Much has been said about the Harper government’s decision to restore certain symbols of the monarchy and to tie them anew to the emblematic figure of Canada. Its decision to transform the War of 1812 into a decisive event in the creation of the country has also been contested. In Quebec, as well as the rest of Canada, many pundits are resisting what they have called a step backward in the production of national symbols and a hijacking of the past for political purposes in the present. How should we interpret the Prime Minister’s actions?
This “royalization” of the national symbolic landscape and recasting of Canada’s historical experience can be linked to the exhaustion of the paradigm that has formed the heart of the Canadian project for the past 40 years: multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism has not been abandoned by the Canadian government as the country’s official ideology, of course. But at federal headquarters, the limits of defining the country this way are becoming increasingly evident.
Some have suggested that the original goal of Canadian multicultural policy was to undermine Quebec nationalism. In reality, Pierre Trudeau wanted to undo the framework in which Canadian identity was evolving at the time – that of two solitudes. He also dreamed of tapping Quebec’s momentum for the construction of a country of his own devising, a kind of postmodern society expunged of its separate and, to his mind, pointless ethno-nationalities.
In many respects, the Trudeau plan failed. Rather than disappearing, the two solitudes dwindled into two lassitudes. Now, engaging Quebec and English Canada in a shared, pan-national symbolic project is no more than a pipe dream.
What is perhaps more alarming, at least for Canadian thinkers, is that, after 40 years of ascendancy, multiculturalism has somehow sanitized the country’s historical identity. Canada’s historic roots – and those of English Canada in particular – have been replaced by civic arrangements that sap its strength. As this national identity has spread more widely, it has become shallower. It now seems impractical to maintain Canada, and particularly English Canada, in a crucible that weakens the country as it expands.
Stephen Harper may have foreseen the consequences of these perils for Canada.
So, given the impossibility of denying Quebec’s dissonance within the country, he granted Quebeckers some recognition, that of a “nation within a united Canada.” His expedience did not, of course, satisfy the separatists, but it was nonetheless a significant symbolic gesture.
The “rest of Canada” also needed to re-establish its historical authenticity. But around what meaningful symbols and ideas? It appears that reclaiming Canada’s elemental Britishness and distancing the country from rampant Americanization is the option the government has chosen so far.
It is clear in these circumstances that the restoration of royal symbols (central to British heritage in Canada as a constitutional monarchy) and the importance given to the War of 1812 (presented as a pivotal moment of resistance to American invasion and the preservation of the country’s distinctiveness) are not the expression of a foolish plan on the part of a disconnected government. These initiatives are contributing to the reconstruction of Canadian identity at a time when the country is looking for a new symbolic basis for its current reality.
Over the coming years, under the auspices of Mr. Harper, if his government survives the next election, Canadian identity will be subject to a process of regeneration to lead to consolidation. This identity will be built around three pillars: recognition of the Quebec nation as a principal stakeholder in a united country; recognition of British heritage and roots as distinctive aspects of Canadianness; and insistence on Canada’s desire to stand up as an independent and sovereign nation, particularly with regard to its powerful southern neighbour, including through (defensive) military actions, now considered central to Canada’s historical identity. We can add a fourth pillar – needing strength in light of the Prime Minister’s dealing with the Idle No More movement: symbolic recognition of the First Nations’ contribution to the foundation and actual building of the country.
At the centre of the identity formed by these four pillars remains the idea of Canada as a nation of immigrants, formed by many cultures that have created their shared living space in mutual tolerance based on three complementary platforms: distaste for open violence and respect for the rule of law; the primacy of politics as the best method of dispute resolution; and the search for complex and even unconventional political arrangements. From this reconstituted history of Canada, Mr. Harper believes, will flow a reinvigorated nation.
Will this script be adequate to reconstruct Canadian symbols and history? Only the future will tell whether the present can be conjugated in this particular past tense.
Jocelyn Létourneau is Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Quebec History at Laval University.
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