"Civic Engagement and Reconciliation"

Remarks delivered to the 2018 30 Network cohort on April 7, 2018 on the role of reconciliation in civic engagement: 

Good morning everyone, and thank you for the opportunity to join you here today. 

I want to begin my acknowledging that I am fortunate to live as a guest upon the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. As we gather here today to discuss the role of civic engagement in our communities, I also wish to acknowledge the social and political barriers that have been constructed that have systematically sought to break down the bonds within and between Indigenous communities, and the resiliency of Indigenous peoples that has continually thwarted these efforts. 


We exist in an era with few parallels in recent memory, from radically contrasting social movements (#MeToo and Make America Great Again) to emerging concerns around the intersection of data analytics and democratic rights. And behind these headlines are a set of troubling trends - a steady decline in trust in public institutions just as the systemic issues we have long turned to such institutions to address become rapidly more complex.

In light of this, civic engagement can be the antidote to antipathy, creating and deepening connections across communities. I define civic engagement not by specific actions or approaches, but instead by its promise. Civic comes from the Latin civicus, which was first used within the context of corona civica - a garland of oak trees and acorns given in ancient Rome to a person who saved a fellow citizen’s life. In this sense, what we do to lift each other up, to connect on a deeply personal level in recognition of our shared humanity - there is a power in this that can cut through the politicization and polarization of our public discourse. 

Defining civic engagement as a pursuit rooted in empathy, equity and understanding, calls upon each of us to explore deeply the ways in which we can craft a community that holds truer to these shared ideals. To do so demands not only a look to our collective future, but a reflection upon our shared past and current realities. For as we speak of civic engagement here in Vancouver, we must recognize the societal constructs of municipalities and electoral districts are not directly interchangeable with the truest definition of community - far too often, we have defined community purely or in part by its boundaries (who is in and who is out), and in doing so, have marginalized and minimized the voices of those whose ideas (and at times, mere existence) ran counter to the plans of a powerful and privileged few. 

If I were to ask you of defining elements of Vancouver, for example, many would reference Stanley Park as a community hub and relaxing retreat from our urban environment. Yet for 3,000 years, this territory was home to villages such as X̱wáýx̱way (Whoi Whoi). Near what is now Lumberman’s Arch stood a longhouse 60 meters long and nearly 20 meters wide, the home of 11 families. Potlatches continued to be held in this village until 1875, but by 1887 the village was destroyed to make way for Stanley Park, which would open to much fanfare the following year. 

How we come to define communities within the context of civic engagement must account for this past and for this loss, and recognize the continued displacement and dismissal of marginalized voices throughout our neighbourhoods. In elevating these voices, we contribute to the advancement of the very essence of civic engagement as outlined within its terminological roots - the connections held between everyday citizens who recognize the bonds that are held between us.  

How does one translate these aspirations into action? I believe civic engagement in this city (and more specifically, the work of the 30Network gathered here today), must be rooted in reconciliation, a recognition of the fact that the city we call home rests upon unceded territories and over communities whose voices have historically been displaced and dismissed. Reconciliation presents to us a unique opportunity to redefine our communities and the interactions that take place within and between them as well as the sociopolitical structures which shape our lives, crafting a city that is truly reflective of all voices and peoples. 

Reconciliation calls upon us to reexamine our past, crafting a new narrative for our communities which reflects the lived experiences of all those who have called this region home. 

Reconciliation calls upon us to reestablish (or forge anew) relationships rooted in respect, recognition and rights. Like all relationships, this requires us to understand one another more deeply - our shared values, aspirations and visions for the future. 

And reconciliation calls upon us to work together to craft a future which enables every citizen to live their lives to the fullest, free to express their full identity and revel in the wonder of life free of barriers, prejudices and stereotypes. 

Within the context of your work, this can take many forms - I often encourage others to first identify your passion (whether it be education, healthcare or voter participation) and then explore its intersection with reconciliation. To do so will require you as a leader to first invest in your own personal journey of reconciliation, deepening your understanding of the unceded territories upon which you work. During our time together today I am here to humbly offer what I know around this critical work as you begin to explore more deeply what form it may take within your own life and your own initiatives. 

As young leaders, we are inheriting a world radically different from that of previous generations - more complex and chaotic to be sure, but also one filled with possibility and promise. The road ahead is far from straightforward or clear, but if we hold true to the commonalities we share, the resiliency and renewal of our communities will endure, undeterred by political undercurrents or societal transformations. 

The late, great James Baldwin once remarked that “the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is our responsibility and obligation as young leaders to keep the fires burning, to illuminate the path forward for those that are coming up behind us. We do so through a dedication to public service and to holding true to a shared commitment to elevate all the voices, perspectives and identifies that grace our streets. To do so, to model a world of inclusivity, equity, justice and compassion, will in turn reignite a spark within friends and neighbours, expanding and deepening a hub of civic changemakers here in Vancouver. 

Thank you.

Alexander Dirksen