Kim Samuel is President of the Samuel Family Foundation (full bio).
I suppose I should start with “Ladies and gentlemen,” because that’s how you’re supposed to start speeches like this. But I hope you don’t mind if I address you from the start as friends.
Welcome to Toronto and thank you for bringing your considerable experience and knowledge to this symposium.
You’ll see that for purposes of this gathering we’re defining isolation as the deprivation of social connectedness.
And while that definition is sound and that identifies the key element — social connectedness — that when lost constitutes isolation, I would also like to add to that definition a more impressionistic one:
The feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well.
A separation so profound that it can occur in the midst of others.
A circumstance in which coldness, not the warmth of connection with others, is the defining sensation; and darkness, not light, is the norm.
What little hope there is and what little light creeps in feels small, distant, and diffused.
A circumstance in which the meaningful relationships that make joy a shared experience and pain more bearable are nowhere to be found.
It is an isolation so consuming that individuals become the songbird that has spent its entire life in a cage. Even when the door is finally opened, the act of flying is so alien and the cage itself often represents the only security.
I also think about an old movie called the Shawshank Redemption when the inmates finally get released from prison they cannot cope with freedom and in the end they commit suicide. This is what I believe isolation has the power to do. It creates a kind of paralysis, locking the individual into a suffocating inertia.
I have long believed that isolation underpins many of the challenges in our world today. But because it is so difficult to quantify and perhaps also because it seems so nebulous it is all too easily escaping notice, or if noticed is dismissed.
If it is considered at all, it tends to be seen as a consequence of problems. But I have come to see that it can also be very much the cause of them.
I recognize that if we are to approach this challenge with rigor we cannot simply design a one-question survey in which we ask, “Hey, do you feel like you’re alone at the bottom of a well today?”
And yet there are questions we need to ask because isolation is a problem we can no longer afford to ignore — for its impact can literally mean life or death. It’s that vital, that elemental.
You do not have to look very far to understand this in the natural world.
As some of you may know, my family has a long association with horses. Within a h-herd of horses there is always a leader, and more often than not the leader is a mare.
Maybe a young stallion begins nipping or butting others. What does the lead mare do? She excludes him from the herd.
If you watch this happen, you’ll see how anxious that young horse is to return because it knows instinctively that it cannot survive for long on its own. To be cast out and isolated from the rest of the herd means certain death. That’s how dangerous isolation can be.
It’s just as dangerous for humans because we, too, are social creatures. We thrive in community and we struggle if we are cast adrift.
And yet as humans there is an important difference. We can act on more than instinct. We can choose. We can choose to value, honour, and respect one another.
Just as the lazy gardener allows weeds to sprout up and vines to proliferate out of neglect, we can choose to cut back the tangle.
We can choose to look at communities that were once vibrant tapestries and identify the conditions that rent the fabric of connection and reduced too many to lonely threads.
I remember I had a visit in 2002 with the global humanitarian Graça Machel, whom you may also know as Mozambique’s former Minister of Culture and Education…and as Nelson Mandela’s wife.
Graça said, “I haven’t seen you since your daddy died. How are you?”
In that moment I opened up to her. I told her that I keep thinking about how much I loved him and how much I wanted to honour him. I told her that even after he had the brain injury that changed his life, he wasn’t diminished in his wisdom, or his integrity, or his kindness.
Indeed, his worst affliction had not been illness or disability, but the isolation that accompanied it, and not just his own isolation but that of my mom, who was his best friend, wife, and primary caregiver.
And then I turned to Graça’s husband, Nelson Mandela, whom I was meeting for the first time, and I said, “I can imagine you know a lot about isolation.”
But to my surprise Madiba said, “No.”
My initial reaction was, “Oh, no — I am meeting Nelson Mandela for the very first time and this is not going well at all.”
But he wasn’t being dismissive of the idea. In fact it was quite the opposite.
He told me that even on Robben Island, imprisoned for so many years, “We were all brothers working together with a common purpose. I was never alone.”
And then he continued, “But I have seen isolation. I know what that loneliness looks like. Isolation is the child with HIV in a village with no one to care for him, no one to feed him, clothe him, or touch him. I have seen isolation and it is very bad.”
Leading up to that moment I had already been devoting time and energy to issues of poverty disability and human rights. But this really crystalized it for me. This issue is going to be my issue for the rest of my life
And yet what exactly is this issue?
Well, it’s actually these issues: issues of identity, dignity, and belonging. Issues of agency and voice. Issues that affect people’s experience of life and their ability to reach their true potential — because isolation takes an excruciating toll on individuals, families, and communities. And even though it is too often invisible, that suffering exists all around us.
Among people with physical or intellectual disabilities too often excluded from society’s mainstream.
Among victims of domestic abuse we’ve heard so powerfully in recent weeks, like one woman who, when asked why she stayed with her abuser, said, “Because I no longer knew who I was.”
Among elderly people, our fastest-growing population here in Canada, where one in five say they are not frequent participants in any social activity.
