Hit with a bout of the blogging blahs today, will have something new up at noon PST. This is a classic piece that I wrote back in April of 2010, when this blog had pretty much no traffic. I’m assuming that not even my regular readers have seen this, so it might still be new to most of you (if not all).
I’ve said previously that Canada is a unique place. However, in that post I only touched on that idea to make specific reference to a news item I found interesting. I want to expand on that statement a bit.
While some people whose opinions I deeply respect disagree with my assessment on this matter, I see Canada as a place that lacks a strong national identity (at least at home). Americans have an identity that is built on principles of liberty in opposition to tyranny, and a history of being the leaders of the world. The English have an ex-empire, but also a history of monarchy and feudal identity that stretches back to the time of the Anglos and Saxons (as do many other European countries). China has a national identity built around its ancient history and, more recently, that has turned into a more totalitarian China-versus-the-world cultural ethos. Australians are rugged and fun-loving, Jamaicans are strong-willed and have reggae and Rastafari as part of their make-up, South Africans (for better or worse) have their history of racial divisiveness and the challenge of building a society from that. All this is to say absolutely nothing about the countries all over the world whose identities are closely allied with their religion (Iran, Israel, Indonesia… and that’s just the Is).
So where does that leave Canada? Our history doesn’t stand in opposition to tyranny; we didn’t fight off colonial British rule, we asked politely. We don’t see ourselves as the living incarnations of our ancient aboriginal ancestors like the British; we in fact don’t seem to like our aboriginal past very much at all. Our government/communitarian identification is namby-pamby compared to that of China; in fact, a big part of the country is trying to split off. We don’t have the outback, we haven’t invented a musical genre, we don’t have a history of racial subjugation, and have no national religion.
Watching the Olympic closing games, there was a brief moment where Canada seemed to exhibit a scintilla of national identity, which went only so far as to draw attention to the fact that the people of the world don’t really know what Canada is really all about, except that we’re funny and self-effacing, and we have beavers, mounties, and maple leaves. Is that our fate? Are we forever the middle child of the world – still part of the family but not as able as Big Brother or as attention-getting as Little Sister?
I don’t think that’s the case. I think there’s something about Canada that is uniquely Canadian that we missed a huge opportunity to exploit. Canada is, like no other place on the planet, a country where all people are welcome. I realize there are a great many countries with immigration policies, some even more liberal than ours, but the very fact that Canada does not have an over-arching Canadian-ness sets it apart from other places. Immigrants to the USA, for example, are exhorted to become “American”. Much of American immigration is inseparable from the phrase “melting pot” which means that one you’re in the States, forces act on you that compel you to become like everyone else. I would argue that any country with a strong national identity will have the same effect. Those countries with a large, politically-dominant native racial group will do this even more so.
But for the same reasons that I outlined above, this is largely impossible in Canada. Oh sure, there’s the occasional right-winger who says that all the towel-heads need to go back to Iraquistan and get out of the white man’s country, but (thankfully) those voices are rare. As you travel west to east across the country, you are beset by Brits, Germans, Chinese, Indians (both dot and feather), Spanish, Ukranians, Russians, Polish, Métis, Scots, Irish, Ethiopians, Somalians, Nigerians, Greeks, Portugese, more Chinese, more Indians, Caribbeans, Cubans, Pakistanis, Persians, Italians, French (both tri-colour and fleur-de-lis), Dutch… the list goes on and on. Many of these groups (and to my knowledge, all of the ones I have described above) have built large communities within the overall mosaic of Canada.
So who are the real Canadians? The question of longevity is a moot one. In the prairies, for example, there are large Ukranian and Polish communities that have been there for generations. Oakville and Halifax have supported large communities of former African slaves since Abolition in the mid-19th century (before, in fact, Canada was its own country). Chinese communities built the railroads in the western parts of the province. The French have been here as long as the British. Even the “Native First Nations” people immigrated from another continent, if archaeology and evolution are to be believed. No one cultural or racial group can call themselves “the real Canadian people”.
