News and Articles

VIDEO: Bridging Divides, Building Connectedness: Why social connectedness matters in a changing world

October 16, 2015

450 students from diverse disciplines packed the Centre Mont Royal in Montreal to hear Kim Samuel ‎deliver the 2015 McGill University McDonald-Currie lecture on the evening of October 15, 2015.

An inspiring call to action, her speech “Bridging Divides – Building Connectedness” combined personal reflections of her family business heritage, her work and research and the responsibility to engage in new conversations to address the most pervasive challenges facing Canada and the world. Through her work and reflection on Indigenous knowledges and the imperative for change – Kim offered an approach grounded in what she calls a new three R’s: respect, recognition and reciprocity. A rich dialogue followed her speech where students welcomed the opportunity to engage asking intriguing questions and important reflections.

This lecture sets the context for further dialogue and work including research-to-policy papers that will be conducted jointly with Kim Samuel as Professor of Practice and students at McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development. Most importantly, Kim contributes enormously to the global movement for social connectedness through this speech and outreach to young scholars and many others. We invite you to read the full text of Kim’s speech here and watch for the video link of the evening that will be posted soon!  

Bridging Divides, Building Connectedness:

Why social connectedness matters in a changing world

Kim Samuel

The McDonald-Currie Lecture

Institute for the Study of International Development

McGill University

October 15, 2015  

Sekoh. Bon Soir. Good Evening. I am honoured to be here at McGill, both as a Professor of Practice and tonight as a speaker. 

In particular, I would like to thank the Institute for the Study of International Development and its Director, Dr. Philip Oxhorn and Executive Director, Patrick Brennan, for the tremendous privilege of being here with all of you this evening.  In many ways, this affiliation brings me and my family full circle. In 1855, the year Sir John William Dawson began building McGill into what it is today, my ancestors, four generations back, opened the M&L Samuel hardware and metals business in the muddy cross roads of the young city of Toronto. In 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation, my great grandfather, Sigmund Samuel was born. 

In his 73 years of leading the company that still bears my family’s name, he witnessed – and had a hand – in many of the milestones of our progress:  from the railway linking the nation for the first time, to building the gas street lamps that illuminated the of streets Toronto for the first time. His legacy and that of his grandson, my father, Ernie Samuel who went on to grow the company into an international metals business, was and is grounded in relationships. 

Relationships with employees, and with communities. This still holds true in the business today, which is chaired by my brother, Mark Samuel, who is a member of the fifth generation like me. If you look at the scope of my great grandfather’s life, it began as the political infrastructure was being built to unite Canada.  

And his work helped create the physical infrastructure that would further illuminate and unite Canada. Which is why it was so eye opening to me, several years ago, to experience a Canada that I hadn’t previously known, a Canada that was entirely disconnected. A place where physical infrastructure was lacking, and social infrastructure had been fractured and fragmented.  


I’m speaking about the First Nations. About five years ago, I happened to have the opportunity to go on a camping trip.  The trip was to Onakawana in the James Bay lowlands of Northern Ontario. 

To get there, you first go to a town called Cochrane. From there you board a train, the Polar Bear Express, headed further north to Moosonee.  And the first thing that struck me was that as we were loading our gear into the boxcar, something else was being loaded in: caskets. These were First Nations Elders going home. On this trip with us was the acclaimed Métis author, Joseph Boyden, who has also contributed a great deal of commentary about mental illness, youth suicide, and violence facing many Indigenous nations throughout Canada. He wrote a powerful piece in Maclean’s magazine in 2010 called “The Hurting”.  In his words, “the northern reserves of our country are the suicide capitals of the world”.[i]

As natural resource industries continue to drive the Canadian economy, First Nations’ unemployment is estimated at about 70 percent.[ii]

I’ve since seen equally grim places.  In northern Manitoba and in remote islands off of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. 

Falling down government houses, long since separated from the steps that lead up to them.  Muddy, rutted, paths and roads.  

No shortage of water mixed with dirt, but shortages of water safe to drink.

Food choices so limited that the diet itself almost demands diabetes.  Schools staffed with teachers who don’t know the communities and where students begin dropping out at age 10.  


Sexual abuse. 

Gangs and violence.

We are talking about over 600 scattered communities who are part of over 50 distinct Nations but they share a series of staggering statistics. An Indigenous woman is three times more likely than a non-Indigenous woman to be assaulted, or to go missing or be murdered.

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 in jail than to graduate from high school.

You see all this when you first arrive on a reserve, many reserves across Canada – as I have on several occasions.  And you think, this feels very far away from the Canada I thought I knew.


Now each of these problems, ostensibly, has a cause and therefore a solution.

If a bad diet is the cause of diabetes, let’s improve the diet.

