6 Degrees Experiments in Pluralism: Canada’s identity is an experiment in the process of being realized
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At a recent event in Vancouver an Irish immigrant asked me why Canada doesn’t have a foundational story for its artists to tell. We don’t have a statue-worthy heroine with a baby in each arm or a ripped warrior hero with a hound by his side. We don’t have a national unifying myth.
The Irishman had a modest proposal. He suggested the Institute for Canadian Citizenship get to work putting that story together. He wasn’t calling for a retooling of a narrative from Europe or Asia; he thought the organization should create something born of the country in 2016.
The project would yield all kinds of benefits – including, he believed, for citizenship. Culture-wise, newcomers don’t have much they can identify as being the obvious local equivalent of what they left behind. No Canadian Monkey King or Ramayana. No Robin Hood or, indeed, the Cuchulainn of Celtic lore.
As a result, the Irishman said, new citizens don’t see Canada as a vibrant cultural entity, one worthy of their already culturally divided attention. Give them the right story for this place and they’ll become engaged with it. Give better-framed Canadian culture, and you’ll get more active citizenship in return.
I thanked him for his thoughts. To myself, I thought: Here we go again.
Can a vague societal anxiety thrive for a lifetime? In English Canada it sure can. That anxiety – Do we have much of a culture? Do we much care if we don’t? – has underwritten our public conversations for 70-plus years. That the root of it may be based on an inadequate conception of the collective space we inhabit is only now starting to be discussed.
The inadequate conception is of Canada as a 19th-century nation-state like so many others, with its artists proclaiming “its” poetry and singing “its” songs. Most of these other states house a dominant ethnic identity, good for the production of a dominant artistic project and, to an extent, character.
Such countries – the majority on the planet, for sure – often do possess a strong cultural identity. They do have a few fabulous stories to tell, ones they’ve been refining for centuries, and believe capture their essence.
But English Canada, at least, never really found its footing as one of those nations. (French Canada did, an essential point of difference.) Lucky for us, it is now too late, and we have no choice but to establish ourselves as something different – a culture that is many cultures, many stories, in a place that stretches across a continent and is richly occupied.
How far have we come in our awareness of ourselves as an experimental nation? Last October, just a few weeks into his tenure, Justin Trudeau issued a mild identity shock by telling The New York Times Magazine that he was now prime minister of the “first postnational state.” Our PM also said: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.”
Mr. Trudeau’s remarks are not without precedent in our intellectual history. A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan made a typically playful and elusive observation about his homeland. “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,” he said. What Mr. McLuhan meant was far from clear to most people at the time, but he did want it known that the condition wasn’t a negative. He added an intriguing follow-up: “Any sense of identity we have is our sense of density.”
Regardless, the majority of thinkers and artists have struggled with our seeming underperformance as a “people.” In 1942 Bruce Hutchison published The Unknown Country, now considered the pioneering foray into the Whither-the-Canadian-Identity book trade. A bulging shelf of titles have followed in its wake.
Those titles alone have often been self-explanatory: What is a Canadian?and The Unfinished Canadian come readily to mind. Our cultural identity has usually come under the greatest scrutiny, and been found the most anxiety-producing. Laments have included a tendency to be too small, too regional, too marginal, too easily overlooked, or simply dismissed.
Those anxieties make sense. After all, the arts – theatre, film, music, dance, books – are meant to tell you where you really live. Here is the country of the soul, not the census: Shouldn’t every citizen wish to belong there?
Apparently not. Mordecai Richler, firing daggers from his 1960s exile in London, declared Canada to be “here a professor, there a poet, and in between thousands of miles of wheat and indifference.” (He was being negative.) In their 1992 song Courage, the Tragically Hip celebrated artists like the novelist Hugh MacLennan who tried surviving in that unknown country.
And piss on all of your background, Gord Downie sang of the bad Canadian habit of denigrating our own. And piss on all your surroundings.
It has certainly been a slow awakening. In 1972, a young Margaret Atwood willed a unity onto the then-nascent notion of a Canadian literature with her influential thematic study, Survival. “When I discovered the shape of the national tradition I was depressed,” she admitted. The immigrant “is confronted only by a nebulosity, a blank: no ready-made ideology is provided for him.”
