What us Canadians know about Brexit and what this says about how “global citizens” consume news

, by Aleen Leigh Stanton

What us Canadians know about Brexit and what this says about how “global citizens” consume news
In Alberta, some are arguing for “Wexit” - an exit from Canada by the western province. Image credit: jr_jurassic

Over the past few months, I’ve overheard the same conversation on multiple occasions. Each a different place and a different time, but the starting question is always the same:

“What exactly is Brexit?”

The answers vary. We’re Canadians, so we enter the fray cautiously. Sometimes the conversations forge straight ahead into Boris Johnson and whatever happened yesterday, others look back to Theresa May, and, very occasionally, go all the way back to David Cameron. Blue passports make an appearance, and so do a few “flying flamingoes”, famously used by the former speaker John Bercow to avoid stronger language. Other times, the conversations just get stuck at the beginning through a lack of knowledge.

What does this tell us about how we consume news?

As a Canadian, I’m coming at this as an outsider. But, as someone engaged to a Brit, I’ve also heard, seen, and read the daily news coverage of Brexit on the inside during trips to the UK. For those who live in places beyond the broadcasting boundaries of BBC airwaves, as I usually do, Brexit knowledge gaps seem unavoidable.

Our Brexit knowledge – or lack thereof – forces us to think about how we get our news. Or maybe more accurately, how we consume it. How, where, and what do Canadians hear about Britain?

We might turn on CBC’s The World at Six (the CBC is our version of the BBC) while we cook dinner. We might hear a 30-second clip from parliament on the car radio on the way to work, if something critical has happened that day. If we’re proactive and have the luxury of time, maybe we listen to the New York Times podcast The Daily, or the Guardian’s Today in Focus. If we need a break and a laugh, we could turn on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The news often is on our entertainment palate. We consume it.

We might not be able to explain exactly what Brexit is, but we can regurgitate those examples that have become the butts of various jokes. The blue passports. The John Bercow soundbites. The red NHS bus. The pillow ad. The “what is the EU” referendum-day Google search.

But does that give us real understanding? Probably not. How can we know these snippets so well, but be lacking so severely in real information?

This emphasis on the uber-current and the viral means that longer historical narratives are often left out. For example, I was once asked what North Americans think of the EU. A safe answer for many people might well be, “not much,” because, well, we don’t think of it much at all. We might not know that there are separate European elections. We might not know when the EU was created, unless we have outstanding recall from Grade 12 History (I just had to Wikipedia it). We might not know where the EU parliament is. We might not know how much legislative control they have or don’t have. And, perhaps most crucially, we lack the cultural context: we don’t know how it feels to have been involved in a decades-long relationship with the EU.

Being a true global citizen means understanding global affairs

In an age when “globalization” is the ultimate buzzword, the global part doesn’t seem to have truly entered into our individual news habits yet. Luckily, this is something we all have control over in our own lives. It’s a case where individual action matters.

If globalization means we are all more interconnected than ever before, that also means we are global citizens in a way we never have been before. What happens in Britain affects us in Canada. What happens in Canada just might – gasp! – affect Britain. One direct example is the current talk in the western Canadian province of Alberta’s political circles about leaving Canada, dubbed “Wexit”, a portmanteau of “West” and “exit”. This is a world where one country’s current affairs are dominoes affecting the next, and the next, and the next.

Being global citizens in the truest sense of the word is what the world demands of us now. Loyalty to the local and the national is still extremely important, but an understanding of the international is increasingly so, as events on the other side of the world impact our societies. Brexit has taught me that. Striving to be a true global citizen now means that when I find a gap in my knowledge, I recognize it, I work to fill it, and repeat.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. The job will never be finished. If I can speak on behalf of Canadians, we’re sorry we haven’t started sooner. We really don’t know that much about Brexit and this is perhaps a reflection that we as well as many other nations lack the understanding of global affairs that we would need in order to become global citizens. But it’s a challenge, an opportunity, and a project we can continue to work on.

If you need me, I’ll be right here, struggling through more of those difficult conversations.

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