If addiction and dependency are the cause of violence, let’s treat addiction and dependency.

If unemployment is the problem, let’s train people to be entrepreneurs.

And yet intervention after intervention has failed because while each of those efforts to help is needed, none of them is sufficient.  Even though they are well-intended, they are often misdirected.  And unless they address a missing piece of the equation, they will not be effective at all.

Now someone might want to jump up and say: I’ve got it!  The missing piece is clearly poverty.   And poverty is certainly part of the challenge afflicting First Nations communities – as it is for other marginalized and struggling populations around the world.  But here as well, there’s often an element missing from the conversation.

While most governments and policymakers define poverty by income, poor people themselves define it more broadly.  And one of the key deprivations they describe is a lack of belonging.

I spent two years exploring this as a visiting scholar with the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.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”.

Another said, “Even if you are hungry, you can’t go to your neighbours 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.

And when those human connections are absent or lost, our suffering is profound.

We can define social isolation as the deprivation of social connectedness.  But I would also like to add to that definition a visual image, one that inspires me to do something every day:

The feeling of sitting alone at the bottom of a well.

A separation so profound it can occur in the midst of others.

A circumstance in which coldness, not the warmth of connection to others, is the defining sensation; and darkness, not light, is the norm.

In his book, Becoming Human, the inspiring Canadian philosopher, humanitarian, and founder of the global L’Arche movement, Jean Vanier writes:

“To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable.  Loneliness is the taste of death.”

Human beings are social creatures. We rely on others to help us live, thrive and grow.

So, as I see it, the missing piece of the equation is social isolation.

And when we look at challenges facing First Nations and First Nations peoples, we immediately see the relevance of social isolation in almost every problem.  Families and entire communities were affected by state sponsored policies aimed specifically at breaking the bonds of family and breaking people from their heritage.

The legacy of forced assimilation has resulted in what some have described as “an eradication of culture, an erosion of traditional values, and a loss of traditional family stability.”[iii]

If you ask Indigenous peoples what has caused this crisis, high on their list is the residential school system.  The aim, as some have chillingly described, was “to kill the Indian in the child.”[iv]

We’ve seen similar policies in other parts of the globe – Australia and South Africa to cite a couple. And moreover, we see the consequences, documented again this week in a New York Times article. According to the article, a new study affirms that tragically,

“Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group in the United States”. As the article notes, “When it comes to American Indians, mainstream America suffers from willful blindness”.[v]

As we have all come to learn though efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), these schools cut them off from their 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 become estranged from their Elders, their traditions, and their heritage.  They also became disconnected from the land by the reserve system the federal government imposed. And worse still, we now know that these places, built for educational purposes, were also far too often a living nightmare for children. These were places of racism, humiliation, forced labour, confinement, physical and sexual abuse and even death.

In a shocking revelation, the TRC announced in June of this year, that while previously undocumented or obscured, they were able to document the deaths of 6,000 children.  Put in perspective, a child in residential school had about a 1 in 25 chance of surviving.  A Canadian soldier heading to battle in World War II actually had better chances of returning home alive.

All those traumas have been passed down to younger generations.  Fractures and destructive disputes abound within these communities.  They have few jobs and little 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 – now distant and disrupted.  A people that are cut-off from themselves. Communities that were once vibrant tapestries have been reduced to lonely threads.

So the question is not simply, “How can we reverse the isolation?” Nor is it what can ‘we’ do to fix this?  The question is much more about what can we do to better understand and to support. How can we learn and help find the pathways back to building connectedness?

Because, while being part of a particular group may increase someone’s risk of isolation, it need not pre-ordain isolation.  Through understanding and supporting one another, we can choose a different path, and foster a sense of belonging and community.

In my day, the three “R”s that were really important were reading, ‘riting’ and ‘rithmathic’.   Ignore for a moment that only one of those actually begins with the letter “R” and ask yourself:  Are those the most essential skills for success in the world today?

In part, yes, but only in part.

Through learning and listening carefully to indigenous knowledge and wisdom throughout the world, I now see an additional three “R”s: three “R”s essential to building social connectedness.  Respect, Recognition, and Reciprocity.


The first key element is respect.

To me, respect means first respecting myself.  From this place, we come to each person with a basic level of acceptance and support.  It means I may not always agree with you but I will honour our differences and I will count on you to do these same things for me.

Respect begins with accepting, as Supreme Court Justice Antonio Lamer famously said: “we are all here to stay.”

That’s essentially a way of seeking external respect.  And respecting others is vital. But I don’t see how you can receive respect from others until you know how to respect yourself.   Until you see yourself – or your community – as worthy of respect.