The question must be asked again: who are the real Canadians. If the answer is “no one”, then the answer is also, conversely, “everyone”. Everyone who lives here and loves this country is a Canadian. As a matter of legality, I’ll acquiesce to the federal government and say that you have either have been born here or formally been granted citizenship to become a “real Canadian”, but that’s all it takes. All of these “real Canadians” then have a hand in building our national identity. This is what makes Canada uniquely Canadian.
Certainly this reality comes with a whole host of challenges, but we have to take the bad with the good. One of the fascinating things that a place like Canada allows is the free inter-mixing of cultural groups that, up until now, had never interacted in all of human history. If you look at a place like Nepal or Burma, which are sandwiched between India and China, you will observe a culture that shares many of the characteristics of both. That’s what happens when two cultures are allowed to mix – a new culture emerges that is a “child” of both “parents”. However, places like Kenya and Spain have never had an opportunity to share cultural characteristics, as they are separated by geographical distance.
What happens though, when a strapping lad with Kenyan parents meets a pretty young thing from Spain on the streets of Vancouver (and please believe I’ve seen it)? Or when a hot Russian babe links up with a finance-savvy Jamaican (again, seeeeen iiit!)? Or a Polish Jew falls for a Kuwaiti hipster Christian (haven’t seen it yet, but only because I haven’t introduced Alanna to Stuart – everyone falls for that guy; he’s so dreamy). All of these combi-nations (see what I did there?) and more are possible only in a place like Canada. People keep their own cultural identity, but are thrown in the mix with people from backgrounds their parents (all the way back to their ancestors) would never have had access to.
What kind of culture will come out of a place like this? Just like the Nepalese, a culture will grow that shares characteristics of all the separate cultures that influence it. A race of people will arise that, like no other in history, cannot point to a place on the globe and say “my people come from there”. Their people will come from everywhere. And it can only happen here.
Among other things that are easily-identified as Canadian: hockey, maple syrup, public health care, Tim Horton’s; I am proud that Canada is a place that can be, unlike any other, home to the whole world.
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Careful what you wish for. I sometimes think US macho patriotism is a result of having a national story that’s a bit thin and short compared to the Old World. Being one of the nicest places on earth, and Canada seems to be, is a good enough identity.
Er, I need to point out how enormously problematic this bit is:
“Even the “Native First Nations” people immigrated from another continent, if archaeology and evolution are to be believed.”
Assuming the Bering strait idea is accurate, and I have no reason to suspect it isn’t, that was still some 30,000 years ago. Obviously there have been mass waves of migration over that period, and some fairly modern movements of peoples, but that still makes Native peoples the original human inhabitants of Canada, and many of them have lived in their regions longer than any European groups with the possible exceptions of the Sami and Basques.
I like your writing most of the time, but the whole “Natives are immigrants like the rest of us” ignores the fact that many ethnic groups elsewhere in the world are relatively recent to their current “native” regions, at least in their modern forms (ie modern Britons are largely a product of the last 1200 years or so), and is used to deprive Natives of their rights of original inhabitance.
That is an entirely fair criticism. The word “immigrate” is meaningless when applied in the First Nations context. I didn’t realize that such a fatuous argument could be, or had been, used to justify such deprivation. I will avoid making that statement in the future. Thank you.
I think 15,000 to 20,000 years is more likely.
But the point still stands. If having lived in a place for over twice as long as the pyramids of Egypt have been standing still makes you an immigrant, then Khufu was an immigrant, too, as is every single human on the planet except for maybe a couple hundred individuals somewhere in South Africa who (maybe) are able to trace their lineage all the way back to that first population of H. sapiens living (we think) on the coast.
Hm. Point, though there’s been some recent challenges to Clovis-first theories, though I know they aren’t hugely mainstream. I’m thinking Topper, and the Yukon Bluefish Caves.
Hm. In retrospect, Britain isn’t the best example perhaps, but the modern ethnolinguistic landscape of the country is more recent than a lot of people think.
Maybe instead take a look at this ethno-political map of Europe, every hundred years since 1 CE, and keep in mind all the migrations and changes before that, which were also pretty extensive.
Or even just http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iberia#Proto-history for a smaller, more detailed sample.
I think ‘nice’ is a pretty bland word to grab hold of and raise up as our national virtue. Besides, we’re not nice, not really. All I have to do is go through a day of driving in average traffic to get a real hate on for my fellow Canadians.
We’re definitely civil in face-to-face conversations, and that’s a good thing, but as a national identity? Nah.
We, as Canadians, worry far too much about our national identity. We’re a colonial country existing in post-colonial times, starting to repair the damage. We live in a modern age where we’re learning just how malleable culture is, to the point where some of us are starting to realize that while it seems to be important on an individual level to be aware of one’s roots, no one culture is really all that special.
Here’s what I think. Our country is poised to be a beacon of freedom, reason, and tolerance. We still have an inkling that freedoms come with responsibilities. We don’t have a strong mistrust of science. By and large we tolerate people who are different than us because believe ‘live-and-let-live’ applies to all of us equally.
We have potential, but we have some obstacles to overcome. American-style evangelism is making in-roads into Canada using the same tactics they used to become a real political movement in the U.S.. You can recognize them by their buzz-phrases like ‘common sense’ and ‘right to life’ and ‘taxes are too high’. Their allies in this country are The Sun (both in print and on TV) and the Conservative party – which is a HUGE problem.
Pick up a copy of The Sun (they’re free at your local Tim Horton’s) to start to get to know your enemy and argue against them, calmly, to anyone who will listen.
I think Canada’s definition of “post-colonial” is remarkably different from what it means in India, or Uganda (or in fact most of Africa). The majority of Canadian political power (in fact, nearly all of it), is still held by those who are descended from the colonizers. The indigenous people who were ‘colonized’ (but again, not really – occupied is probably more accurate) still do not represent a major economic or political force in the country. Our ‘post-colonial’ reality is therefore not much different than it was when we were an actual colony. I am not sure how much ‘damage’ the majority of us actually have to repair from the leftovers of British rule.
I lived for a while in Montreal and have to say that is exactly what I thought (and still think) about Canada. I know my experience as an immigrant is not very common – as a white person who was already fluent in English, most people assumed I was Canadian -, but it certainly seemed to me that Canada was a welcoming place precisely because it had so many different people from so many different places. I wasn’t the strange person among a very cohesive group, but just one more piece of the puzzle. It always reminds me of this poem:
Tango de Montréal
Sept heures et demie du matin métro de Montréal
c’est plein d’immigrants
ça se lève de bonne heure
le vieux coeur de la ville
battrait-il donc encore
grâce à eux
ce vieux coeur usé de la ville
avec ses spasmes
ses souffles au coeur
et tous ses défauts
et toutes les raisons du monde qu’il aurait
A former colleague who moved to Canada from Wales said he and three others, one from the West Indies, one from India and the third from China, were in a small-town cafe in Georgia. A customer joined his friends at the next table and said “Who are they?” indicating my colleagues. “I don’t know”, said another, “but they must be Canadian.”
“…we don’t have a history of racial subjugation…”
I suppose if you ignore the history of Aboriginal people in this country (standard practice anyway), you could say that. But from where I stand, residential schools, the Potlach Ban (something you, on the West Coast, should be aware of), and forced enculturation DO count as racial subjugation.
It actually sounds a little like: “Canada has no history of colonialism.”
I am proud to be part of this nation as well, the acceptance and diversity we experience today are definitely a positive part of our identity, but it’s pretty naive to buy in to the idea that our awesome multicultural environment is coming out of an innocuous past.
Man, there are some HOWLERS in this post. That’s good looking out. I should probably proofread these things before re-posting them.
The distinction I was trying to draw was between the US’s history of creating a slave class, which is different from Canada’s historical and ongoing segregation and oppression of its First Nations people. They are both definitely examples of racial subjugation, and it was boneheaded of me to say otherwise. Apologies for such an egregious oversight. Please keep whacking me with a stick when I say stuff like that.
