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Rudyard Griffiths

Kevin Van Paassen

Rudyard Griffiths has a knack for shattering myths. In Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto, he shines a spotlight on the most cherished stories Canadians like to tell about themselves, and asks us to rewrite them.

Canada, the immigrant society? Not quite. While Canada still leads the world in terms of the numbers of immigrants it takes in, it is much less adept at providing skilled workers with a compelling set of economic opportunities and forging a deep attachment to Canada. Many readers will be surprised to learn that 40 per cent of skilled and professional male immigrants leave Canada within 10 years of arriving. For Griffiths, this is evidence that we are "dodging our collective responsibility to make mass immigration work."

Canada, the bastion of pluralism? Think again. Griffiths's research shows that although Canada is ethnically diverse on paper, the social networks we engage in daily are composed of people who, by and large, "look like us." This is particularly true for second-generation Canadians. Racial divides - once thought to be a preserve of U.S. politics - are causing new Canadians to question the inclusiveness of their new country of residence. The author warns that we could end up living "mostly private lives ... ever more confined to our immediate ethnic, regional and socio-economic enclaves."

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But the central myth that Who We Are sets out to challenge is the one that describes Canada's essence as its diversity and lack of a single "national" story. According to this fashionable trope, the indeterminacy of Canada's identity - the lack of a single answer to the question "who are we?" - is our secret comparative advantage in a world of globalization and diffused power. In Canada, the world's pre-eminent "postnational" state, national identity plays second fiddle to ethnic and regional loyalties, and citizenship is a ticket to entitlements, demanding very little in return.

Griffiths insists that this conventional wisdom is not only off the mark, but dangerous. Canada, along with other advanced democracies, is confronting a host of challenges (most notably the effects of climate change, mass migration and an aging population), which requires the summoning of a collective will and purpose. Yet, at this very moment, Canadians are disengaging from national institutions and formal politics, volunteering in ever-lower numbers and opting for highly personalized forms of community and belonging. Unless we take steps to rebuild civic values and a sense of obligation to Canada's founding principles, Griffiths argues, our reservoir of social solidarity will run dry - along with our capacity to tackle the gathering "storm."

As co-founder of the Dominion Institute, an organization that promotes Canadian history and civic literacy, Griffiths has worked tirelessly to address the shockingly low levels of knowledge Canadians have about their country's past and its unique political and social institutions. Who We Are continues this mission, encouraging Canadians to think about their history differently.

And for Griffiths, the first part of 19th century is particularly significant in understanding "who we are."

During the turbulent decade after the failed rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, French and English reformers collaborated in the creation of civic institutions and values that made democratic self-government a reality. In the process, the author observes, they "forged an enduring consensus as to whom Canadians should be loyal to and why." The focus was no longer the governor-general and the imperial connection, or a particular religious or ethnic group (French/English, Protestant/Catholic), but rather an experiment in bicultural and democratic politics called Canada.

This period also witnessed a "flurry of nation building," everything from non-denominational schools and local government to railways and the telegraph. Griffiths clearly admires these grand, national projects, and sees echoes of them in the other great historical moment that defined Canada: the postwar government of Louis St. Laurent.

More recent Canadian history, with its embrace of multiculturalism and decentralized federalism, has forgotten the crucial lessons of these earlier periods about citizenship, loyalty and nation-building. Instead, the belief took hold that newcomers to Canada would settle more effectively, and that regional grievances could be addressed more easily, if the country was seen to be made up of many equal identities, without an overarching creed.

Griffiths's reading of history, by contrast, leads him to conclude that Canada is a political community, based on shared democratic values and institutions rather than on ethnicity, region or language. We are, in short, "a nation of citizens, not a collection of communities." And it is a revitalized citizenship that he contends will save Canada from the empty promises of postnationalism.

Who We Are's diagnosis of the postnational predicament is compelling, refreshing and highly relevant, especially if one considers that other countries (including Britain) are looking with admiration at our experiment. Where I am less convinced is in the cure the book offers for the disease.

Some of the proposals for kick-starting Canada's civic values are straightforward and draw on the experience of other societies: a new citizenship exam and mandatory language training for newcomers; increased government spending to integrate immigrants; a national civics exam for graduating high-school students, coupled with a year of national civic service for a certain percentage of young Canadians.

Others, however, are more controversial, and reflect a particular philosophy about the boundaries of community in a globalized age. Indeed, while Griffiths accuses others of adopting a "20th-century mindset," I would argue that he sometimes suffers from the same affliction.

The best example is his critique of the benefits enjoyed by non-resident Canadian citizens, and his recommendation that Canada annul the citizenship of those Canadians who voluntarily acquire the citizenship of another country. Griffiths writes that citizenship should be "earned through physical settlement" and an active contribution to the "economic and social betterment of the community." Dual citizenship is the enemy that corrodes social solidarity.

I would have liked more evidence for this latter assertion. Not all dual citizens are "hedging their bets" about Canada's future, and many of them are quite capable of managing their different allegiances. It's also worth remembering that the solutions to the challenges Griffiths identifies are international as well as national - a reality that makes global knowledge and connections highly valuable commodities.

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So why not think ever bigger about what Canadian citizenship could mean in the 21st century? Rather than trying to put the genie back into the bottle and force Canadians to choose a single allegiance, why not leverage the multiple connections we have? We could, for example, follow the lead of a number of countries (many of them African) that give their non-resident citizens political representation in their national parliaments. This would allow those who believe in Canada, but do not physically reside there, to contribute to the national story that Griffiths so eloquently lays out.

While Who We Are doesn't present all the answers, it does us an enormous service by opening up the debate. Taking on myths might seem very un-Canadian, but in writing this book, Griffiths distinguishes himself as one of the very best Canadians of his generation.

Jennifer Welsh, a Canadian, is professor in international relations at the University of Oxford and the co-director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. She is researching changing conceptions of sovereignty in the 21st century.

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