The re-emergence we are beginning to see though efforts like the TRC, are the first steps to creating the foundation of respect.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the honour of joining with partners including Special Olympics International, Synergos Institute and TakingITGlobal to convene the first-ever global symposium on overcoming isolation and deepening social connectedness.

One of the most powerful presentations came from my friend Jennifer Corriero. Jennifer coordinated a special art contest called “Moments of Inclusion” inviting young people to reflect artistically on moments in their lives where they felt included. The call went out across Canada and we re-doubled efforts to directly encourage Indigenous youth to participate.

The call was finally picked up in places like Arviat.  Arviat is a hamlet in Nunanvut.   Daniel Kooveanatuk, a young Inuk from Arviat had a friend who showed him a post about the contest.  Daniel submitted and ultimately was chosen to come to Toronto to share his art. He told me about the way that tapping into his creativity had enriched his sense of self and his connection to his culture and heritage.  He said, “I am looking at art from a new perspective. It’s a way to connect with my inner feelings. And as I learn more, it’s changing the way I look at life.”

Likewise, all of us who saw the exhibit were touched and moved by the personal stories behind each creation, which not only called for respect, but opened us up to offering it.


The second key element is recognition.

To me, recognition means I see you for who you are and you see me for who I am and we need to see each other in order to honour humanity. It means I will look to you to tell me who you are and what you need and I will support you where you are.

As my friend Ovide Mercedi, who previously served as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said – it is not so much about finding our place in the world but the world recognizing the importance and role of First Peoples and cultures to the world.

That is recognition.

And I fully agree that traditional cultures have valuable lessons to offer society regarding some of the greatest challenges we face.

I was struck by a survey the Vancouver Foundation conducted in 2012 to better understand what community issues citizens of Vancouver cared about most.  To the Foundation’s surprise, the most significant issue was “a growing sense of isolation and disconnection”—the sense that an increasingly individualistic way of life was undermining community caring and engagement.

One in four respondents said they were alone more than they wanted to be.  Even more troubling, the survey found a correlation between this loneliness and “poorer health, lower trust, and a hardening of attitudes toward other community members.”[vi]

I’ve already noted that isolation can be profound in poor or marginalized societies. Studies like this show us that isolation can be felt across demographic, economic and geographic regions.  These new realities in urban Vancouver and in cities across Canada will only be exacerbated by trends such as more people living alone and the aging of many industrialized societies.

In the United Kingdom, for example, where roughly 7.7 million people live alone[vii], a recent survey found that 1 in 10 Britons doesn’t have a single close friend.[viii]  And in the United States, a 2010 survey found that 35 percent of Americans over 45 were lonely -and, as with Vancouver’s experience, there was a significant correlation between loneliness and poor health.[ix]

We are looking at a future of increased urbanization and increased age-inazation.  By 2036, one in every four Canadians is projected to be over the age of 65.   If those two trends each point to increased isolation and poorer health – what can be done?

I believe an approach to this challenge can be found in the architecture of Indigenous Peoples.  My friend Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo explains that the central law of his people, the Nuu-chah-nulth, is “tsawalk,” which means simply, “We are one. We are all connected.”  Chief Atleo recalls listening as a child to the grandmothers of his village sing special songs to the earth, emphasizing the connection between all human activities and natural phenomena.

All Nuu-chah-nulth housing was designed to respect these cultural laws and spirituality, as well as to be appropriate to the climate and local environment.  Builders used only the materials they needed.  In modern parlance, we’d say they kept their footprint light.  But these values of stewardship and harmony with the land were about more than environmental sustainability.  They spoke to a sense of reciprocity and respect for humanity’s oneness with all living things.

One of the most important structures was the big house or longhouse as its sometimes called, in which multiple families lived together, with several generations beneath one roof.  Made from cedar logs, these long, narrow dwellings were grouped together to form villages.  The structure reflected and reinforced cultural norms of helping and learning from one another.  For First Nations peoples, being and belonging were two sides of the same coin.

I believe ancient knowledge has a role to play in meeting contemporary challenges.  My point is not that we should be constructing longhouses in the hearts of our cities, but rather that, in designing our cities – and playing an active role with First Nations in restoring dignity — we should embrace the idea of the longhouse in our hearts; the idea that what we are really building is a community, where individuals and families can thrive, and where people feel connected to each other and to the natural environment.

You see when I have travelled to and spent time in places like Ahousaht in British Columbia or Misipawistik in northern Manitoba, while what strikes you first are the challenges and the ‘deficits’, there is something else as well.  Something very powerful.  While sometimes frayed or distant – there are threads of connection to community and to place that are just beginning to be fully recovered and restored.

These are tremendous ‘assets’ and, if we recognize them as such, I believe we will discover new strategies and solutions that at their core ‘build’ connection and community. Let me give you just two examples from my time in these communities.

