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A Canadian flag hangs from a lamp post in front of Parliament, in Ottawa, June 30, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

I still see people quoting that line from Justin Trudeau’s interview with The New York Times in 2015 – the one about there being “no core identity, no mainstream” in Canada – as if it were some sort of darkly revealing gaffe, in which he incautiously lets slip his globalist agenda, or his woke radicalism, or his hatred of Canada.

In fact, as the next line in the interview makes clear, he was merely repeating a commonplace, almost a truism. What ties Canada together, he said, are “shared values,” among which he listed “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”

This does not make Canada, as the Prime Minister claimed, “the first post-national state.” It is simply a different kind of national state. As it is defined in the literature, ours is a civic, rather than ethnocultural, nation: one rooted not in blood or language, but in common beliefs and aspirations.

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Contrary to what both Mr. Trudeau and his critics seem to believe, this is neither a new nor a radical idea. It has been the basis of American nationhood, for example, for more than two centuries. And it was very much the idea of our own founding fathers, who spoke often and movingly of the “political nation” they hoped to create.

But what if there are no common values or ideals that tie us together? What if we cannot agree on what we stand for – or even that we should exist? What if, in short, we are neither an ethnocultural nor a civic nation? What then?

What distinguishes civic nationhood is the element of choice, or at least the consciousness of it. (The ethnic or cultural idea of nation is just as much a choice, even if it seems more “natural” to its proponents.) In Ernest Renan’s celebrated definition, a nation is a permanent daily referendum of its citizens.

For Canadians, that choice is particularly acute: the pull of the American nation to our south, or the smaller, ethnocultural nations within, is ever-present. If the Canadian national idea is to succeed, then it must make an especially compelling appeal to those shared values, common beliefs and collective ambitions (Renan, again: “having done great things together” in the past, a nation is defined by the wish “to do them again” in future). And yet that is not what we have done.

Far from soaring ideals or rousing ambitions, postwar Canadian nationalists obsessed over the rather more mundane project of cultivating a distinctive Canadian cultural identity – an identity that, so far as it was not wholly ersatz, looked remarkably like their own: white, English-speaking, southern Ontarian, social democratic.

Hence the stereotype of the polite, diffident Canadian, so naturally inclined to statism, and (above all) so different from the Americans. And hence the reflexive recourse to the state, as both the emblem of our national difference and the vehicle for its preservation.

For a time they were able to ignore or shout down those who dissented from nationalist orthodoxy – who preferred, say, free trade to protectionism, or markets to public enterprise. But having invested so heavily in the idea of difference as the fount of nationhood, they found they had nothing to say when their compatriots – Indigenous people, Quebeckers, Western Canadians – replied, in effect: hang on, we’re different from you.

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And the more that our political leaders have tried to paper over those differences, essentially by denying that Canada means anything or has any foundational principles – or none that it would insist on in the face of sectional opposition – the less argument they can offer for its continuing existence as a nation-state.

The Charter of Rights was an attempt to put this right: to define the nation in terms of its commitment to a short list of universal ideals, rights to which every Canadian citizen was equally entitled. But the proposal was doomed from the start. Rights are an American idea, said some. For others the problem was not rights, as such, but the idea that they should be guaranteed equally.

At any rate, the critics have won the day: With the notwithstanding clause now almost routinely invoked, the Charter is fast becoming a dead letter. It joins a long list of other national institutions and symbols – Parliament, the Crown, the flag, the anthem – that, by a combination of disuse and abuse, have been rendered more or less inert. Or maybe it is simply that there is no longer any nation left to symbolize.

The consequence is not disintegration, but paralysis. The moral basis of nationalism – the vindication of it, in spite of its manifest failings – lies in its capacity to expand the bounds of empathy beyond the merely familiar. It is what makes us willing to make sacrifices for one another in a way we would not do for those not of the same nation. It is what makes democratic government possible, beyond the local level – for without it, we will never accept to be on the losing side of any vote.

Which brings us to our present condition, in which the discovery that Canada has, like other nations, its own list of past crimes and present failures, has led to a kind of collective emotional breakdown, wherein the very existence of the country or the idea that it is, on balance, a good thing, is called into the question: as if the world would be a better place had Canada never been born.

If this means an end to our peculiarly Canadian sense of superior virtue – the Canadian identity, again – all well and good. But to say that we have fallen short of certain ideals does not mean it is hypocritical even to aspire to them. We should understand “Canadian values” for what they are – not as qualities of character with which we are exceptionally endowed, but as moral duties to which we we are called.

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The Americans, for all their faults, get this. The nation has never lived up to the ringing phrases of its Declaration of Independence; it falls far short of them even today. Yet it remains a defining statement of Americanism – like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a beacon to which it is perpetually drawn. That way is still open to us, if we choose to follow it.

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