Oh, Canada: who are you?

Sunday, October 2, 2011 at 12:30 PM
                Poor Canada: always struggling with identity. And once again, it looks like efforts to improve matters upon this regard are being renewed under the Harper administration. The uncertainty behind what it means to be Canadian is something akin to going through adolescence. After all, being able to ascertain our identity is incredibly useful for giving us a stable ground from which to act. This is why organizations develop mandates, why politicians and policy-makers take on philosophical approaches, and why teenagers desperately seek to affirm who they are by frequently using labels like prep, hipster, nerd, etc. The insecurities that are caused by not having an established identity can be twofold: first, a personal lack of direction in behaviour and, second, an uncertainty with our peers in not knowing where we fit in the grand scheme of interactions.

Not having an identity is unsettling.

                I recognize that what I’ve just said is vague, but such is the nature of identity-seeking. Ask about a long-established and culturally distinct nation, and even those answers will not be definite. What does it mean to be British? Italian? Egyptian? Japanese?

                Nationalism was much simpler before the age of globalization and mass movement. Humans tended to live out their lives within a small geographic area, communicating almost exclusively with their neighbours. This means that generations were defined by responding to the same things: the weather, the lay of the land, the sources of food, the spoken language, the habitations, the available entertainment, the challenges of survival, and the legacy of the ancestors. These are very concrete things that could be used to define the identity of groups of people; nations were formed around this.

                The problem with “Canada” is that it began with nations attempting to conquer territory, decimating the native populations. In doing so, the legacy of the land and its people was irreversibly distorted and a new “identity” began to be fabricated. The reason it is essential to recognize multiculturalism in Canada is because every single Canadian entered the fabric of its history at a different point. Thus each person has a preceding legacy that, though they may not be aware of it in the case of families who have been here for generations, had a unique and profound impact on how they and their predecessors interacted with other “Canadians”.  If anything, this is the basis for the Canadian identity. Instead of many “lifelines” extending from a centralized point, it is many lifelines converging on that remarkable point that is Canada.

It’s funny; the people of Canada are so incredibly complex, and yet they too often consider themselves to be the most boring folks on the planet. I think our historic inability to understand who we are leads us to skim over our fascinating complexity.

                How do you create an identity for Canada? What common experiences unite Canadians? I suppose there is a reason why the aforementioned article reminds us of the hockey and Tim Horton’s stereotypes: you will find them everywhere. Oh, and let’s not forget winter. There’s something almost triumphant about how we experience, enjoy, and/or survive the changing of the seasons. But can we go further than this? What should we take into account: the past, the present, or the future? Unfortunately, each of those approaches comes with problems:

  • An identity based on the past struggles incessantly with the fact that everyone has a different background.
  • An identity with the present struggles with the fact that because Canadians are spread out and divided by a vast and varied geography, the way they interact with their surroundings is never the same.
  • And the future? How can you possibly determine a vision to which all Canadians would like to direct themselves?

                It’s said that nationalism arises in two ways. First, as a movement that rises from the people, and, second, as a tool the government uses to move the people. It looks like the Harper administration is trying very hard to impose nationalism upon us. Feel free to question the motives. “Mr. Harper, do explain to me why the War of 1812 is essential to my experienceas a Canadian.  I can appreciate it insofar as I appreciate being a citizen of this country and not of the USA. That being said, Canada wasn’t even a country when it happened. I wonder who at the time truly considered themselves to be British subjects or people of the land. Either way, if the culture of this wonderful country and its education system has not embedded a deep sense of pride for the legacy of that war, perhaps that would indicate that we do not see it as essential to our identity. Should the government be spending $11.5 million, not just to commemorate it, but to convince us that it is important to all of us? Or how about the flag? Can you imbue a sense of patriotism and respect for the Canadian flag by threatening the people with penalties should they not treat it appropriately? 

                What is being achieved through these efforts? Is a national identity truly being solidified? I hardly think so. We need to stop kidding ourselves. Our population is too vast and varied to do that. Certainly, the history of the land must be recognized; you lose far more when you forget it. It’s what you do with history that is important. Instead of using it to manipulate our attitudes towards our country, how about we take it in as a way to accept how each of us got to be where we are? I would like to suggest that this is how we will find our Canadian identity. In such a large and diverse nation only a small idea, a small seed, can unite its collective mind and grow into a more secure identity. We are a growing quilt of many fabrics; let the threads that bind us, the idea that unites us, be acceptance. When we learn to accept our presence, we will become at peace with it.

Let’s stop worrying about our identity. Labels are for teenagers. Only in doing what we do will we become who we are.