While at a gathering, a community leader excused himself to greet a family across the road.  As he returned, he explained that the family was welcoming back a member who had previously been convicted as a violent offender.  He said to me ‘it’s difficult but it’s now up to us to help him find his path back within our community.’  I was immediately struck by this approach to community healing, and to the sense that there was a shared responsibility to re-integrate this individual.  What a stark contrast to approaches that can further isolate and ostracize those seeking rehabilitation.

On another occasion at Misipawistik, my eyes were opened to a dramatically different approach to child welfare, one that is grounded in the teachings of elders.  Rather than a system where the child is removed, a young woman named Heidi Cook is powerfully making the case that it should be the parent, not the child who is removed.

For the community, this is a reconnection with ‘their way’.  Caregivers are now brought into the home and it is the parent who is taken away for counselling depending on the circumstance.  The child stays within the embrace of the community, and their connection to home, friends, and school, as opposed to a foreign environment thousands of miles from home.

Connection to community can often mean the difference between life and death.  Right now, an inquiry is underway into the deaths of seven teenagers from remote reserves across the province who died while attending schools in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  Yes, these programmes for high school in urban settings are funded by the federal government with the intention of providing access to secondary school. 

But too often they merely repeat the tragic legacy of residential schools by breaking bonds of family and connection to community and land.

We see the same situation occur when young people leave their homes seeking employment and opportunity, the isolation can be profound and overwhelming.

Through listening and recognizing the re-emerging leadership within these communities, we can construct policy frameworks and programs that at their core, build community.


And this brings me to the third key element, reciprocity.

To me, reciprocity means I live in relationship with you and you live in relationship with me.  It means we only belong if we belong together.

It means that there is no you and me against each other or against the world.  Everything is mutual and everything is relative.

I referenced Jean Vanier a little earlier and I find the L’ Arche model a shining example of reciprocity in every way.  It’s a standard that goes beyond just good care and offers instead relationships of friendship and mutuality.  True reciprocity in which each person gives and receives.

I’ve always found it a bit ironic that we preach “tolerance” as a virtue.

To me, tolerance can be a form of turning away:  you do what you do, and I’ll tolerate it.

I think reciprocity is much more positive, and powerful.

That demands engagement.

And that is the note on which I want to conclude.

I’ve focused much of my remarks on First Nations.   But my message is broader than that.   I believe we must ask ourselves, in every aspect of our lives and at the heart of our interactions – have we helped others to overcome social isolation?

For those among us who are Canadian:  I believe it is in our DNA—as a people that has welcomed cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and bilingualism.

This is why our consciences have been called – and shaken – by the knowledge that a child lying dead on a beach half a world away might have found refuge here.

Just as my ancestors helped to build the physical infrastructure, I would like to issue a call for us to build social infrastructure.

Through respect, recognition, and reciprocity, I know we can.

Because just as social isolation is pervasive, so too it is preventable, and so too is connectedness achievable.  And in our efforts to solve the problem, we need not work alone. We need each other – in this room and beyond.

Now I realize that I’m supposed to be ending my speech now, not beginning a new one, but I do want to say that while I’ve focused on Canada, the issues I’ve raised here are mirrored in other places and communities around the world – and I know we have students and participants from all walks of life, and from all over the world here tonight.

In fact, I believe that it is our responsibility as Canadians or students in Canada to play a greater role in international development grounded in our unique experiences and perspectives.

I hope that this conversation will not only open your eyes to social isolation, but open your hearts and minds to the ways in which you can help combat it.  I think of my family business, now heading into the sixth generation and the importance of an emphasis on relationships in order to continue to grow and to succeed.

We all, whether Indigenous, multi-generation Canadian or recent newcomers, need to address relationships within family, between neighbours and communities.

It struck me in conversation with Ovide Mercredi and Shawn Atleo who trace their lineage to this land since time immemorial – that dialogue between our families – 150 years in the making – is due.  Overdue, even.

And I’m so grateful that my own life and work has put me in a position to begin that dialogue.  You, too, can begin dialogues.  Dialogue that at their core communicate respect, recognition and reciprocity.  A dialogue that leads to reconciliation where reconciliation is required and action where action is needed.

As we work together, awareness and understanding can overtake fear and isolation.  The connections we forge with one another can inspire new opportunity and create a shared sense of humanity … and of belonging.

As the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote:

We need each others’
breathing, warmth, surviving
is the only war
we can afford

I can’t say it any better than that.

Nia:weh. Merci  beaucoup. Thank you very much.

# # #
[vi] Connections and Engagement: A Survey of Metro Vancouver,” Vancouver Foundation, June 2012, p. 7.