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Doug Saunders Headshot for calling cards (Randy Quan)
Doug Saunders Headshot for calling cards (Randy Quan)

Doug Saunders

Canada's mistaken identity Add to ...

We are not the Canada we think we are.

The country of our imagination - northern, colonial, rooted in a history of British settlement and only recently becoming pluralistic and multihued - is an illusion.

It is often a happy one, a tale that has held us together and propelled our art and politics for generations.

It is held together, though, by the thinnest tissue of beliefs and assumptions.

Turn up the brightness and you begin to see through this gauzy film another more interesting and confounding Canada, one that locates us in a far different place in history and world culture.

Historians and observers have begun to penetrate the crust of mythology that covers this far-more-real Canada only in recent years.

I think it's significant that a good number of them are located overseas - as if from a dozen paces back a new silhouette emerges. To employ what seems like an appropriate cliché, it becomes possible to see the forest for the trees.

On the threshold of this country's 142nd birthday, then, let's take a look at three of our most dearly held assumptions and the new revelations that they are little more than happy lies.

1: 'WE ARE A NORTHERN NATION'

It is the most memorable line in our national anthem, and the cornerstone of our government's foreign policy: The true north is strong and free, and it is what we are all about.

"Canada is an Arctic nation and an Arctic power," Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in one of dozens of such statements this year.

"The Arctic and the North make up 40 per cent of our land mass. The Arctic and the North are part of our national identity."

To that end, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced big projects in the Arctic: a deep-water port, a new icebreaker, a fleet of patrol ships, military bases - none of them delivered yet, but all designed to reinforce the message that the resource-rich Far North has always been part of the Canadian soul.

To most Canadians, this sounded perfectly natural: Of course, it is. The Far North is central to our culture; it helped to forge our national identity. Why wouldn't the Northwest Passage and a good chunk of the Arctic Ocean belong to us, when we've always been a northern people?

In fact, it is emerging that the North never really has been a major part of the Canadian identity. A more accurate representation was outlined two years before Confederation by British Liberal leader and future prime minister William Gladstone. He stood in the House of Commons, during an 1865 debate about whether to grant semi-independence to the colony, and dismissed Canada glibly as a "long and comparatively thin strip of occupied territory between the States on one side, and the sterility of pinching winter on the other."

In the century and a half since then, we have occupied ourselves almost exclusively with that narrow strip, ignoring the frozen distance beyond. Only in the past decade, with the creation of the Inuit territory of Nunavut, and especially in the past two years, with the heavy militarization of the North, have Canadian officials belatedly begun to acknowledge it.

Christoph Seidler, a German international-relations scholar, has just published a book-length analysis called Arctic Monopoly: The Battle for Natural Resources in the Polar Region . He examines the positions of each of the six countries with territory within the Arctic Circle, and their prospects for making a legitimate claim on sovereignty. Canada, by several measures, fares the worst.

"Canada has not made the decision to invest money and shift priorities into the arctic, not the way other northern nations like Norway and Russia have, so it appears to be missing from the region," he told me in an interview, noting that the petroleum reserves being opened up by climate change could make us very prosperous - if we can persuade the world that we own these undersea lands.

But we haven't done any of the things that Norway, Russia or Finland have done - populated and urbanized our Arctic Circle cities with big investments, set up huge military bases in the region or displayed more than a token presence in the contested waterways.

"Canada especially would stand to benefit if its infrastructure in the Arctic weren't so thin on the ground," Mr. Seidler says. "For decades, Canadian politicians have spun out brilliant rhetoric about the country's Far North, yet hardly any actual investments have been made in the region. … In the legal fight over the status of the Northwest Passage, now opening due to the shrinkage of Arctic ice, Canada's position looks likely to worsen in the long run."

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