brazil coming out of the experience in the ’70s and ’80s with the military junta. The president, who was herself a victim of torture, received the report, obviously accepted in a somewhat tearful way. But it was really intriguing to me-I noticed that one of the major generals of that era came out with a statement in which he basically said there’s nothing here to be concerned about. He said, “We were fighting the terrorists, including the terrorist who is now our president.” So I thought, “Okay, what is that telling you about the process?” It’s telling me that yes, we now know more. But there’s no reconciliation taking place.

What reconciliation looks like…I think this is going to be a really interesting question for Canadians if we take this seriously, because it’s not just a question of being guilt-ridden. It’s a question of accepting responsibility and then saying how do we move on, accepting the responsibility and how do we ask for forgiveness while acknowledging our failures?


Were you working with Michael Peers when he made an apology on behalf of the church for the harm that was done in residential schools?

I was around and I remember it, and I remember him preparing for it. It coincided with a meeting that we had with him. I remember…he felt so strongly that it had to be something he did not read. And so he worked incredibly hard-he was a guy who had a pretty big job and lots of things to think about-he worked for days to not just memorize it but make it a part of him, so when he uttered the apology [it] was heartfelt. It was meant to be, and it was also an acknowledgement of the oral tradition of aboriginal peoples because that’s how they would expect something like an apology to be performed. I think there are all sorts of cultural nuances around that that were important and I think very meaningful.


Did your faith help you cope with the loss of your parents? [Toope’s parents were killed in a violent home invasion in Montreal 20 years ago.]

Oh, sure. I can’t say that I become more or less committed from a faith perspective. I often say that one of the things that was most helpful to me during that time was having small children-very small children; my son was only two months old and my daughter was two-and so their life went on. My daughter was somewhat aware of what happened, although we shielded them quite a bit for quite a long time. But I remember thinking that it’s very much a gift that they’re there, partly because children are, of course, always about the future, and my parents were so loving towards my daughter. They never met my son really, not in a serious way. So I think that was very helpful, knowing day in and day out that they needed me to be for them, not with my own problems…And of course I have a very supportive wife, and her family, who were incredible during that period. I also had work that I cared about a lot.

People react differently, but I never wanted to feel…that I was going to be defined as a victim in that setting. My parents were victims of a terrible crime, but it wasn’t, for me, definitional. It was something terrible that happened, but it wasn’t going to be something that actually changed who I was. And here the faith piece is important, but it came out of my own experience with my family. They were extremely giving, kind, decent people. I thought to myself, and I remember very distinctly feeling this way, from the moment I learned that this happened, that I didn’t want it to be the definition of my parents, either. It wasn’t who they were at all. Violence? This is craziness. It wasn’t who they were at all.


You have talked about the signs that were missed to help the perpetrators…

I don’t know; maybe there are some people who are just bad for whatever reason or evil. Maybe. But it’s also the case that people can lead very, very disturbed lives, and it has to have an impact on how they relate to other people. I do think you have to care about those things.

It’s 20 years ago. It’s hard to believe.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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