The true white north: reflections on being Canadian

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Excerpted from Policy Options The true white north: reflections on being Canadian February 2008

What is it to “be Canadian”?

More than any other nationality, the question of who we are and what defines our identity has preoccupied Canadians since Confederation. It has created a cottage industry in the groves of academe, in the theatre of politics and media, and has been a perennial source of inspiration and income for Canadian book publishers.

If our national sport is hockey than our national preoccupation is our identity. The American experience relies on shared history (Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory”), common ancestry (“consanguinity”’), and pride in being American. In America, the civic tradition was to depoliticize the past in order to assuage, with success, the wounds of Revolution and the scars of Civil War. Resolution of the struggle over Civil Rights remains an act in progress. With pride, Americans put their hand on their heart and recite the pledge of allegiance.

The Canadian experience, like the Canadian identity, is less straightforward. There has always been more division and ambiguity about “shared” history and less exuberance to our nationalism. It was not as if our ‘founding nations’ set out to create Canada. The Loyalists fought for a united British America while the French had spent much of the previous hundred and fifty years fighting for the opposite. The confederation of British North America was as much an unintended consequence of the Civil War and the recognition that ‘manifest destiny’ could well result if Reconstructionists decided to send their battle-seasoned veterans across the 49th parallel.

The emphasis on diversity means we celebrate multiple memories rather than a monolithic collective memory. And thus the eternal question about identity.  The irony is that the rest of the world knows who we are and what we stand for. The problem is not with the brand abroad but the brand at home.

An instructive way to explore the notion of the “Canadian identity” is through through our history and the people, places, and events that shape us and it is this exercise that is perhaps the most Canadian of all….

The Un-America

Canada exists because Sir John A. Macdonald was resolutely anti-American argues Richard Gwyn in his excellent new biography of the “man who made us”. Macdonald, who viewed America as both ‘godless’ and ‘radically progressive’ was determined, says Gwyn, that Canada would remain the ‘un America’ and this conviction would manifest itself in the construction of the coast-to-coast railway and the formulation of the National Policy….

Our ‘Frenchness’

For Michaëlle Jean, speaking at the Supreme Court in the ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Canadian citizenship in April, our “Frenchness” is integral to our being Canadian and certainly the place, or lack thereof, of Quebec in Confederation, has been a constant theme in our identity crisis. For now it’s a nation within a nation, a subject on which Pierre Trudeau would surely have had something to say.

Too often forgotten is that our “Frenchness” is pan-Canadian and not, as the separatists would prefer, the exclusive preserve of “pur laine” in Québec….

The Immigrant Experience

We remain a country ‘under construction’ and successive waves of newcomers continue the building process. Our open door (relatively speaking) approach to immigration means that one in five Canadians was born outside of Canada. Successive waves reinforce Canadian pluralism. After French and English, Arabic is now the most common language in Ottawa-Gatineau. ‘Little Mosque on the Prairies’ can  move to the Capital; within a decade Ottawa will have 8 major mosques.

This past summer I revisited Pier 21, one of the seven wonders of Canada and the creation of the incomparable Ruth Goldbloom. Every Canadian should visit Pier 21 and reflect on our ‘immigrant experience’. Peter C. Newman is one of those who came through Pier 21. Written on the wall at Pier 21 is his observation that, “this country was put together not only by bloodlines, kin and tradition, but by tides of newcomers of every stock, creed and persuasion.”

Canada, writes historian Des Morton, is peopled by adventurers and “history’s losers”–those who found themselves on the wrong side of conflict and power structures. The adventurers came in search of the riches of the Indies. The ‘losers’ came in search of sanctuary. Both sought opportunity and settled for fishing, trapping and logging. If they were lucky and made money, they could then leave the land that Voltaire described as “quelques arpents de neige”. Independent thinkers and iconoclasts…

My Scots and Irish ancestors migrated to Canada at this time. They fit into Des Morton’s paradigm. One great-grandfather was a ‘remittance man’, who’d been obliged to change his name. Shortly after arrival, he bunked off leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves. I keep this story in mind whenever I hear the call to keep out ‘undesirables’ and their families.

What else gives us our ‘Canadianness’?

1. Our Sense of North and our Sense of Nature

Pierre Berton, no stranger to the North, captured the sentiment of our northern identity when he described a Canadian as “someone who could make love in a canoe”.

