Does Canada have a shared story or unifying national narrative that defines the country’s identity and purpose?
Britain, France and other European countries have been rethinking their national histories with a view to making those citizens that are not part of the ethnic majority feel a connection to the story. Strengthening citizen’s sense of belonging to the country and a presumed lack of societal cohesion partly explain such government action.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century successive Liberal and Conservative governments have made important efforts to expand knowledge of the country`s history. And while they would certainly want to construct a shared historic narrative, Canadians hold multiple versions of the historic narrative, diverse interest and varying interpretation in a country where history education is a provincial matter.
Although it often describes itself as a nation of immigrants, the Canadian narrative is frequently focused on its duality by stressing the role of British and French founders and their ongoing efforts at reconciliation. Undoubtedly this is an essential part of the Canadian story that we are likely to hear more about as we are a few years away from marking our 150th anniversary.
But many Canadians are not attracted to the two founding peoples narrative and feel it ignores the role of aboriginals in our national story and the historic contribution of those peoples that for more than two centuries have migrated to Canada from various parts of the world.
A September, 2012, Leger survey for the Association for Canadian Studies offers valuable insights into those events and institutions that the population considers fundamental in building the Canadian nation and by consequence essential to constructing the narrative. The introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the nation-building event regarded as very important by the largest share (68 per cent) of Canadians surveyed. The enactment of Confederation is next with one in two Canadians affirming its importance. The War of 1812 (32 per cent), Multiculturalism (30 per cent) and the Official Languages Act (26 per cent) fall significantly behind the Charter and Confederation as very important elements of nation-building. Still, they rank well ahead of the Monarchy with some one in six Canadians saying that it is very important in the process of nation-building. Indeed the Royal role just beats out Tim Horton’s (13 per cent) in terms of the latter’s ranking in the edification of Canada.
Amongst Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24, the nation’s leading donut maker (23 per cent) actually beats out the Monarchy (13 per cent). The result is less likely a function of historic knowledge than it is the greater awareness and a more positive image of Tim Horton’s than the Monarchy. Age and language differences in the assessment of preferred markers of nation-building illustrate the challenges of constructing a shared historic narrative. For example younger Canadians attach nearly the same degree of importance to multiculturalism (49 per cent) as they do to Confederation (54 per cent) while francophones put the official languages policy (38 per cent) well ahead of Confederation (25 per cent) in the making of Canada. Relatively few francophones attribute importance to the War of 1812 (9 per cent). Only the Canadian Charter of Rights yields a majority across all demographics as being very important in building the country. Yet much of the political class in Quebec and Ottawa resist giving the Charter such positive recognition in Canada’s historic narrative.
In a regionally diverse and demographically pluralist country like Canada it is no simple task to establish an official or common narrative. It is essential to promote ongoing discussion and debate about the Canadian story that highlights its historic achievements and past failings. That many of us arrive at different conclusions about the meaning of our shared past is the sign of a healthy democracy far more so than a problem for societal cohesion. As we approach the 150th anniversary of Canada we should seize the opportunity to embark upon a national conversation about the nation’s past so as to enhance collective knowledge about ourselves.
Jack Jedwab is executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration