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Apr 26 2010

Canada: the great race experiment

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, M├ętis, 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.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Tim

    I think the fallacy of your ‘no identity’ argument lies in the fact that you systematically contrast others’ completely unique images with Canada. Of course they don’t match, just like none of those listed are the same as Japan, Denmark, or India (etc) either.

  2. 2
    crommunist

    I guess what I was trying to do was contrast common ways in which countries find their national identity. They do it through religion, through shared history, through language, through ethnic heritage. I don’t know how Canada would define its “ness”. I’m open to suggestions of what it would be, but the “politeness” and the “bilingualism”, which I’ve heard proffered before, aren’t unique.

  3. 3
    mikmik

    Reading this I feel even more proud of being Canadian and living here.
    I was pretty happy with our reputation as peacekeepers in military conflicts around the globe, but the PC’s put an end to that.

    Great article, Crommunist, excellent :)

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