What captures much of our country powerfully is the single word “vast”. With so much of our space unoccupied–wild and free–the rest of the world is envious.

The North is our equivalent of the American “frontier”, and it continues to hold our imagination because of climate and the wild outdoors.  The struggle with climate, geography and our northern destiny has a new resonance with the promise of oil, gas, and diamonds, the threat of global warming, and the geopolitical politics in the Arctic related to the north-west passage.

2.  Our sense of ‘Good Government’

Confronted by a cold climate and a vast geography with our population mostly huddled within a few hundred miles of the American border, we both accept and expect government to play a lead role in creating national institutions to achieved the national dream

  • In transportation this meant investment (and scandal) in canals, railroads, road and airlines.
  • In communications this meant the CBC and CRTC.
  • Our red-serged RCMP, with a populist recognition from “Rose Marie” to “Due South” and now “Corner Gas”.
  • And Medicare, fathered by the person voted our “greatest” Canadian, Tommy Douglas.

Finding what Arthur Schlesinger has described as the ‘vital center’ has been the path to success in Canadian politics. The accomodation between Upper and Lower Canada–the compromises of Baldwin and Lafontaine, and later Macdonald and Cartier–extended beyond language to law, religion and education. From the beginning it was the only practical way to keep French Canada and English Canada together; thus bilingualism, a civil and Napoleonic code. We don’t always get it right, but we carry on, improvising until we find a way or become comfortable with the status quo.

Marshall McLuhen concluded that Canadians are masters of what Bertrand Russell called the twentieth century’s highest achievement: “the technique of suspended judgement”.

This probably explains why, when Peter Gzowski ran a competition a few years ago to determine the Canadian equivalent of “as American as apple pie” the winning entry was “as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances”. As Frank Scott observed of our prime minister with the longest tenure, Mackenzie King never did by “halves what he could do by quarters” and his governing philosophy was “It is what we prevent, rather than what we do that counts most in Government.”

The practise of ‘good governance’ has become a Canadian hobby with an acknowledged expertise that we now freely share through organizations like the Canadian-inspired Forum of Federations.

4.  Our Sense of Improvisation and our Sense of Humour

We may not be so forcefully “can-do” as the Americans but we are surprisingly inventive, and because we don’t have the resources and money we improvise, innovate and make things work with what we have on hand–be it zippers or pacemakers, the skidoo or the Blackberry.

As Gilles Vigneault impishly sings: “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver”. To survive in this intemperate climate, manage our remarkable pluralism, and get along with the “Colossus” next door, we’ve had to develop a sense of humour that is gentle, self-deprecating, and subtle. Compare Rick Mercer, This Hour has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Têtes à Claque to Jay Leno, Letterman, or the new American favourites, Colbert and Stewart.

Humour is a Canadian constant, from Stephen Leacock to Lorne Michaels. And it travels well.  America’s favourite comedians are Canadians like John Candy, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Myers and Jim Carrey.

5. Our Sense of ‘Internationalism’

While it would be uncharacteristic for Canadians to admit it, we are quietly proud of being Canadian, especially when it comes to our “internationalism”. Pearson and the Nobel Peace Prize remain a core part of Canadian iconography. We were not just present, but active participants in the creation of the UN and NATO and host of other multilateral organizations including the Commonwealth and Francophonie. And with effect. The Colombo Plan was as important for post-war education in Asia as the Marshall Plan was for the reconstruction of Europe. Public opinion surveys consistently tell us that whatever our differences at home, what we do and have done beyond our borders as peacekeepers, peacemakers and multilateralists –  gives us pride and a common cause.

Pierre Berton, our greatest popular historian, argues that the battle of Vimy Ridge in April, 1917 marked Canada’s coming of age as a nation. School teachers tell me that the only common historical events studied across Canada—curriculum differs by province–are the First and Second World Wars.

We wear a poppy during the first weeks of November and most of us can recite a few lines from John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Like so many other families, ours heeded the call to colours in 1914 and 1939. This past summer at Menin and Vimy Ridge my brother and I traced out the names of our great uncles, Harry and Neil, the sons of my remittance man grandfather. I keep on my desk giant bronze ‘pennies’ with the inscription “He died for Freedom and Honour”. They are two of the 100,000 who gave their lives for their country and now lie in far away fields that are forever Canadian.