Ms. Atwood famously declared the act of cultural, political and, yes, meteorological “survival” in such an environment to be our determining narrative. Not long afterward, the journalist June Callwood wondered if the actual daily practice of civility – in part, our overpraised politeness – might be the Canadian unifier. Truth be told, neither concept goes far enough toward the territory of heroic statuary or stirring legend.
Here we are in 2016, when few dispute any longer the unseemly length of English Canada’s colonial hangover. For the first century of nationhood, we didn’t bother moving away from imported and inherited customs and thinking, a stark disavowal of lived history and geography.
Canada in the 21st century is certainly an energized place by comparison. Our cultural industries are big businesses and our artists are reasonably supported. Audiences for most of the arts are on a steady rise.
Even so, we continue to export much of our acting and musical talent, ignore our films, keep Canadian theatre largely in the commercial margins, and at the moment appear destined to outlast the era of brilliant long-form television without making a significant contribution to it – unlike, say, tiny Norway or Denmark.
The senior film producer Robert Lantos fumed in this newspaper at the CRTC’s rejection of an all-Canadian movie channel under the “mandatory carriage” category, calling the chairman “utterly blind to the cultural imperatives of what it takes to be a nation.” That was last weekend. Mr. Lantos also lamented the modest Canadian box office for Remember, the latest film by Atom Egoyan. Add Paul Gross’s impressive Hyena Road to the predictable list of the predictably neglected.
Given these ongoing challenges for Canadian arts and artists, why then would anyone think it lucky for English Canada to be too late to create an old-fashioned cultural nation? Consider the Prime Minister’s comments again, especially his calling us the “first postnational state.”
Like so much of the focus of the new government, the words seem calculated to change the direction of public thought. In the months since the election, the Liberals have proposed lots of new words for fresh thinking: reconciliation, diversity, inclusion, to name a few.
If this was Justin Trudeau’s intent, it is worthy. We do need new language to describe this vast, improbable country called 21st-century Canada. We do need to find a way to inhabit our entire cultural space.
To do so, we must get past one easy misconception – the outdated nation-state model – and one harder reality: the historic comfort level among Canadians with conceiving of themselves as parts of smaller, cozier self-definitions, as well an attendant incuriosity about who else lives reasonably nearby.
The launching point for this project is obvious. Indigenous Canada is where we all live, in terms of geography, spirit, and history. In order for that to be real and meaningful, we must start with the stark: that a cultural genocide occurred, and most of us were unaware or, perhaps, just not concerned enough. Artistic expressions of these truths are necessary, and can only help.
Overall, Canada as an experimental cultural space requires the right spirit in order to take shape. That spirit, simply, is an openness to having your history unsettled and your mind changed. As well, a certain comfort level with complexity and irresolution is probably good. In her forthcoming book,The Promise of Canada, Charlotte Gray calls us an “unfinished and perhaps unfinishable project.” That sounds about right.
At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan gained national attention with his poem We Are More. Canadians thrilled to lines such as “We are an idea in the process of being realized” and “We are an experiment going right for a change.”
But as noteworthy as the poem itself was Mr. Koyczan’s decision in the summer of 2015 to not perform We Are More on Canada Day. On Facebook he cited the “dark path” the country had gone down in the subsequent years, citing among other concerns the Harper government’s attempt to create two categories of citizens, as well as its refusal to investigate missing indigenous Canadians seriously.
That was a long 11 months – and one government – ago, but I hope Shane Koyczan continues to have high expectations for our unfolding experiment. I hope, too, he writes more poems about Canada in the process of being realized.
Charles Foran is the CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. He is the author of 11 books.
Photo credit: Alamy. The Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel, a place sacred to the Blackfoot, in Alberta.
6 Degrees: Experiments in Pluralism is a Globe and Mail essay series devoted to exploring Canada’s emerging identity as an experimental society. The inaugural 6 Degrees “citizen space,” presented by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, will take place in Toronto from Sept. 19 to 21. 6degreesto.com