Will do ^.^
Thanks for the clarification.
We Canadians used to (still?) like to take pride in pointing out how much “better” our historical countrymen treated Native Americans than those dastardly Americans.
That’s a very low bar….
(As if avoiding genocide most of the time was something to be proud of….)
I think we struggle too much to find some facet that sets us in opposition to other countries. So many countries were founded in battle or by a group fleeing oppression that it seems natural that we too should be united in opposition. Since, by and large, we aren’t some people figure that must mean we don’t have an identity. It reminds me of some Christians who, when learning that I don’t believe in a god, ask “So you don’t believe in anything?!” Well no, of course I believe in a lot of things, just as Canadians stand for a lot of things, we just have this one difference.
I think that Canadians hold most of the humanist/enlightenment ideals of democracy, freedom, and charity. It’s true that these are shared by most other Western nations but so what? I think that living so close to the US also highlights the fact that we do have many differences. I’m not sure how much of it is just crazy US politics and legal shenannigans and how much of it is a real, widely felt difference in values but it’s not like any values are held by all people in a country anyway.
I guess what I am casting around for is something that makes us uniquely Canadian. Many trivial things have been put forward as suggestions of what is quintessentially Canada, but I think the fact that we don’t have this kind of overwhelming identity puts us in a position to do things differently. That is what makes us unique, and that can be massaged into an asserted positive value of inclusiveness.
You’re right about the inclusiveness. Since we weren’t founded in opposition to anything and weren’t founded on a central ethnic, religious or even linguistic core, we started off more inclusive than others. I do wonder whether European countries have outstripped us. They seem to offer better support for immigrants – financially and educationally.
I mention the other humanist ideals because if we forget them then we may start to act like inclusiveness is more important than these other values. We already have a human rights council that has issued some very bizarre rulings which have sided more with inclusiveness than the rights of individuals to speak their mind and potentially offend others. Ayan Hirsi-Ali has written powerfully about what happened in the Netherlands when they forgot that not all immigrants share these humanitarian ideals and I hope that Canada doesn’t continue down that path.
That is an excellent point, and something I am planning on talking about next week.
Trudeau banged the drum in trying to create a Canadian identity back in the 70s and Canadians have been trying to define themselves ever since. The thing is, we’re a product of the modern age. We were built entirely from corporate interests and we enjoy a high standard of living that we didn’t have to fight too hard to get. It doesn’t make for a compelling overarching narrative, but the individual stories themselves are quite interesting. If anything, we’re a nation of individualists who keep mostly to themselves and don’t really get worked up about the “ethnic” celebration next door. Sometimes, we’ll even participate in one or two as long as we don’t have to eat anything “weird” and occasionally we’ll celebrate bacon or maple syrup or some other trivial thing because that’s all that we really might have in common with each other. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. I grew up in France and aside from the Eurovision contests and soccer matches, we didn’t really wave the flag either.
I think it becomes really easy for some Canadians to define themselves in opposition to Americans – but mostly because we consume so much American media.
I think the thing that has struck me most about Canadian identity is my Grandfather, who immigrated to Canada from Germany in the 50s. He’s the most german guy you will ever hope to meet – He’s got the thick accent, his house is decorated with German woodcuts and you cannot find the end of his enthusiasm for a good bratwurst (and rye bread. Good god the rye bread). But we’ve asked him if he would go back and the answer is always “No, I’m Canadian now”.
It says something about being Canadian that you can immigrate, keep your whole cultural identity (even build an community around that identity) but still self identify most strongly as being “Canadian”
“Videodrome has something you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that’s what makes it dangerous.”
–David Cronenberg, Canadian
(I coincidentally watched Videodrome last night after reading this post yesterday. Viewed in that context, the whole movie played out like a meditation on Canadian identity, in the form of a horror movie. Whatever you do, Crommunist, do not open yourself up to Videodrome.)
But now I really want to… 😦
You just want to stick pins in Debbie Harry. 😀
I had to look up who that was, and what it was a reference to. I am clearly a poor excuse for a cinephile, or a music fan.