On March 19, 1998, I thought I was going to die. Laid out on the floor of a small apartment in the bedroom community of Sangolqui, Ecuador, I was an emaciated wreck without the strength to walk, to even sit up without Herculean strain. My whole system was succumbing to toxic shock brought on by some intestinal bug I'd picked up at a local eatery.
I was living in Ecuador on a year-abroad program through Trent University; for the first half of the year, we were staying with host families. My little apartment was on the property of the family I was billeted with. The mother, a Latina matriarch of the finest tradition, was very concerned and also very frustrated with me; she kept pushing me to drink some traditional concoction of hers, suggesting it would help settle my stomach. Having done nothing but purge everything in that stomach for nearly 24 hours, I was certainly not inclined to put myself through another bout, this time over some local snake-oil remedy.
The mother was doggedly persistent, though and in my weakened state, I eventually relented and drank the mate she offered me. To my Western experience surprise, the tea worked wonders; it didn't soothe the toxicity I felt coursing through my veins, it did ease the wretching enough for me to see a doctor. It turned out that I had picked up an e coli bug; a course of antibiotics followed, without which I certainly would have died.
This story came back to me this morning as I endured the onslaught of a migraine. Without hesitation, I consulted my Hong-Kong born mother-in-law for a Chinese traditional remedy to assist. She produced an oil which I rubbed on my forehead; a couple hours later, the migraine is now gone.
Having lived around the world a bit, I've had the great fortune to be exposed to traditional wisdom from a wide variety of cultures. Through this exposure I've learned that, with every Old Wives' Tale, there is a grain of practicality. I'm not the first to realize this, either; Big Pharma has been mining the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities for ages.
There is a big debate these days in Canada about tradition - whether progress undermines a preference for tradition, whether different customs in proximity inevitably lead to conflict.
Social conservatives tend to see multiculturalism as an assault on traditional practice; equally, they see progress as straying from the core practices that define a given culture of society.
I see things a bit differently. Multiculturalism isn't about diluting existing traditions; instead, it's about adding new ones to the mix. Progress isn't about replacing customs of yore; it's about building upon them and adapting to the needs of the present.
We are facing a myriad of problems in our society that the traditions we have build up over the past few centuries are incapable of addressing, on their own. Reactive healthcare is becoming too expensive; traditional models of training and employment are leaving far too many people without work and without the skills to meet current demand. Productivity is suffering, family cohesion is suffering, we have a democratic deficit at least as troubling as are our economic woes.
In taking firm stances against diversity, we're trying to solve the wrong problem. We can't dial back society so that it looks as it did a century ago - we have to make what we have work today, possibly even plan for a better society tomorrow.
Traditional wisdom will be part of that solution - not just that of "traditional" Canadians, but of all Canadians.