David Polansky is a Toronto-based writer.
An old joke has it that the most boring possible news story would read: “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” And yet in the past two weeks, Canada has managed the surprising feat of making global headlines not once but twice, though by now its leaders may well wish it hadn’t.
The first instance came when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused India of assassinating a Khalistan separatist on Canadian soil; the second, when it emerged that Parliament had hosted a Ukrainian veteran of the Nazi paramilitary Waffen-SS.
What is interesting about both cases – aside from the fact that they brought such attention to Canada – is that they each involve what George Orwell called “transferred nationalism,” in which people glorify a country to which they do not actually belong. This is an underappreciated phenomenon in world politics, being much more common than many realize. And it is one to which Canada may be especially prone given its own weakening national ties.
Canadians have long prided themselves on their “mosaic” model of a multicultural society, in contrast to the “melting pot” version on display to the south. Part of their self-understanding is that Canada’s multicultural democracy does not require assimilation as a precondition of peaceable coexistence. This easygoing cosmopolitanism goes hand in hand with a certain complacency, however, as Canada increasingly fails to supplement it with a positive account of its own national identity.
The Belgian writer Émile Cammaerts (in a remark widely attributed to G. K. Chesterton) said that a man who ceases to believe in God doesn’t believe in nothing but in anything. Something like this is increasingly borne out with respect to Canadian political life, as diaspora politics at home and foreign causes abroad rush into the vacuum that ordinary patriotism once filled.
For the former, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was a leader of a niche movement to establish Khalistan, a separate Sikh homeland in northern India. This is a cause that has found passionate (and at times violent) support almost entirely outside of India itself. This may seem surprising but is hardly unusual. Nationalisms often form in exile – famously (and ironically, given the present circumstances), Mahatma Gandhi developed his vision of Indian nationalism while in South Africa.
Of course, their right to peacefully organize is not in dispute. But it’s fair to say their geopolitical goals are separate from those of most Canadians and for that matter of Ottawa, and they have caused serious complications in Canada’s relationship with a major regional power.
Meanwhile, the case of Ukraine is on the surface quite different. The passion that Canadians have manifested for the Ukrainian cause is not limited to an ethnic minority, suggesting that it has fulfilled certain patriotic longings, even among our cosmopolitan elites. In Orwell’s words, such a person “still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself.”
Unsurprisingly, the feting of a Nazi fellow-traveller on Parliament Hill has brought condemnation and alarm from Jewish organizations. Speaking as a Jew myself, I don’t think this episode betrays some latent antisemitism among Canada’s governing class. But it does indicate the pitfalls that await those who attach themselves to foreign causes, the complex history of which they only dimly comprehend.
And it must be said that the embarrassments and complications of these recent weeks might have been avoided had Canada’s political elites better tended their obligations to address the real interests of the citizens they notionally represent. The point here is not that Canada needs to embark on a program of promoting its own homegrown nationalism (what would that even look like – ”freedom fries” but for maple syrup?). But it wouldn’t be amiss for its leaders to work on articulating their vision of the country’s national interests.
The language of national interests is admittedly in low repute these days, smacking as it does of amoral power politics. But because national interests are necessarily tied to the material concerns of the whole of a country’s citizens, they can have a moderating effect on both ideological passions and factional agendas, shaping a sense of shared democratic political community. And in the absence of such an account, we are likely to see more instances of transferred nationalism in Canadian politics going forward.
Thus, restoring the habits of reflecting on and speaking in terms of national interests could well prove salutary for elected officials and citizens alike. At a minimum, it might help keep Canada out of international news stories for a cycle or two.