Among those who are economically disadvantaged or displaced by the harsh winds of our volatile world; in marginalized populations from refugees to Roma…Indigenous people to Indian Dalits…people who for reasons of community or caste are locked outside all circles of concern.
Even the way we design and build our communities can influence isolation — with spaces and structures that bring people together, or that drive them apart and keep them that way.
An elder of the Musqueam First Nation in British Columbia said that after the government leveled their long houses and built single-family dwellings instead they no longer had a life frame of reference for being connected with multiple generations under the same roof. Many elders felt this deeply and died shortly after.
And because these issues are interconnected as a web, any boundaries we try to apply are going to be porous. But in trying to focus and define the challenges we face, I have tried to characterize them at least broadly in the hope that we might begin to address the problem in a meaningful, sustainable way.
One aspect is the painful link between isolation and poverty. A second is the impact of isolation on communities. And third is the need to foster a sense of belonging and community. Let me take each in turn.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Southern Africa, where I have learned that it is naive to define poverty in purely economic terms. If you ask the impoverished how they define poverty their answer is multidimensional. They describe a set of deprivations of which income is only one. Others include aspects such as education, health care, decent housing, safety, security, access to water, and political voice.
And a lack of connection, a lack of social belonging — a sense of profound isolation — which represents not just a consequence of poverty but can reinforce it as well.
For one thing, there is a stigma to being poor even when everyone around you struggles too.
Whether your floor is made of concrete or dirt can mean the difference between acceptance or rejection.
I remember a woman in Mozambique who told me that “Poverty means being lonely and not being able to get things because you are lonely.” When pressed further she said, “In our community people have this attitude: ‘You’re not gonna be my friend if you stay in a shack.’”
Another said, “Even if you are hungry you can’t go to your neighbors to ask for food or money because they are judging you, that you are poor.”
The shame of being seen as in need can be so painful that people withdraw and isolate themselves. From their point of view isolation is a key and seriously damaging component of poverty. And until it is recognized as such it’s my view that any efforts to improve the lives of such people will struggle to succeed.
Just look at the research being done on the effectiveness of social assistance programmes around the world. Time and again you’ll find that if social bonds are threatened or if they are broken all together, then social assistance programmes are prone to failure. This is because there is often a hidden stigma attached to taking advantage of such programmes. And so people who need the assistance mostly avoid taking it up.
I have met pregnant girls in South Africa, for example, who feel so shamed by their situation that they do not use pre- or post-natal services — risking their own health and that of their unborn child.
I have spoken to people living with HIV and AIDS who will not see a doctor or disclose their status to get treatment because of the social consequences. As one neighbor explained, “In our community most of the people who get HIV are the most poor. So we tend to say they were using their bodies to get food and money. So the stigma is there….and they end up dying because they can’t ask for help.”
The more deprived of social connectedness people feel, the more vulnerable they become. The more they are relegated to the bottom of the well.
As I indicated earlier, it isn’t just individuals. Entire communities can face isolation and it isn’t just in developing countries. We see it here in Canada, where even under the umbrella of national wealth we see acute forms of inequality fueled by isolation.
Most compelling and alarming is the plight of Indigenous people.
The statistics are staggering. A child born into an Indigenous community in Canada is twice as likely to die in infancy as one born elsewhere in the country. If that child makes it to her teenage years she is five times more likely to commit suicide. And if she survives she is more likely to end up on jail than to graduate from high school.
Many northern communities are suffering. Pikangikum, Kesheschewan, and Neskantaga — to name just a few.
They struggle with many typical problems. Eighty per cent of the houses lack sewage pipes or running water. Unemployment is around 90%. Crime rates are through the roof and a recent report suggested that half of all the young people in the communities sniff gas to get high.
Most shocking of all, these small communities have suicide rates equivalent to 250 per 100,000. That’s 20 times higher than the rest of Canada and among the highest rates in the world. In Neskantaga alone, a community of 300, ten young people killed themselves last year.
And I would submit that disconnection is the thread that links all these problems together — geographic isolation combined with the legacy of forced assimilation, which has resulted in what some have described as “an eradication of culture, an erosion of traditional values, and a loss of traditional family stability.”
If you ask Indigenous people what has caused this crisis high, on their list is the residential school system in Canada. For more than a century it explicitly attempted to separate the children of the First Nations from their families and their culture.
The aim, as some have chillingly described, was “to kill the Indian in the child.”
These schools cut them off from their traditional teachings on spirituality….silenced them from speaking their own language…and made sure that children grew up without being able to draw on the indigenous knowledge that covered every aspect of life, from food choices to parenting.
And so they became estranged from their elders, their traditions, and their heritage. They also became disconnected from the land by the reserve system the federal government imposed.
All those traumas now affect younger generations. Fractures and destructive disputes abound within these communities. They have no jobs. They have no money. But crucially they have become isolated from themselves — trapped between cultures, seeing no way forward.
Once proud nations. Thousands of years of self-reliance. Thousands of years of internal harmony. Thousands of years of harmony with the natural world — gone.
So the question is not simply, “How can we reverse the isolation?” but, “How can we renew the cohesiveness and strength these cultures exemplified?”
While being part of a particular group may increase your risk of isolation, it need not preordain isolation. We can choose different paths and foster a sense of belonging and community.
To give just one example, people with intellectual disabilities often suffer profound isolation — especially in places where stigma obstructs their basic human rights.
One of the worst cases I have heard was two intellectually disabled brothers in Pakistan whose parents chained them to the walls of their home for many years, even into adulthood. What makes this story even more tragic is that the parents thought they were doing the right thing. In the face of stigma they thought this confinement would help keep their children safe.
More recently, a new report by Human Rights Watch has found that nearly 30% of all Russian children with disabilities live in state run-orphanages — lacking access to health care, nutrition, education, and most of all human contact and love.
In the overwhelming majority of cases these children have at least one living parent. Yet mothers and fathers are being pressured into relinquishing their sons and daughters and falsely told their children will never develop intellectually or emotionally.
These stories remind me how isolation can spread from the individual to the family, making people feel literally and figuratively abandoned with no choices, no one to help them, no hope.
And yet, through new understanding that we can build together to recognize the pervasiveness of isolation — there is hope, great hope that illuminates pathways serving to nurture and support individuals, families, and whole communities. Beyond the challenges I have had the gift of seeing extraordinary examples of inclusion — none more inspiring than the Special Olympics movement founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
To me there is no effort that better conveys the idea of belonging or that better advances the power of unity, dignity, hope, and love.
Watching Special Olympians compete gives me a whole new dimension to joy; not just the joy of the athletes themselves raising their arms in celebration, but the joy of parents cheering their bold-hearted children to the finish line. The joy of volunteers sharing in something so much bigger than themselves. And the joy of the collective because the bonds of social connect-connection run in both directions.
And each of us is uplifted when we open our heart to a wider world of human talents and potential.
I know there will be many questions for us to consider in the coming days from practical matters, like what kind of data is needed to give expression to isolation and its impact.
To policy questions like what kind of initiatives — local, national, and international — could be put in place to combat isolation in all its forms.
To innovations, like using technology to widen the circle of belonging, even as we acknowledge the double-edged sword of people moving their lives online.
I certainly think this last point is an issue we need to confront. We might take a moment to reflect on how our culture and technologies are doing their bit to isolate many millions.
On the face of it we all seem so connected. Everyone is on their cell phone or their tablet, especially young people. But are we really as connected as we think we are? As one friend of mine put it to me some time ago, “It’s depressing knowing that my young daughter is up in her bedroom reading on her phone about all of the parties she has been excluded from by her so-called friends.”
This is the tip of a very frightening iceberg. According to Ipsos Reid, one in five Canadian teenagers have witnessed online bullying, and two in five parents say their child has been involved in some kind of cyber bullying. A quarter of teachers surveyed said that they had been the victims of harassment online. And we have all heard the stories in the news, whether it be here in Canada or elsewhere in the developed world, of children who have been so victimised by online bullying that they have taken their own lives.
This has to concern us — not just for the victims but for the perpetrators as well.
There are old ideological divides in much of so-called “Western” thinking that struggle with where we need to focus our attention — on the victims or perpetrators. Well I’d like to set all those aside and, thanks to traditions within Indigenous communities that I have begun to learn about, I believe we can build solutions that place a primary emphasis on reintegration and restoration of harmony as opposed to an emphasis on punishment and isolation.
Ideology aside, the victims and the perpetrators both need our help. We must free not only the prisoners — we must free the jailers, too.
I come to this meeting with great hope because just as social isolation is pervasive, so too is it preventable. And in our efforts to solve the problems we need not work alone.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed so beautifully in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.”
If we can find a way to truly see one another, to reach out to the person who feels invisible, to invite the one who feels different to belong — if we can do that as individuals and through our organizations, then I believe we can start blazing a trail toward a better world for us all.
I invite you all to reflect on these themes from your unique perspectives. With the tremendous spirit of partnership exemplified in the planning and convening of this symposium we will have the chance to weave these threads into new understanding and visions of the future. I am particularly excited about the special evening tonight where we will showcase art and the youth voice thanks to the incredible efforts of our partner TakingITGlobal.
I often tell my friends that the poet William Blake helped me survive my childhood. Earlier I mentioned the bird that had been caged so long it feared freedom. Well, Blake was the one who asked, “How can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?”
My dream for this Symposium is to give vision and voice for the person who feels as if they were sitting alone at the bottom of a well.
The vision to see a way out. To see a future of inclusion.
The voice to sing out. And to get others to join in a chorus of inclusion.
Miigwetch… Hai Hai… Kleco Kleco… We la ’lin… Merci beaucoup… And thank you, from the bottom of my heart.